SLA2008: Charlie Rose & Vinton Cerf

The the Opening General Session at SLA Annual, we got the honor of watching Charlie Rose interview Vinton Cerf!!

Charlie started by thanking us, “You are the masters of getting good information … and to show you how stupid I am – I didn’t know you had an organization.” He talked about how people in his position need librarians.

He then started by asking Vint to take us back to the beginning – the beginning of the Internet that is.

On January 1, 1983 Vint was there when the Internet was rolled out to the academic community for the first time. “We knew that it was going to have an amazing bit of flexibility, but we had no idea what it would be like to have billions of people communicating over it at once.”

Next interview question, “What has it become? What is it today?”

Vint refers to the Internet as an infrastructure just like a road system. It should be there when you need it in as much quantity as you need it. That said, we have a long way to go.

To reach this goal, we have to get the technology in place where it isn’t right now. The economics of it has to be affordable to everyone which means that getting the cost down and making the technology affordable is a high priority.

One way that the price has gone down is the wide spread of mobile communication. Cell phone usage has grown so fast because the cost is very very low in comparison to that of the Internet. This lack of need for wires and the development of Internet enabled mobile devices is what’s causing a spread in Internet availability.

Vint gave a great answer to Charlie when he asked about cell phones becoming the only way we access the Internet in the future. He warns us to be careful not to assume that the new technology supplants the rest of them. This is a great quote to share with librarians when we talk about using new technologies in our libraries – new technologies are great to use in conjunction with the older more proven methods.

Charlie then asked Vint what he saw as the value of the Internet.

I loved Vint’s answer where he reminds us that the internet was designed originally in the academic world where people gather and share knowledge. The design was deliberately completely open and “this openness has permitted the most incredible cornucopia of innovation and creativity.” You don’t have to get permission to create new applications and tools and it’s this openness and accessibility that is the power of the internet. The Internet gives everyone the freedom to create.

Which is a great transition into Charlie’s next question. What is the significance of users also being providers and where we going with social networks?

I missed most of what Vint answered first because he was excited and spoke too quickly, but he ended his happy rant with, “I’m geek orthodox.” He said every evangelist needs a religion and so that’s his 🙂

Rant done, he gets down to the facts and figures. People are producing a great deal of information on the Internet. 10 hours of video going into YouTube a minute and every blog has on average 1.1 reader. It is still a fact that this system is permitting people to share what they know – “and the most exciting vision that I have – is that somehow when this is mature we will – everyone of us – have access to all of the information that every one of us wants to share.”

Vint turns to us and reminds us that this is where we come in, where we get to help – this is what our careers are all about, sharing information. The fact of the matter is that you can learn something from anyone!!

Since Vint was talking about librarians, Charlie moved on to ask where we are in the process of digitizing libraries.

As we all know, we are far far from complete in capturing digital forms of things, but as more and more things are being produced digitally the balance will begin to shift and we may catch up.

The problem is that digitization hasn’t been thought out in terms of preservation. We have to stop thinking of digital images as the analog of books – digital objects are very complex things – and cannot get the same thing out of it as you can from a printed version – and vice versa.

We’re relying more and more on software to decipher these digital objects and eventually those software packages won’t be there anymore. We need to preserve the software when people no longer want to support it – as well as preserving the digital objects – or we’re going to be sitting on objects we can’t decipher because there is no software for it.

Charlie next asked a question that made us all giggle, “Is this such an emergent issue that we need the new president to assign a committee, or will that cause more trouble than it’s worth?”

Vint (an obviously the audience) thought that Charlie has answered his own question. Getting the government involved is just going to add a layer of complexity that we don’t need. Vint thinks that the solution to the internet is more distributed, you need to work with other countries and technology centers to come up with a solution – this is not just a U.S. problem.

Vint then moved on to talk about how the Internet has changed science. In science you reproduce other’s experiments – and to do that you need to be able to see other’s data – the acceleration of science is dramatically improved when we share information (he used Nature Precedings as an example of this).

A couple of great quotes from Vint that I think librarians can learn from – “sharing information works” and “some people say information is power – bologna – information sharing is power.” So many librarians think they hold the key to knowledge and information and that no one else is qualified to distribute this information – but as Vint said earlier, you can learn something from anyone!!

Talking of sharing information with everyone, Charlie asked if we need some sort of international standards and regulations to make it so that we can all decipher each other’s information?

Vint asks us to think for a moment about the things we would like to do with the Internet. For example, we’d like to foster e-commerce. In the world of commerce, we need to decide on standards so that we can foster commerce across country lines. One question that arises is, does a digital signature mean the same thing in all countries? We need more agreement of these notions across nations so we can use the Internet for this type of thing.

That said, we also may need to have some international agreements on what’s acceptable behavior on the Internet.

If we start to depend (even more than we already do) on the Internet for everything, Charlie asks what’s the danger of cyberterrorism?

We all know that computers have vulnerabilities, Vint’s suggestion is that we need to put a cork in these 🙂 In short, we need to prevent them from happening because we are depending on this network more and more – like the power system – you don’t notice it’s there until it’s not there. I think this is a bit optimistic of him – no matter how many holes we plug, there will always be someone interested in pulling that cork out.

I do agree with Vint, that we have to make sure this infrastructure is solid and reliable – and that there is still lots of work to be done.

Charlie’s next question got more giggles out of us – “Why can’t we eliminate spam?”

Vint’s answer is simple, because internet emails are free – and anyone can get one … the best we can do is filter these messages out like most email clients do.

I was confused with Charlie’s next question, “What is the internet cafe module?” Apparently this is a project that I hadn’t heard of before.

This is a personal project of Vint’s in which they’re using solar powered internet cafes and connecting them to the internet by satellite as a means to get the internet to those who don’t have it. This method eliminates that pesky need for wires.

Charlie then asked Vint that if his dream is to see the entire population online – how long did he think it will take for just 50% of the population online?

Vint thinks that by 2010, 50% of the world’s population will be online. He goes on to say that the next being 70% around 2013/14. After that things are going to be difficult. There will always be holdouts. Vint did point out that people may find themselves embedded in the internet because their appliances will be internet enabled – whether they like it or not.

Countries cannot escape the Internet’s importance to their economy – and in the long run information will flow – Vint doesn’t think that you can stop information from getting from one person to another – even if some countries are trying.

The million dollar question of course is “How will search change?”

Vint said that if we’re lucky we’ll go beyond the stats of text and be able to match the semantics. But, when it comes to the semantic web, “this is going to be hard” according to Vint.

On the question of artificial intelligence, Vint says “artificial intelligence – as soon as you can get it to work, it’s not artificial anymore.” Until computers have had experiences, he doesn’t believe they will share human intelligence.

Which brings us to a few concluding questions.

“What are you optimisitc about and pessimistic about in terms of the future of the Internet?”

The optimism is that the Internet stays as open as it is – it knows no boundaries – as long as you figure out how to program for it – you can do it.

When it comes to being pessimistic, Vint worries that it won’t be as open and that people will try to constrain it for political or commercial reasons.

“What is the next big idea”

Vint responded with, “If i was really smart enough to know – I would be off doing it right now.” The biggest thing at the moment is dealing with mobile devices (he holds up his blackberry and mentions that it has a small screen and “keyboard suitable for people who are three inches tall”). In the future, this mobile device could be your universal toolbox – put all your tools (TV, Electric, Appliances) on the net – which means you can access your tools from anywhere – you don’t have to be in the house – once they’re together they become something they are not! Of course you then have worry about the kid next door who likes to hack into these devices 🙂


When Stephen Abram came up after the talk was over, I have to agree with him, “O.M.G. don’t you feel smarter just being in the room with those two???”

This was an amazing talk that I’m glad I stayed awake for 🙂 You can see my pictures on Flickr.

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  1. Thanks! I like to get as much info as I can 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for reporting this. I’m coming back for more!

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