ARCHIVED: Implications Of Technological Change

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The rapid pace of technological change puts stresses on traditional arrangements and structures for producing and disseminating government information. The goal is to expand and enhance public access to government information. To realize this goal, we need to assure that the Government Printing Office is equipped to exploit the opportunities that new information technology presents to disseminate information in new ways, using new media and completely new formats, many of which we cannot even imagine at this time. Nevertheless, four adages should guide policies.

We need to Ride the Wave. Computer and communications technology is fundamentally altering the information infrastructure of this nation, and indeed of the world. It changes the way we create knowledge, distribute it, use it, and store it. There is no way government can avoid the need to ride this wave. In fact, we need to exploit it. Federal agencies need the ability to experiment with new media and formats, exploring ways in which citizen access and participation in the governmental process can be enhanced. GPO should be in a position to encourage and assist with these experiments, as well as have the capacity to disseminate to the public such products as they are produced.

At the same time, we must not Burn Our Bridges. Technological change diffuses more slowly than we might think to all people and all corners of our land. Although access to the Internet and other new technologies is growing rapidly, it is by no means universal, nor will it be so for some time. Significant portions of our citizenry will be disenfranchised if they are unable or unwilling to adapt to new technologies. Furthermore, paper documents will retain usability for some time. A paperback copy of the Constitution is easier to carry and read on the bus. It is easier to mark-up a paper document. However, if we are searching for a specific passage in the U.S. Code, or doing a statistical analysis of a congressional district using census data, electronic formats may be better. If we are sending our comments on a document to a colleague a thousand miles away, e-mail may be preferable. The point is that more often than replacing older formats, technology usually gives us more options. It enriches (and certainly complicates) our information lives. The government should not assume that paper will become obsolete any time in the near future.

Third, we must put Many Eggs in Many Baskets. We cannot predict in detail what the information environment of the future will be. True, the information technology industry must put down bets every day on future trends, but those bets are hedged as often as possible, and the failure rate is high among high tech start-ups. Even Bill Gates admits to having been wrong in the past about the importance of the Internet! If these bright technologists don't always get it right, what does that leave us to do? The answer is to avoid making law and information policy that assumes very specific technological environments in the future. We need to encourage agencies to explore many paths and keep a close eye on technological developments. We need to Stay the Course. The current debate about information technology includes much faddism. Overblown expectations are followed by disillusionment and negative press, which are in turn followed again by new hopes. We have cycled from Internet frenzy to predictions that an overloaded Internet could melt down. (This is coupled with the rather unsurprising discovery that not all information on the net is accurate and illuminating to sophisticated human discourse). Fads come and go, but real, long-term change underlies all of this churning around. If we step back and look at the way communication technology has changed (and has changed us) over the sixty years since the Telecommunications Act of 1934, we can hardly miss the enormous transformations that have occurred. The pace of that change is increasing.

Government agencies need to pursue their public access programs in light of long-term plans that are robust to the failures of experiments and programs, changes in the media and in the economics of information delivery, and changes in public expectations that are bound to occur as we try to keep up with technological change.

Need for a CTO. GPO should be equipped institutionally to deal with rapidly changing information technology. Faced with similar problems, most high tech companies have created the post of Chief Technology Officer (CTO), whose job is to track technological change and help the company take strategic advantage and avoid obsolescence. Currently, agencies are individually pursuing programs of authoring, publishing and information dissemination using their "best guess" at the appropriate technologies for the projects, with little or no inter-agency coordination. The restructured GPO could serve as a vital and necessary resource for publishing and dissemination efforts by agencies. We suggest that the legislation establish the position of Chief Technology Officer. The CTO's responsibility would be to track and assess technological change as it affects the dissemination of government information and provide appropriate advice.


Draft Working Document prepared by the
Inter-Association Working Group on Government Information Policy
April 24, 1997

The Inter-Association Working Group on Government Information Policy is a cooperative team of representatives from seven major library associations working to enhance public access to government information through the revision of U.S.C. Title 44. Together, these associations represent more than 80,000 librarians, information specialists, library trustees, their institutions, and others interested in library issues.

For more information, please contact:

Francis Buckley, IAWG Chair, Director, Shaker Heights Public Library
216-991-2030 or

Mary Alice Baish, American Association of Law Libraries 202-662-9200 or

Anne Heanue, American Library Association Washington Office
202-628-8410 or