Monday, July 29, 2013

Decision-Making and Star Trek

I recently saw the “Court Marshal” episode of the original Star Trek series. Although this episode was about the court martial of Captain Kirk for allegedly panicking and causing the death of one of his crewmen, it was really about humanity (as usual). This time the story pit humans (and to some extent, Vulcans) against machines.

I was struck by the scene in which the hotshot lawyer assigned to defend the Captain shows up in his quarters (actually, in the Captain’s temporary quarters on "Starbase 11"), with an impressive collection of law books. Yes, print books filled the room.

Photo found on John's Star Trek Blog
It may have struck me more because of the book I am reading, Decision-Making in the Absence of Certainty: A Study in the Context of Technology and the Construction of the 21st Century Academic Library (ACRL, 2010). In it the author, S. David Mash, asserts, “Forecasting is intrinsic to decision making, whether conceived as such or not.” (p. 55)

Nevertheless, Mash gives numerous illustrations demonstrating that futurists have a bad track record, particularly as they relate to libraries in the past twenty years. He further credits philosophy professor, Nicholas Rescher, of the University of Pittsburgh as saying, “often as not, futuristic speculation tells us more about the futurist than the future” (p. 51). (I haven’t yet come to the part in the book where I hope Mash tells his readers what to do in the absence of certainty.)

Meanwhile, back on Starbase 11, Kirk's lawyer confidently and passionately explains to him that “books are where you can experience the law, not in a synthesized computer.” Thus setting up the human side of the argument.

Defense testimony is given, but even his best character witnesses, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy (a.k.a., "Bones") are shot down by the cross examination of the beautiful prosecuting attorney. Then, the most damning evidence comes out as she plays back the ship’s video recording which shows that Kirk did, in fact, do the wrong thing! Even Captain Kirk begins to doubt himself. Has the computer won? (Oh, the humanity!)

When it seems that all is lost, Spock and Bones come to the rescue. The defense lawyer pleads that Kirk should be allowed to face "the only witness against him, the Enterprise's computer” [strike the dramatic music.] So, the court reconvenes on the crippled Enterprise in orbit around Starbase 11 for a showdown between human and machine. (I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that everything turns out well for us Trekkies.)

So what about these books that miraculously escaped hundreds of years of the wear and tear and red rot? If Professor Rescher is right, they tells us that Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, liked books. It is unclear as to whether he would have personally adopted e-books (as he died sixteen years before the first release of the Amazon® Kindle) but he seemed to think that printed pages retained the human context necessary to offset the stark mechanisms of computer convenience.

Decision-making about library resources and budget allocation depend on the direction we think we are going. The direction we head in will be based on what we believe the purpose of the library is (and will be.) The continuing values of our library must be examined in light of the university’s mission, goals, and objectives. The university examines its core values in light of the purpose of Christian higher education and ultimately, the mission of the church. This is the certainty in which we ground ourselves in the context of the uncertain world around us.

I'll have to keep reading to find out what Mash says about the practical application of decision-making to further the purposes of the 21st century academic library.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Robin Hartman is Director of Library Services at Hope International University. She is curious about how the organization and communication of information shapes society and is committed to equipping students to impact the world for Christ.

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