Risks of the Web
Of course, access to Web pages typically does not involve the academic library or bookstore at all. What does this fact mean for the future of access to information at a university? There are threats to various traditional values of the academic system.
• Shared experience. Santayana wrote that it didn't matter what books students read as long as they all read the same thing. Will the great scattering of ma-
terial on the Web mean that few undergraduates will be able to find somebody else who has been through the same courses reading the same books? When I was an undergraduate I had a friend who would look at people's bookshelves and recite the courses they had taken. This activity will become impossible.
• Diversity. Since we can always fear two contradictory dangers, perhaps the ease of getting a few well-promoted Web sites will mean that fewer sources are read. If nobody wants to waste time on a Web site that does not have cartoons, fancy color pictures, and animation, then only a few well-funded organizations will be able to put up Web sites that get an audience. Again, the United States publishes about 50,000 books each year, but produces less than 500 movies. Will the switch to the Web increase or decrease the variety of materials read at a campus?
• Quality. Much of the material on the Web is junk; Gene Spafford refers to Usenet as a herd of elephants with diarrhea. Are students going to come to rely on this junk as real? Would we stop believing that slavery or the Holocaust really happened if enough followers of revisionist history put up a predominance of Web pages claiming the reverse?
• Loyalty. It has already been a problem for universities that the typical faculty member in surface effect physics, for example, views as colleagues other experts in surface effect physics around the world rather than the other members of the same physics department. Will the Web create this disloyalty in undergraduates as well? Will University of Michigan undergraduates read Web pages from Ohio State? Can the Midwest survive that?
• Equality of access. Will the need for computers to find information produce barriers for people who lack money, good eyesight, or some kinds of interfaceusing skills? Universities want to be sure that all students can use whatever information delivery techniques are offered; is the Web acceptable to at least as wide a span of students as the traditional library is?
• Recognition. Traditionally, faculty obtain recognition and status from publishing in prestigious journals. High-energy physicists used to get their latest information from Physical Review Letter; today they rely on Ginsparg's preprint bulletin board at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since this Web site is not refereed, how do people select what to read? Typically, they choose papers by authors they have heard of. So the effect of the switch to electronic publishing is that it is now harder for a new physicist to attract attention.
A broader view of threats posed by electronics to the university, not just those threats arising from digital library technology, has been presented by Eli Noam (1995). Noam worries more about videotapes and remote teaching via television and about the possibility that commercial institutions might attempt to supplant universities by offering cheap education based entirely on electronic technologies.
Should these institutions succeed in attracting enough customers to force traditional universities to lower tuition costs, the financial structure of present-day higher education would be destroyed. Noam recommended that universities emphasize personal mentoring and one-to-one instruction to take the greatest advantage of physical presence.
Similarly, Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson (1996) have warned of balkanization caused by the preference of individuals to select specialized contacts. They point to past triumphs involving cross-field work, such as the history of Watson and Crick, trained in physics and zoology respectively. In their view, search engines can be too effective, since letting people read only exactly what they were looking for may encourage overspecialization.
As an example of the tendency toward seeking collaborators away from one's base institution, Figure 21.3 shows the tendency of multiauthored papers to come from more than one institution. The figures were compiled by taking the first issue each year from the SIAM Journal of Control and Optimization (originally named SIAM Journal of Control ) and counting the fraction of multiauthored papers in which all the authors came from one institution. The results were averaged over each decade. Note the drop in the 1990S. There has also, of course, been an increase in the total number of multiauthored papers (in 1965 the first issue had 14 papers and every paper had only one author; the first issue in 1996 had 17 papers and only two were single-authored). But few of the multiple-authored papers today came from only one research institution.
Of course, there are advantages to the new technology as well, not just threats. And it is clear that the presence of the Web is coming, whatever universities do-this is the first full paper I have written directly in HTML rather than prepared for a typesetting language. Much of the expansiveness of the Web is all to the good; for many purposes, access to random undergraduate opinions, and certainly to their fact gathering, may well be preferable to ignorance. It is hard to imagine students or faculty giving up the speed with which information can be accessed from their desktops any more than we would give up cars because it is healthier to walk or ecologically more desirable to ride trains. How, then, can we ameliorate or prevent the possible dangers elaborated before?