The Des Moine Register:  The Register last week interviewed Thomas Frey, executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute, about the future of libraries and information access. Following are excerpts:


1. Will there be less that’s free on the Internet, and will it become less of a free-flowing wild, wild West?

There’s been some hesitancy in trying to regulate the Internet because the Internet crosses all these country lines, and it’s creating all these borderless economies. That confuses all the issues of power and control and even the overall sovereignty issue. The wild, wild West aspect of this is going to stay around a little while longer.

There will always be information that people will want to pay for. I actually think we’re going to be paying for more things, but I think it’s going to be more micro-payments, paying 10 cents here, 20 cents there, 99 cents there.

I see a kind of an emerging market for people who do podcasts and other people paying for them.

There’s a new technology that’s just kind of hitting the scene: A company called Playaway makes a self-playing audiobook. You go to the library and you check it out and it just comes with one title on it. It’s all digital, and all you have to do is make sure there’s a battery in it and hook on a headphone and listen to it. It’s kind of an ingenious device. That’s one of those things that I think will change libraries quite a bit in the future.

2. How quickly do you foresee transformation to a more verbal society?

I think it’s going to take a lot longer for the written word to go away, because it’s so ingrained in our culture. I’m not sure the transition is necessarily to a verbal society. We’re trying to create this ultimate interface between information and our brain. We’re trying to make that interface as seamless and as invisible as possible. We want to link our brain to other information in any way that we can. That’s the trend that we’re headed toward.

Verbal is just another way of doing it. If there’s something that’s more efficient than that, then we’ll have to figure that out. There are all kinds of limitations to verbal societies. You certainly can’t have an effective verbal society in a noisy environment. The key point is that I don’t think we should just hang our hat on the written word. There’s going to be other ways of transferring information.

3. How would you briefly describe the ideal library of the future?

That’s a question I find so difficult because I actually think the library of the future is going to be different for every community. We’re transitioning more from a center of information into a center of culture.

The library of the future could have lots of different components to it. As a society, we’re no longer satisfied with just having information come to us. We’re interested in creating information. Having those stations that enable us to participate in the information world I think are going to be key, whether those are podcasting stations or blogging stations. Or some other way of creating, whether it’s music studios or art or drama, some performance rooms.

4. Can libraries differentiate cities?

In the past, all these cities were in a competition to see who could create the greatest library. Now that’s transitioning a little bit to see who’s the most visionary, who can create the ultimate library of the future. It will be an ongoing effort to prove we’re the most modern, we’re the most forward-thinking.

The Denver public library is the first one that’s going to be offering free video downloads. They’ve actually cut a deal with Starz, to enable people who are library card-holders to just go online to their computer at home to download a video for three weeks free of charge. That’s an effort to extend the reach of the library into people’s homes. They’re experimenting. They’re trying new things. That’s hugely important.

Another piece of this whole equation: There’s a new device out, a book scanner. You just put a book into this device and it will automatically turn all the pages and scan every page. It digitizes the entire book. We’re converting all the characters on a page into digital images that can than be manipulated and shot around the online world. It’s a way of us archiving some of the old books that are beyond their useful life. I think it’s important to save all of that information.

5. Do you foresee a growing technological divide in the United States and the world?

We’re actually spreading out farther and farther. It used to be that we had the literates vs. the illiterate people. Now we have the literate people then get divided up between the computer-literate and non-computer-literate people. And then you start dividing the computer-literate people into the ones that are the super-tech savvy, the blog-savvy people, the cell-phone savvy, the iPod savvy, the ones that know the details of some of these other programs and these pieces of software. There are some major barriers there. There’s so much going on right now.

In the presentations I give, I talk about us approaching the age of 100 million products. We’re not there quite yet, but we’re moving there awfully fast. When you start looking at going to Amazon and there’s 2 million books there — each of those is a product. You go to iTunes. There’s over a million songs on iTunes and that’s growing rapidly. Software superstore has over a million software products. Grocery-store products are being created at the rate of one every half hour. It’s just this relentless stream of new products being introduced.

The ability to know and understand information about all these products is becoming more and more difficult for people. The amazing part is that there’s no let-up in sight. The pace continues to accelerate. It’s not slowing down.

Certainly, individuals that are very quick learners and spend enormous amounts of time learning will have an edge, the ones that can cram more details, more information in their head than anybody else.

I think that there will reach a point where there’s some computer-to-brain interface device that will enable people to instantly access huge volumes of information, but I’m not sure that will be effective in really giving people the ability to think about these products and understand them in ways that make it useful.