The Value of Paper vs Convenience of Digital

About 35 years ago in the fall, a housemate of mine got a phone call, “hey, I’m a caver who’s passing through your area this weekend and found your name in the NSS Members’ Manual, I was hoping maybe you could hook me up with a caving trip.” Well it just so turns out that the RPI Outing Club traditionally does Friday night caving. (Why night you might ask? Well it’s always dark in the caves, so going at night leaves time on Saturday and Sunday to hike, rock-climbing, canoe, etc.) My housemate invited the guy along and he joined us caving (I think in Knox Cave).

I mention this story because it’s an example of how the NSS Members’ Manual has often been used over the years. Talk to enough old-time caves (especially those who recognize the smell of carbide in the morning) and many will mention how they’ve been in a strange area and looked up a fellow caver. Usually the lookup was to find someone to go caving with, but it might also be help with a broken vehicle, looking for crash space for a night or even more esoteric reasons. Many cavers kept a copy in their vehicles so they’d always have it with them.

Well, this past weekend (March 13th to be precise) the Board of Governors of the NSS voted to stop publishing the Members’ Manual. There was a lot of debate on the topic during the meeting and later online on Facebook (and I assume other spaces) and I wanted to discuss a bit of it here.

There were several rationales for this decision and I don’t think any specific one can be pointed at and said, “this is the reason.”

Conservation was certainly mentioned. The NSS is after all a group who has a primary charge of conservation and while this primarily pertains to underground resources, I think arguably not wasting trees falls into this purview. I’ll leave the debate about the size of the actual impact to others.

Convenience was another one mentioned. Many argued the online members manual which allows for searching to be more convenient than flipping through pages. I’d agree there’s some merit to this argument, but as others countered, that doesn’t mean much if you’re outside cell range and that many caves just happen to be outside cell range. A printed manual is always available, never runs out of batteries and never goes offline. I think there’s merit to both sides of the argument and a lot depends on one’s use case.

But there was an argument I had not given much thought to before and as it continued I started to notice that it was perhaps more demographically split than the others. This argument was about data privacy.

While the argument about the convenience of a printed manual did tend to skew towards the older cavers, that wasn’t strictly true. Even many of the older cavers admitted they hadn’t opened the printed manual in years and preferred to use the online manual.

But the argument about data privacy definitely appeared (in a very non-scientific look) to have two skews: younger and by gender.

At least one, and I believe two of the younger folks advocating for dropping the printed manual expressed shock when they first received their copy of the Members’ Manual and found what they considered personal information, including their home address printed therein. And pretty much all the objections to such easily available information came from women. This gave me cause to think. There’s been a lot of discussion among some NSS members about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Many (and it’s almost always older white men by the way) will argue, “oh anyone is welcome caving!” And while that’s true, I will argue many are ignorant of some of the barriers that might exist. I’ll admit, I had always looked at the Manual as a great way to get in touch with a fellow caver. I mean after all, why not? I’m a good, decent guy. Pretty much most of the cavers I know are. Why would it be a big deal if some random caver wanted to get in touch with me? This discussion about privacy has made me rethink that. My assumptions do not necessarily hold true for those who don’t look like me.

Now, two notes: First, I’m fairly positive, but I can’t be sure and will admit I haven’t looked closely, one has always been able to opt-out of what info went into the printed Manual. I could be wrong. Second, the online method I know positively has that option. And here’s one area where the online manual is superior. It can be constantly updated. This means not only is address info potentially more current, but a member can at any point go in and add, or more importantly, REMOVE their personal information if they so wish. Once the printed Manual goes out, such information is there forever. This presents a risk some members don’t want to have.

Now, I’m going to make a slightly contradictory argument before I come to my final words. As a data professional, on one hand I’m a fan of “make all things digital!” There are definitely benefits, many of which are outlined above. The ability to dynamically update information and access it in many different ways is arguably a huge plus.

BUT, I’m also well aware that while we say, “once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever” the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Anyone seen their Geocities pages lately? And while it’s not true that NASA has lost the Saturn V plans, the reality is, there are computer tapes, especially from the earlier planetary missions that are either hard or even impossible to read. This is partly due to the fact that the magnetic media has decayed but also due to the fact that the hardware has disappeared. This happens in our own lives. How many of my readers have games or other items on floppy disk and no way to read it with a computer in their house?

I mention this because among other things, the NSS is a research organization. This means it’s quite possible that 10, 20 or 50 years from now, someone may come along and want to do research on the membership of the organization. They might want to explore where cavers are from, the type of members, how long folks were members, or for other goals we can’t imagine at this time. While inconvenient to do such research from printed form, I can guarantee that the printed manuals will be readable 50 years from now. And each one will be an annual snapshot. I’m not so sure that the current membership database will be readable 50 years from now (how many folks for example can read a dBase III database?) and I’m even less convinced that annual snapshots will be easily available (that said I’m not privy to how the membership is stored and if it’s always dynamic or if there’s annual snapshots or what).

So in my final words I’d say “there’s no perfect answers” here. I think the arguments for and against a printed manual have merit and both sides need consideration. My preference is a compromise:

  1. Charge members who want the printed Manual an upcharge to help cover costs. Make this opt-IN (i.e you don’t automatically get a manual unless you ask)
  2. In addition, a certain number of Manuals should be archived at research libraries around the country. While all this data is stored at the headquarters, disasters such as fires, water leaks, etc can happen. I think the NSS needs to ensure that data, such as a history of its membership needs to be preserved.
  3. When members join or renew, other than their name and membership number, make all PII data opt-IN for printing and for on-line. Nothing will show in either place unless they specifically allow it. This is the modern world and all members should have the right and ability to control what information of theirs is made public. This is among other things a DEI issue.
  4. Drop any form of on-line PDF (I can’t find one, but several people mentioned they had found one). Ironically this is perhaps the biggest risk in my mind of breach of privacy data; PDFs are easily scraped for data. In addition, do NOT allow a “global” search of the on-line Members’ Manual where all members can be looked up at once. Both this and if there’s an inline PDF make scraping far too easy.
  5. Take into account current data privacy laws (such as in the EU and California) that have a direct impact on the retention of online data.

Basically I’d prefer, if not the best of both worlds, the best we can get: the convenience and permanency of a printed manual as well as the convenience and dynamism of an online manual. Both I feel have their place. But as far as either goes, I think the growing awareness of data privacy practices and the fact that the NSS needs to be aware that for some, this IS a DEI issue, means that the status quo has to change. I’ve said before, “the times they are a changing” and this is an example of that.

Another Case for Diversity

I’ve spoken in the past about why I think diversity is important. For example, understanding genders helps us design better databases and interfaces. But this past weekend another argument for diversity was presented to me. I was reminded that experiences many of us take for granted are often experienced differently by other people.

I’ve spoken in the past that I’m a caver and I teach cave rescue. As a caver I’m a member of the National Speleological Society. This is a great group and it’s dedicated to cavers and those who have a personal or professional interest in caves. It recently added a section for diversity. Some of the discussion behind this occurred on Facebook and it was quite telling in the reaction.

Let me start with saying that cavers are some of the friendliest people I know. It’s far from unheard of for a caver to look in the NSS Members Manual or online and say “Hey, you don’t know me, but I’m passing through your area, can you hook me up with a local cave to visit and maybe some crash space” and it happens. So yes, cavers are quite open and hospitable.

That said the Facebook discussion was an example of many of my fellow cavers missing the mark. The one that stood out in my mind was “Of course people of color can come caving with us. They just need to ask. We never turn anyone away.” And that’s most likely true. But, there are problems there, including people of color knowing they can ask and who to ask and where.

One response I found particularly telling, was a person of color pointing out that in parts of the South, simply walking across a field to a cave was potentially unsafe to them. This was a concept the white cavers couldn’t wrap their mind around and even actively told the person his experience was wrong.

So in this area I do think it’s important for us to reach out to members of groups who might not traditionally cave and invite them to join us.

But, as I said, another reason was presented to me on the past Thursday night. The NSS Education and Diversity Committees had joined together to present a webinar by Beau D. Carroll on Cherokee Syllabary in caves in the Alabama area (the main focus was on Manitou Cave).

Now, I go caving because I think it’s cool, both literally and figuratively. Seeing how the rock changes as you move to different parts of the cave, or seeing formations, and all that is just really interesting. My experiences are shaped by that. I also enjoy taking beginners of all ages caving and seeing their reactions and their often growing enthusiasm. I can quite safely say I’ve literally taken 100s of people on their first caving trip and am proud to know that several have gone on to become great cavers, far outpacing my own experiences.

That’s my experience.

Beau talked a lot about the experiences he, as a member of the Eastern band of Cherokees experienced while exploring in Manitou Cave and other caves. For him, it was both a learning experience (he is working on a PhD in archeology) as he found and translated the Cherokee Syllabary writings in the cave and as a way to connect to his ancestors. To me, this was particularly fascinating for two reasons. The first is the history of the syllabary itself is fascinating. It was developed over a 12 year period by Sequoyah and within 5 years, it’s estimated over 90% of the tribe could read. It’s one of the few writing systems that was developed within recent memory and for which we have somewhat decent records of its development. The second reason is that the writing very much is recording the history of a people whose entire way of live was disrupted by the Trail of Tears. He’s unlocking history and we’re learning from it.

It’s also a very different way of experiencing the dark zone of a cave. It’s not just a matter of “oh this is cool” but “this is someone’s history and culture.” One example stands out to me.

At one point during the Q&A Beau talks about leaving offerings of tobacco for his ancestors inside a cave. I have to admit, initially this offended my sensibilities, especially in light of the NSS motto.

Take Nothing but Pictures, Leave Nothing but Footprints, Kill Nothing but Time

But it forced me to stop and think about my own prejudices. While it’s clear from other comments Beau makes that he and his Cherokee agree on much of the concept of cave preservation, am I right to be offended? Is my concept of “leave nothing but footprints” truly correct? For me, caving is not a spiritual experience, but for him it is. His experience is arguably as valid as mine and I think should be respected also.

In the end it made me realize that a strong reason for a diversity committee isn’t just to “bring others into the caving” but for us to realize how others experience caving. This is equally and perhaps in some ways more important. I don’t think we can truly understand caving until we understand how others experience it also.

I want to thank Bree Jameson for bringing the webinar to my attention and Devra Heyer, NSS Education Committee Chair and Leah Hill, NSS Outreach Chair and Ambassador for the Diversity Committee for putting this all together. It’s a great presentation.

Please, take an hour out of your day and listen and watch. It’s worth it!

Also, please not my latest Redgate Simple-Talk article is now online: PowerShell editors and environments part 1 is now online.