7 The Concept of “Agent”

Many disciplines have specialized job titles to distinguish among the people who organize resources (for example: cataloger, archivist, indexer, curator, collections manager…).[1]

We use the more general word, agent, for any entity capable of autonomous and intentional organizing effort, because it treats organizing work done by people and organizing work done by computers as having common goals, despite obvious differences in methods.

We can analyze agents in Organizing Systems to understand how human and computational efforts to arrange resources complement and substitute for each other. We can determine the economic, social, and technological contexts in which each type of agent can best be employed. We can determine how the Organizing System allocates effort and costs among its creators, users, maintainers and other stakeholders.

A group of people can be an organizing agent, as when a group of people come together in a service club or standards body technical committee in which the members of the group subordinate their own individual agency to achieve a collective good.

We also use the term agent when we discuss interactions with Organizing Systems. The entities that most typically access the contents of libraries, museums, or other collections of physical resources are human agentsthat is, people. In other Organizing Systems, such as business information systems or data repositories, interactions with resources are carried out by computational processes, robotic devices, or other entities that act autonomously on behalf of a person or group.

In some Organizing Systems, the resources themselves are capable of initiating interactions with other resources or with external agents. This is most obvious with human or other living resources, where a critical part of the design of any Organizing System with them is determining what kinds of interactions they should be encouraged or allowed to initiate. We will return to this issue after we discuss the design of interactions with ordinary resources that are passive, the situation in most Organizing Systems that involve physical resources.

Other resources that can initiate interactions are resources augmented with sensory, computational or communication capabilities that enable them to obtain information from their environment and then do something useful with it. You are probably familiar with RFID tags, which enable the precise identification and location of physical resources as they move through supply chains and stores, and with “smart” devices like Nest thermostats that learn how to program themselves.

  1. For precise distinctions, see the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational outlook handbooks at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos065.htm and http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos068.htm and http://www.michellemach.com/jobtitles/realjobs.html.


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