My Absolutely Fabulous Life

Note: I refer to a Facebook profile in this post; I removed my Facebook account several years ago. 19/07/2016


August. The month for writing. And my attention is caught by the recent PEW Internet Report which suggests that US millenials will continue to share information as they get older and take on more responsible roles. In other words – privacy is what people did in the past. ‘Sharing’ is the new black.

Hmmm – but what to share? Reality? The endless repetition of school, college, work, kids, cleaning and credit card bills?? Of course not. When did someone you follow last tweet about cleaning the oven? They didn’t. Social media requires us all to airbrush our lives into the kind of unreality mirrored on the covers of magazines – the ones where Madonna looks younger than her daughter and you are left feeling short and fat. Social media demands that we all use a special effects filter before uploading ourselves. We only tweet the nice things – specially chosen for their wit, charm, educational value and sheer brilliance. Are you sitting on the sofa watching a soap opera whilst eating mostly carbohydrate? No. Bet you are reading something on your college reading list, attending the ballet, practising the violin or spending quality time with the children – and for certain you are writing a book – an article at the very least – and that’s what it says on your Facebook status. It’s a bit exhausting – keeping up the charade. Hoping that no one you know ever sees the real you – the un-airbrushed horror. That, of course, is why I work as an academic from the seclusion of my attic. Ha! And at least having entered adulthood before computers were invented networked, (not a day over 28) I have escaped the need to drag around all the people who attended primary school with me (except Clare x). Nor do I have any idea what happened to those with whom I went to high school (except Sara and Karen xx). At least I have been able to move on – and quietly forget all those ‘friends’ who were never interested in me in the first place. But what of the millenials? Will it be easy to act as a managing director, when everyone on your friend list remembers you having a desperate crush on your French teacher when you were 11? Perhaps we will enter into a kind of bartering system, where no one mentions your bad calls, and you, in return, do not mention theirs. But …. oooh – the temptation. Remember all the times you thought you looked great/funky/clever/sexy/amusing? Well 30 years later those photos have a very different value. Only instead of fading in a box in the attic they are freely available on the net. And you don’t have to be a politician or a lecturer to squirm and flinch – anyone can experience the toe curling embarrassment at being reunited with their past. Pointed shoes/pink hair/rocky horror/snogging the guy who married your best friend  –  all give your followers cheap thrills. I have written previously on the niceties of ‘deleting’ (see Delete by Viktor Mayer Schonberger…) – where stuff you upload has an expiry date, after which it self-implodes. But the technology is not quite there yet. So if you upload it – it stays for good. For the amusement of all. Especially your children. And anyone who works for you.  And what of de-friending? Will it become as socially acceptable as de-cluttering your wardrobe? Carthartic perhaps? But can you ever be invisible to someone just by de-friending them? Nah … go Google …. or friend a mutual friend.

So what to do ? How much should we share? How much can we get away with?  (ok – 36 then ..)  and in any case what is everyone else ‘sharing’ about you? Worried who has access to your medical records? How can we stop them? Ever been ‘tagged’ in a photo you didn’t sanction? What about a video of all your lectures, even the ones you haven’t really delivered before and where you look like a troll? Especially those. In high definition.

Sigh. Can’t take on the entire world. Just have to hope that I haven’t said anything *really* bad or worn anything *really* un-photogenic. I am in fact, rather a non-entity when I Google myself, (yeah sad), but nonetheless, I have given some thought to my social media profile. As an academic, I think it is beneficial to project a warm, savvy persona – someone who has  insight into library and information science, and an interesting way of commenting on and interpreting the ideas of others in my field. I would hope to be convincing as someone you feel should be in charge of the class. So everything I tweet, blog or facebook does have a bit of a spin. I don’t mention bad hair days, or who I’m dating right now – I do try to mention anything relevant to LIS, and of course anything which will persuade you that I spend all my time reading, watching science programmes, attending lectures, exhibitions and art galleries, with just the right amount of cookery school classes, 80s pop concerts and walking on the beach in the rain – all to convince you that my life is really absolutely fabulous.

lynxi(ok – 49 then).

The virtue of forgetting…

Forgetting things is annoying isn’t it? Anniversaries, names of places and people, poems, formulae, book titles, the postcode, the name of the singer and where you left the keys. Names are a nightmare. In the midst of an intellectual exposition I can recall the faces, the clothes and when/where we last met but the white bubble above the head where the name should be remains tauntingly blank, the contents sneaking back at some later point in time – if I’m lucky there will be time to reassure my audience that the memory was not a fantasy, but often the forgotten monikers return hours later, when I am trying to remember something else. A better memory would save so much time – no need to re-read prose on which I have already spent hours, or to go through every CD until I find the title of the song I just can’t remember. Top of the annoying list has to be forgetting the perfect wording which drifted effortlessly into my mind an hour or so ago .. and yes, my pile of notebooks (write it down when you think of it) is now so unwieldy that I need to index them. Ha!.

But help is at hand in our information society, where we co-exist alongside our digitized books, music, photos, videos, diaries, lists, contacts and ideas. Once uploaded into cyberspace all the stuff we need to remember is permanently recorded for us – just waiting to be plucked out of the ether by the right keyword. Free text indexing gives us endless points of access, a name, a place, a date or subject, can produce our media like magic. Remembered or forgotten, it is all still there, just waiting patiently. The electronic box in the attic. Even things we gave away and forgot about for decades can be retrieved from services such as Ebay, Abe Books and Amazon. The antidote to regret.

And in our work, preservation of material is often our main focus. We professionalize the art of selecting what to remember and the best way to remember it – in archives and records management, and even in libraries. The challenges of digitizing and preserving material in a society where yesterday’s format is something you were using this morning, are things we thrive on. We are keeping the past alive for the future.

And yet … something about this permanent, digital shoebox has troubled me for about a year now – since I began uploading myself into the ether, in fact; I mean – how long does this digital shadow trail after us? Well forever duh…. even when we die. Not a new worry, and of course, not a new answer, but I am prompted to write after listening to Vicktor Mayer-Schonberger talking about his book “Delete – the virtue of forgetting in the digital age“, in which he raises the question of whether there are some cases in which forgetting is better than remembering. As an aside, the book is a good read, and I recommend it to anyone taking our LAPIS (INM380) module next semester.

Returning to my concerns, I think there are two facets to the wonder memory of cloud computing and USBs. The good bit is that public domain data can be preserved for everyone – the bad bit is that so can personal data. And whilst I accept that it is often hard to define what is public and what is personal (personal letters found in an attic and published after the authors death ..?) it is clear by now that much of what we hope will remain personal, is is fact, horribly public.

I have often read of how you can never delete a Facebook profile – you merely deactivate it. Is this the same for other social networking sites? A permanent record of the person you were when you were 11 ( or 35 …) – sitting there waiting to be hacked in the present or pillaged in the future?

What happens to all those primary school friends to whom you bestow complete access to what’s on your mind and in your photographs – do you starkly unfriend them (no quotes – this is a real word now) as you evolve, or do they slither after you years into another life. Remember anyone from primary school ? High school ? Are they still part of your life? (ok – with three exceptions I can say no. The thing is that it is hard to move on when our digital shadow bites at our heels even in the dark.

Viktor raised issues of ‘amusing’ photos being retrieved to ruin someone’s career, and of seemingly buried, throwaway admissions being retrieved 40 years later to serve as a reason for being refused entry to the US. Others quickly furnished the event with perhaps more chilling examples – ever posted your undying love for someone on your social networking site ? Ever cried over the keyboard as you ‘delete’ your entire profile and start again using your middle name?

Ever conducted an affair by email ? Did it end badly ? Did you use del *.* ? Did he? It’s all still on a server somewhere isn’t it ? Maybe copied to someone’s USB. Waiting.

And to add to our woes Google keeps details of every search undertaken, and results clicked on for 9 months (this was reported at the event and I have not checked this definitively) – all linked to a specific IP address. Do you keep clicking on his website ? Sad. Worse – everyone at Google knows.

After 9 months the Google data is anonymized. But how hard is it to pinpoint someone from anonymized data if you are determined ? Hmmm.

So what’s the answer? How can we publish our fabulous lifestyles to our cohorts without risking future ridicule or consequences? How can we ensure that the contents of the box in the attic remain something poignant yet personal? Do we have to self-censor all the time? Viktor Mayer-Schonberger suggests the use of ‘expiry dates’ on electronic media, so that our past does not have to haunt us. In the meantime, dear reader, do not marry into royalty, or enter politics.

ALA 2009

chicago from hancock tower bar july 2009

chicago from hancock tower bar july 2009

Chicago. I did have a wonderful time, and I do miss the sunshine. But not the food. Everything tasted the same – no taste at all. Guess it comes from a replicator. I tried pizza, pasta, bread, potates, fish, chips, salad, fruit and chocolate. Chilli flavored chocolate. Nothing. That’s why they eat hotdogs – its the only thing which has any flavor. And yes – it is not a good one. I bought a pot of almonds flavored with honey and chilli – hard to get down at first, especially for breakfast, but I adapted. They became delicious. So I bought several more pots – at great expense and to the amusement of the San Francisco cooking shop staff. Kooky English – look at them eating nuts. Caesar salad. A whole roughly shredded lettuce, some kind of garlicky goo, stale croutons and maybe, just maybe a hint of parmesan. Mouthful after mouthful of cellulose. Asked for added grilled chicken in the hope of protein. Akin to chewing my handbag. Gave up and went back to arrange shipping of honey chilli almonds to London. Dear reader, I almost lost weight.

But … this blog is not about food. I should be writing about library and information science. Yet I am compelled to write a few more things about Chicago – because for those visitors not concerned with the origins of whatever they swallow, the city offers some magical vistas. The skyscrapers, best viewed from a boat tour along the  riverways – old world meets the glassy future – are astounding. I gazed up at the Sears Tower in the last week before it was renamed the Willis Tower, this apparently against the wishes of the Chicago inhabitants. The lightfooted towers of babel stand up because of their internal skeletons, which you don’t see. So they look like they float ever upwards with no effort. And the views from the top are stunning.

oak beach at dawn (jet lag!) july 2009

oak beach at dawn (jet lag!) july 2009

And lake Michigan. Beautiful. Fake palm trees shimmering in the breeze, and the hardy few jogging, rollerblading or cycling around the shore path. The rest lying down. Everyone I talked to mentioned the weather. That the palm trees were fake, and that I did not want to be there in the winter. (ER fans will recall it is always snowing outside the emergency department). Yet the streets in summer are pristine and the flower beds immaculate and imaginative. Rather putting London to shame with regard to no graffiti, litter or dead flower heads. No one walks about though – cars are usual even for crossing the street. The windows don’t open either. The whole place is hermetically sealed against the weather – and somehow even the London rain seems refreshing after the endless recycled air.

ala chicago 2009

ala chicago 2009

And so to ALA. Very big event. Around 29,000 attendees so I’m told. The perfect place to gain some idea of what is happening in LIS in America. I was interested in two things; other LIS schools and ‘hot topics’.

Everyone I spoke to was enthusiastic about LIS as an academic discipline, and as a profession. I found it easy to make friends, and fill my pockets with magnetic clips and sweets. I have enough pens. The best branded freebie was a lip gloss from a library school. Why don’t we give students lip glosses here at City ?

The library schools in the States offer extensive curricula (see, but I think we score on originality in two ways. Firstly, tradition. Jason Farradane worked at City, establishing our Information Science course as the new discipline emerged. We incorporate fundamental ideas, the history and philosophy of LIS into our foundation module, and use these to build towards an understanding of where the profession is now, and where it may go in the future. Secondly, we emphasize technology. Innovation in communication is essential in our discipline, and whilst valuing ‘real’ media, we shake communications technology until it rattles.

Emerging trends ..? Well, I was pleased to hear presentations on privacy and data protection. I read endlessly about how the UK is ‘sleepwalking into a database state’, and I feel we should pay attention to issues ranging from information gathered from people who use information services, right through to what we willingly blab on social networks. Why do you have to give your name and address ? Shouldn’t you be able to read what you want in private ? This is an issue in the US of course, led by the Patriot Act into the consciences of pubic librarians.

Convergence of library, museum and gallery services. The world is waking up to the value of artifacts and collections. I have read that this is because of the recession and that everyone wants to ‘feel good’, but it could also be a kind of common sense. Digital is fine and download to the desktop so enticing. But a surprisingly large number of people have a fondness for preservation and archiving. A stroll through the exhibition revealed books, books and more books (and a few shawls and necklaces ..) – no indication that e-books were taking over at all. Although I did see several people around the city using e-book readers, in a way that I have not in London. So the point being that libraries, museums and galleries are experiencing a renaissance, and that consequently trained staff are required. Information is not just about libraries, and talent is needed in many sectors. And honestly, museums and galleries are fantastic places to work …

Web 2.0 – a lot on this – but I was gratified to glean that we are already up with the game and that annotated catalogues and social networking is usual to us at City – we win on tweeting too 🙂 Publishing and web authoring is also usual for our graduates.

Other aspects included cataloguing and metadata, and I collected as much material from the Library of Congress as I could cram in my suitcase ( alongside all the honey chilli almonds ..).

Finally, an indulgence, as to how science fiction has contributed to information, technology and society. Well, if we can imagine it, maybe we can make it happen – although I am not going to talk about Star Trek, and indeed nobody at the conference mentioned it.

ala2There was lots more that I didn’t cover. Have a look at, or for at least some of the presentations online.

And yeah I did go to the shops. I bought a new handbag because I chewed through my old one.