Welcome to Internet Librarian 2011. After today’s keynote address and the emphasis on entrepreneurship, it might have seemed natural to some that IL’s “business model” began to work about as well as the U.S. economy. Jenn Van Grove had to bow out of her session to be replaced by Joe Murphy. The wireless network in the room became overwhelmed, and so your friendly, neighborhood IL bloggers who had come to hear Van Grove could not post, and all the social networking activity in the room was stymied, the perfect atmosphere for a conference emphasizing the wonders of the latest technology. Mr. Murphy placed the sour cherry on this communicative cake when he wanted to demonstrate for the audience a potentially humorous response to a question posed to Siri, the name of the voice recognition software on the 4s iPhone Mr. Murphy waited for two hours last week to purchase. Mr. Murphy lacked a data connection to engage Siri in “conversation.”
Why was the audience subjected to Mr. Murphy shilling for Apple? How many slides did we need to see from the screen of his 4S, sometimes working with Spotify, playing a tune from the Muppets, sometimes illustrating his love of “LivingSocial”? Maybe Mr. Murphy was “branding” his presentation, without needing encouragement from Tim Spaulding, CEO of LibraryThing, who said later in the day that “branding is a good thing; you need to know where things come from.” He has that wrong, but that is a story for another day.
Mr. Murphy seemed to be coming from a most temporary space, somewhere that would last a couple of weeks to a year (until the next IL conference?), because Mr. Murphy asserted more than once that, of course, the audience wanted to be aligned with the latest trends. The most telling part of his push on this front — his endorsement of Google Plus (g+), manifested itself about midway into the talk, despite Mr. Murphy’s awareness that the graph for Google Plus subscribers shows a turn south. “The past week’s stats are down,” but, according to Mr. Murphy, the audience should not abandon Google Plus. Occasionally, we are supposed to go rogue and ignore one week’s trend lines. Mr. Murphy characterized the audience as living on the edge, on the cusp of “the latest” thingamajig, and he even had a photograph of a cliff’s edge to bring the point to a point of no return. From Mr. Murphy’s perspective, librarians constitute different people, edgy people, the kind who know about the latest and best betas (yes, that’s a noun from Gary Price’s session).
According to Mr. Murphy, librarians are also lemmings. They latch on to the trends. If Oprah endorses some particular piece of software or CNN purchases a technology company, that is sufficient reason for librarians to jump on board. If Oprah and CNN are doing X, then, to cite Mr. Murphy’s reasoning, X is a good thing. I wish that I were exaggerating Mr. Murphy’s statements.
When presenters at IL are not invoking linguistic violence through “killer” apps or descriptions of “World of Warcraft,” many of them express implicitly or explicitly — and sometimes with religious fervor — a Weltanschauung utterly compatible with the worst aspects of late capitalism: the rush to trendiness, to have the latest and fastest gadgets, to be seen with the right products and “cool” people who think happily of themselves as commodities. The inability to push back on IL’s continual trend toward endorsement of the capitalism that keeps crashing results in clunky, uncomfortable language at some sessions, such as the one on “21st Century Book Recommendation Engines,” during which almost all the CEOs stumbled when trying to find a word for people who go to libraries. Almost all of them felt obliged to cite all the currently acceptable terms: patrons, users, customers. They have no problem thinking of book readers and researchers as customers, and IL has an entire session with an exclamation point on the idea (“It’s All About the Customer!”).
One more bit of evidence. Gary Price recommended that his audience pay attention to Quixey, because Eric Schmidt is an investor, and Mr. Price noted how quickly the killer apps and best betas last sometimes no more than six months, because the start-up companies and their employees often take a trip on a technological Titanic. Mr. Price’s advice is straight out of All the President’s Men: follow the money. Pay attention (only) to companies who have well-known and/or wealthy investors, because those companies are more likely to survive. They will survive the year or more it takes them to become untrendy, uncool, and unedgy (a.k.a., dull), and thus fodder for humor at future IL meetings. (Think about the absence of any “Second Life” session this year when the Lifers outnumbered the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf just a few years ago.)
The most recent rethinking of this line of behavior can be found in Jonah Lehrer’s “The Drive to Be Different,” a revealing article by someone not known as a critic of late capitalism, but who is now attempting to acknowledge its consequences for the kind of audience that attends IL conferences.
The real point of this paper, though, is that we can longer write off the “drive for distinctiveness” as merely a habit of insecure teenagers. Instead, it appears to be a pretty essential component of Westerners — that’s why it’s engaged in a deep psychological dialogue with rewards for food and sex. Of course, this won’t be news to retailers. They’ve long catered to our desire for uniqueness, selling us mass-produced commodities that promise to express our real, authentic selves. It’s not until we’re standing in line waiting for a cappuccino that we realize how badly we’ve been played.