LISTen: An LISNews.org Program -- Episode #164

Contrary to normal practice, a text copy of this episode's essay is presented below the “Read More” fold. A PDF file will also follow in the podcast feed.

Creative Commons License
LISTen: An LISNews.org Program -- Episode #164 by The Air Staff of Erie Looking Productions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

If The Network Dies...

Generally, when an Internet grandee like Dave Winer speaks about tech you should listen. As to politics, not so much, but for tech the father of RSS has plenty to say. Winer is now considering the potential fracturing of the Internet in the US as well as the fragility of the transport layer to much of today's post-modern world. As strange as it may seem, life without the Internet may be something to have to consider again.

While it is still too early to say this with certitude, I am starting to lean towards 2011 being the Year of Network Fragility. With a knowledge ecology like ours today, the fundamental interconnectedness means that bad situations abroad can have an impact at home. Tunisia and Egypt saw their previous governments suspend Internet access nationally to prevent ultimately successful dissenters communicating with each other. Other nation-states proceeded with their own sorts of restrictions. In the wake of the rioting that impacted Greater London recently, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron is preparing to meet later this month with representatives of Facebook, Blackberry maker Research In Motion, and Twitter about how to suspend those services in the UK if civil disorder breaks out again on such a large scale. Last week the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority in San Francisco decided to potentially actualize a tactic proposed by author Tom Clancy in his novel Rainbow Six by preparing to disrupt cell phone connectivity in their subway system in light of protests.

Starting with the disruptions first seen in North Africa now leading to possible use of similar class tactics in San Francisco let alone the United Kingdom, some hard questions must be posed. In a world so easily defined by the OSI layers model of communication...what happens when a lower layer like the transport layer disappears? In design, one looks for points of failure. Our knowledge ecology relies on far too few transport layers. The OSI model has such as a fundamental vulnerability. While Internet access is great, how dependent is your institution on such? What do you do if access to your ILS disappears whether you are part of a multi-branch system or a rural consortium outsourcing to a hosted instance of something like Koha? If your library lost access to normal communications, how much of your claimed collection size disappears into effective nothingness?

Even though these disruptions are generally all-or-nothing affairs, this also leads to a not so happy consideration for net neutrality and traffic discrimination. In an emergency situation, no special priority attaches to library communications generally. In a world governed by network neutrality, no traffic would have precedence anyhow. Just as network neutrality would prohibit granting discriminatory tiered fast lanes for those that paid big bucks, the adopted yet not in force rules in the United States would make selective disruption just as bad.

If your communications fail, whether by virtue of God's fireworks or the acts of flesh & blood governing critters, what will your library do? Do you even have a plan? As the Bay Area Rapid Transit incident last week shows, disruptions like what we saw at the start of the year in North Africa are slowly becoming mainstream notions. That Prime Minister Cameron could casually suggest this sort of action in the UK Parliament should give pause let alone what the novel Rainbow Six inspired in San Francisco. The time to start planning for a disruption was yesterday so we are now in a game of catch-up before some non-library bureaucrat somewhere gets a bright idea.

With centralized hosting of library electronic resources today, too much of the average collection is as insubstantial as smoke. If your comms were cut today, what is your library's volume count then? If the situation became prolonged, how would your institution serve the needs of patrons? What could you even fall back to?

Hypotheticals are steadily becoming real this year. Where does your library stand? We know what we have to do here at Erie Looking Productions in event of a communications disruption. This is why explicit Creative Commons licensing has been applied to episodes this year as we want to encourage mirroring and/or relays if we get knocked offline. As long as funding permitted, we could also be relayed via shortwave by a broadcaster like WBCQ and the Creative Commons licensing would allow sharing of any recordings taped from the airwaves whether online or via physical storage media. With suitable retainer even now, you can have episodes delivered on physical storage medium to you. Other strategies and tactical shifts exist but we need not discuss them all now.

If a little three person media operation can have a fallback plan for communications...why doesn't your library have one?