Navigating a "Remarkable Wilderness": In Tribute to Peter Lyman

When Peter Lyman passed away several weeks ago, after a long struggle with cancer, his students and colleagues paid tribute by revising his Wikipedia page. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had spent his lifetime helping us to better understand how we live with information and information technologies. Peter was a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information and a former university librarian. I didn't know Lyman well, we met only a few times, but I have come to know and admire many of his students and through them, I have been touched by his passing. Today, I want to pay tribute to Peter and all those who have worked through him. The world is a better place because he spent time with us. The man I remember was soft-spoken, gentle, and nurturing, but also someone who was full of intellectual curiosity and a passion for learning. I did not meet him in good times -- he was already struggling to maintain his professional life in the face of the treatments he was undergoing for his illness -- and yet I remember him as a man who was full of joy and courage and who was still at the very center of the community of scholars he had helped to create.

The first time I saw Peter Lyman, he was speaking before the governing board of the MacArthur Foundation at a meeting held inside the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and describing the work that his team had done through the How Much Information Project, a multi-year initiative which he ran with Hal Varian. The How Much Information Project sought to identify how much new information emerged per year and which spoke to the challenges we face in being able to process all of that new data. Looking to confirm my memories of this research, I found the Executive Summary on the project's home page. Here's some of what Peter and his team found:

Print, film, magnetic and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks.

How big is five exabytes? If digitized with full formatting, the seventeen million books in the Library of Congress contain about 136 terabytes of information; five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37,000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections....

The United States produces about 40% of the world's new stored information, including 33% of the world's new printed information, 30% of the world's new film titles, 40% of the world's information stored on optical media, and about 50% of the information stored on magnetic media.

How much new information per person? According to the Population Reference Bureau, the world population is 6.3 billion, thus almost 800 MB of recorded information is produced per person each year. It would take about 30 feet of books to store the equivalent of 800 MB of information on paper....

Information explosion? We estimate that new stored information grew about 30% a year between 1999 and 2002....

Information flows through electronic channels -- telephone, radio, TV, and the Internet -- contained almost 18 exabytes of new information in 2002, three and a half times more than is recorded in storage media. Ninety eight percent of this total is the information sent and received in telephone calls - including both voice and data on both fixed lines and wireless.

These statistics were staggering when I first heard them, giving a count (although one so vast that it is beyond my comprehension) of the amount of data -- good, bad, and indifferent -- we pour into the media-stream on a regular basis. This research helps us to understand the overwhelming challenges we face as a society in weighing the information that passes between us and placing even a small portion of it in a meaningful context.

Yet, as someone who cared deeply about libraries and the kinds of learning cultures they fostered, Peter was concerned about this information overload but also in his own quiet way set to work to shore up the structures we as human beings create to help us confront these insurmountable challenges.

Looking to get closer to Peter, I stumbled upon a 1998 talk he presented on "Designing Libraries to Be Learning Communities: Toward an Ecology of Places for Learning." Here are a few excerpts which give a taste of his perspective on the human dimensions of information:

Today we speak of people in the library as "users." The term, "user" suggests that it is the relationship to the information technology that is central, just as the term "reader" used to refer to a relationship to printed collections. While this is certainly a valid perspective, there is a certain social isolation implicit in each of these terms, suggesting that the library is a public place where strangers might gather to work side by side in peace, but remain strangers. And clearly, the creation of a public place within which such peaceful strangers might dwell is a substantial achievement in an urban civilization. But while some people can learn some things alone by reading books or computers, much learning is collaborative and tacit, and requires a social dimension as much as it requires access to information. While individual people do come to libraries in order to find answers to informational questions (or perhaps to be entertained, overcome loneliness, or get out of the rain), information is often only a necessary but insufficient condition for learning. Beyond information alone, learning may require the exchange of information between individuals, and ultimately a sense of membership in a community of learners....Digital libraries are often described as 'information resources' yet it is difficult to use digital information, for it provides no sense of place. It has no boundaries, for in principal every networked information resource may be linked to every other, and indeed many encompass the globe. The structure of digital information is defined by technical standards, but unlike print or other media, there is no authority in cyberspace that might determine the quality of information....Information is not a landscape; it is a remarkable wilderness, needing the vision of a technological Capacity Brown.

These two passages are taken from a document which seeks to explain to librarians in technically precise and yet accessible terms the nature of the new digital landscape. Yet, the tone of this passage suggests the human touch which Peter Lyman brought to his work -- the wry acknowledgement that people go to libraries for reasons beyond reading the Great Works of Western Civilization, the focus on the social life of information and the fascination with the very human structures we create for processing and engaging with the very inhuman amount of information that passes between us. For him, libraries were not simply data bases but were fundamentally cultural institutions and learning wasn't simply what occurred within the single, isolated mind but what passed between minds and formed the basis of our social contact with each other. These are powerful ideas that we lose track of at our own peril and they were at the heart of what Peter Lyman contributed to the world -- someone who understand the nature of our changing mediascape and yet also held onto the traditional values which have long shaped human societies.

Another of Peter's essays spoke about "the poetics of the future," analyzing the various metaphors -- Information Highways, Digital Libraries, and Virtual Communities -- which we deployed to make sense of our new and evolving relationship to information technologies. Throughout this powerful essay, he insists that we should discuss our relationship with information as "citizens" and not simply "consumers" and demanding that we address such matters out of a concern for social justice and out of our highest hopes for the kind of world we want to inhabit in the future. Peter wrote:

Highways and libraries are useful metaphors, but are taken from an industrial society, and related to networked information only in their functions of transportation and information management. The term, community, originally referred to social relationships in feudal villages and if anything, modern life in an urban industrial society is marked by a lack of community. I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with the use of metaphor in general -- indeed, poetic thinking is among our most important resources -- but the subject may deserve better poets and poetry. Thus my project today is to test these three metaphors, to see how well they function as heuristics for thinking about economic and social justice in the information age.

After a precise and thoughtful analysis of these three well worn metaphors, he concludes with a call for new imagery: "Poetry comes from the street, and the second research task I propose that we jointly undertake is to listen to the language of cyberspace for new poetry, new images that will take us farther than the noble but tired language of industrial society we now use."

I am not sure whether the search for social justice or for "new poetry" led him to focus on youth and their relationship to digital learning in the final years of his life: I suspect a combination of the two. But it was in that context that I met Peter. Along with Mimi Ito, Peter was the director of the Digital Youth Project, a three year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which explores how kids use media in their everyday lives. I had a chance to watch Mimi, Peter, and the researchers on their team present the first year's findings from this research and have followed it closely ever since. I know I will be reporting on their findings in the future here in the blog. As a group, the team is exploring young people's use of Wikipedia and Live Journal, their engagement with anime, fan video, music mashups, multiplayer games, and fan fiction, all topics of interest to regular readers of this blog. I have come to consider them to be the sister project of our own Project nml, part of the powerful social network of researchers from around the country and across a range of disciplines that the MacArthur Foundation has brought together through their concerted effort to understand and help to shape the kinds of informal learning that kids engage with as they travel across the new media landscape.

Peter's presence will be missed as his team, and the MacArthur network more generally, takes the next steps towards redefining how we think about youth, informal learning, and participatory culture. Yet, there's no question that his early interventions will have pushed all of us towards a greater understanding of the human dimensions of information technologies and perhaps nudged us to keep an eye open for the "new poetry" that is emerging as kids take these media in their own hands.