I had written some notes for the panel I was on at Collaborative Culture Camp, but a panel is not like a speech - I respond to the questioning of the moderator (the able Nick Charney, in this case) and the audience. In a panel, I can mainly just hit a few key points related to the questions.
I will use my notes to inform some blog postings.
One of the points that I think is important is to step back from either looking at this as specific technologies (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) or in generational terms. Technologies come and go. Most of the ones that are getting attention are so new (less than 5 years old) that it's hard to truly understand them yet. Generations are much more complex than some simple box we might want to put them in. Also generations are better understood in retrospect, rather than trying to analyse them in the moment. But there are some long-term, fundamental changes that are driving the interest in technology-enabled collaboration. While there was a statement in the opening panel that we could have met to discuss the challenges of collaboration within the government at any time in the last 40 years, there are some differences informing the 2010 conversation.
I talked about these in a presentation I gave in 2007, as part of the context underpinning Service-Oriented Architecture for Libraries. I believe there are key elements that have impacted libraries (and other organisations where "information is power" has to be reconsidered in a world that now seems to be awash in information):
The shockwaves of the transition to digital have been reverberating through our economic and political systems for well over a decade. Digital has some fundamental "laws" that break the way we understand the world; digital environments, bits, behave differently than atoms in our physical, analog world.
Most importantly, there is a law of the digital world that is as fundamental as gravity in the physical world: in the digital environment, There Are Many Copies. That is, you cannot stop copying of digital objects. You could go as far as to say digital objects "want" to be copied, it is natural for them to be duplicated.
When this Digital Law came into collision with the laws based on our physical world, it led to some nonsensical results. Basically, existing cultural enterprises require your systems to lie to you, to pretend that their bits can't be copied, in an attempt to patch the Code that is Law in the digital environment (this terminology is a play on Lessig's book Code is Law - which is now being revised in a wiki).
The digital bits that live in e-books or iTunes TV shows or movie DVDs are quite capable of being copied, but for the convenience of a legal system based on the idea that copying is hard, your e-book reader, your iPod, and your DVD device are all required to tell you a lie, to pretend that their bits can't be copied. Huge commercial forces are at work attempting to maintain this lie and, not surprisingly, they are unable to defy gravity - bits quite happily get copied in defiance of their will.
Great work is being done to bring the legal system into alignment with the reality of the digital world, most notably through Creative Commons, where you retain rights while accepting that your work can be easily copied.
For libraries as temples of books, or for other organisations where processes and people operated on the reality that analog information was hard to copy and hard to circulate, this has been a major change, and one that is still poorly understood and accepted.
And we need to recognize that we even accept this lie to some extent ourselves in our social media interactions, pretending that Facebook postings, Twitter Direct Messages and emails are somehow "private", when all that means is that their easily-copyable bits, sitting on a disk somewhere, just have a flag associated that says "please don't copy this without permission".
I explored the issue of the digital environment as it relates to traditional management in my January 2006 posting "of managerial sins, old coots, and librarians versus technologists".
UPDATE: But I no longer think that the framing of generational differences is a useful one. Four years on, setting generational language aside, I do still hold to my statement (where you can replace "library" with e.g. "managerial")
I suggest you start delegating to those with technical knowledge when appropriate, start communicating what it is you want, and start working to integrate the technical and library teams, rather than dividing them.
My four-year-old statements are a reminder of how easy it is to frame this as a conflict of generations, rather than my current perception that it is a conflict based on management styles and openness to change. In fact I think framing it as old-vs-young immediately puts up a huge barrier, as you draw the line across the page between "them" and "us".
In an alternate world, we might have had digital, without the Internet. That is, easily copyable local digital content, but no easy way to move it around.
That is not the world we have. We have a network with global reach. This is a profound transformation of the relationship of the individual to their environment. Any individual can now reach a huge world-wide audience. It's hard to even think at this scale, to imagine your words being read at different times in different places, reaching far beyond the constraints of your neighbourhood, your job, or your social position to anyone in the world with a network connection and interest in your ideas.
It also means that information can circulate, documents, images, reports - endlessly copied and linked to, around and around the network. This ability for an item of content, or an individual, to immediately reach a global audience is transformatory. Again, it challenges our assumptions that were based on the limits of speed and reach that were imposed by the physical limits of the analog world.
We can also imagine an alternate 21st Century where Yahoo succeeded and Google never came into being. Yahoo was a classic information management approach, a library-type approach to managing a sudden huge amount of accessible content. Humans went through pages and manually categorized them, manually building a clickable directory of "recommended" links. The directory still lives on, although in our real 21st Century where Google won, it has faded from prominence http://ca.dir.yahoo.com/
Yahoo, like any other "gateway" site, now places search front and centre, because Google won.
Without Google, which has only been with us for a bit more than a decade, bits still would have been copied, and information still would have been available worldwide, but it would have been very difficult for individual uncoordinated contributions (blogs, tweets, photos) to be discovered. The lack of scalability for both human categorizers as well as for web surfers, trying to remember good sites, would have meant (and did mean, in the Yahoo era) that as in the physical world, a few major outlets of information dominated, simply because it was incredibly labourious to try to browse your way to new relevant sources of content.
Google's relevant search results, which don't care if you're famous, which may rank a lone blogger above a major news outlet, forever altered the balance of power. Now not only could your content be copied and accessed anywhere in the world, it could be found based on interest, not on how large a media organisation you had or how well-recognised your brand was. People could come to you, outside of a container of a work domain or a newspaper, and find your ideas. People could land in the middle of your carefully-designed website, far outside the navigation flow you had imagined.
This also broke a lot of physical world assumptions. It was easy, in the world where you browsed to sites through Yahoo, to imagine people guided in the "front door" (main page) of your site, and then walked through the content according to the categories and process you specified. Many library sites were (and still are) designed based on this model. It was hard for people to understand that in a Google world, people would land directly on a page with the information they wanted, and they would evaluate it based on the immediate utility to them, not on its associated site container.
Now anyone could be discovered, and those who were better at creating content could rise to prominence without any mediating institutions. This is a dramatic shift from a world where you could call in media to view your prepared news release. Now anyone can be a reporter, and anyone can share something that gets discovered and reported upon.
This turns hierarchies upside-down and inside-out. In the government bureaucracy, you can pretend that every classification, e.g. Computer Science Level 3 (CS-3) is an interchangeable, invisible part of the machinery of government. In the world of Google, every one of those employees can have a significant Internet presence, and based on their expertise and ability to commuicate, may have more visibility (and more associated opportunities) than their senior managers.
As well, in a world of discovery, rather than trying incredibly elaborate schemes to seek out partnerships and find collaborators, you can just share what you are doing online, and partners will discover you. Discovery means that simply by talking about what you are doing, people with similar interests can find you and communities can form.
This is a very different model from formal meetings where people at the exact same level meet with others at the exact same level and circulate information only between themselves.
The network is a community-forming machine. This happens seemingly automatically, as an inherent aspect of the technology. Long before the web we had bulletin board systems (BBSes) where people joined forums according to interest, and once email came into being we started to have mailing lists of like-minded individuals. Then came USENET, all based on basic technology, plain text on the screen, but a powerful tool for sharing with people who were interested in the same sub-sub-sub-topic. These technologies haven't disappeared - there are still active communities discussing geneology and every other topic under the sun, just using email.
But, in our last counter-factual, it might have been that we never got beyond basic PCs, green lines on a screen, slow connections, 1 megabyte floppy drives, 30 MB hard drives - it was not a given that technology had to change by leaps and bounds. We still would have been connected, but the richness, complexity and speed would have been limited.
However, in our actual digital world, technology did follow Moore's Law. My first computer, a VIC-20, circa 1981, had 5 kilobytes (5000 bytes) of RAM, and an 8-bit processor, with a clock speed of 1 Megahertz, and some tiny amount of external storage. My latest computer has 9 thousand million bytes of RAM (9GB), and four 64-bit processors running at 2,600 Megahertz with one million million (or one thousand billion, or 1,000,000,000,000 bytes) of storage (1TB).
Fibre can push around Gigabits, which is a long way from 300 baud modems.
These changes happen year over year, which makes it hard for us to appreciate them, but they are dramatic. A nice diagram shows that a 2010 iPhone is as much or more computer than a 2000 iMac.
Putting it all together
This is a major transformation. When we put the picture together - digital content that is impossible to prevent from being copied, a global network, content indexed in near-real-time that can be discovered based on keywords and relevance, and compute, storage, and network capacity that has grown exponentially, we are living in a dramatically different world.
Technologies and generational quirks may come and go, but these fundamental changes are not going away. We must adapt to deal with the reality of these changes, and that means both tremendous new opportunities for effective collaboration, as well as enormous disruptions for existing processes and systems.
This is the challenge we face, that drives the need for a new understanding of collaboration enabled by technology, within the government as well as between the government and the rest of our connected world.