An Unspoken Prescription for our Information Elites

By evolow

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the first day of the Avant Museology Symposium at the Brooklyn Museum. It was an experience my wife and I went into with little foreknowledge of the contents. We knew that the general subject matter would relate to the future of curation and exhibition design. I knew that the most inscrutable (least scrutable?) Art History department lecturer from my undergrad alma mater would be in attendance, and I knew there would be some famous curators there. All fuzzy notions. The event happened to fall three days after the United States unexpectedly elected Donald Trump as its next President, and the firmly liberal or left wing audience and speakers at the symposium had not recovered from the initial shock of that upset. In his opening remarks, artist and founder of e-flux (the organization responsible for the symposium) Anton Vidokle quipped that his friends were “depressed and catatonic.” There was indeed a feeling of catatonia or paralysis in the air.

A lecture by critic Boris Groys provided a retreat into the high-minded world of modern art theory, considering the question of whether museums provide art with too much protection or too little, calling up in the process the ghosts of Kasimir Malevich, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, and perhaps most of all Walter Benjamin.

Then the Americans took the stage. Or rather, two Americans and one Briton, though the effect of sudden westernization after two thoroughly Russian speakers was jarring. Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak and Chief Curator Nancy Spector sat on either side of artist Liam Gillick and discussed the (by their admission) confounding results of a 2008 group show at the Guggenheim Museum curated by Spector and featuring Gillick. The show, titled theanyspacewhatever, was a bold decision on Spector’s part to give over the space of the Guggenheim entirely to a group of ten critically acclaimed contemporary artists, with the idea that they collectively would transform the space in ways that challenge the dictates of the institution. Flipping through a slideshow of installation pieces, Gillick and Spector conceded that the exhibition lapsed into a collection of individual works rather than the grand collaborative statement originally intended. There was a wistful, unmoored feeling in the air as these three very established art world figures discussed further curatorial adventures, all the while projecting the feeling that they wanted to burst the bubble of their status and do something. The preview for the panel in the symposium program does indeed use the words “outreach” and “progressive,” but the three speakers, clad all in black and seated onstage on chic modern chairs, appeared comically distant from the America that had a few days earlier so startled and dismayed them. Between them and me lay three rows of mostly unclaimed reserved chairs. The audience, of course, appeared uniformly academic and/or artistic, skewed heavily toward age groups under 30 and over 50. The conversation lurched closer to the present political situation when the panelists called for questions from the audience. I almost spoke up, but held my tongue, cowed by the presence of my inscrutable old Modern Art professor and the knowledge of my own plainspokenness amidst all this abstraction.

The alien atmosphere reasserted itself with the ascent of famed Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist to the podium. Rail thin, the smartest dressed of all, he delivered his prewritten lecture at high speed with head bowed and a thick, not-quite-German accent.

I left the symposium stimulated and happy, but with the firm conviction that the star curators and critics I’d seen on stage could not be further removed from the benighted America they wished to reach out to. They might indeed be actively repellant. It made me sad to realize this, that for all their intellect this critical upper crust could not reach into the center, that they must in fact recuse themselves.

I thought of the election, the moral failure of the liberal elite, the wealthy centrists to blame, and the wealthy people I encounter every day at my fancy restaurant job. Then I realized a directive for the intellectual, artistic class.

My restaurant is owned by a charismatic, creative semi-celebrity chef, married to an artist and friends with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Paloma Picasso. Yesterday, Camille Pissarro’s great-grandson tipped me $10 for fetching his coat. The balance of the customer base, those who aren’t members of the creative elite, is made up of financiers, dentists, and attorneys. They don’t perform academic or creative work, but they are all too glad to express their appreciation of creative and unusual cooking. If they can claim a friendship with the aforementioned chef, even better. My realization is that these people, the plutocrats who so disproportionately dictate society’s course, rely upon the creative elite for validation. They desperately need the friendship, approval, or at least output of the creatively blessed to give their lives texture and meaning. They need to know that when they left this or that Ivy to pursue a JD or MBA, they did not somehow lose out to their friends and classmates who got MFAs instead. They must beat back the encroaching darkness of intellectual oblivion and moral bankruptcy. My recommendation to their more enlightened validators, then, is simply to wield that influence. Withhold validation. Nudge your moneyed acquaintances left, or let them suffer.

On the way home from the symposium, I found my confidence growing, wishing I had spoken up earlier. I decided to take my notes home and send an encouraging, clarifying email to Spector, Pasternak, and Gillick. Then I found that none of their email addresses are publicly available. The end.

Observations of an NYPL Neophyte

By evolow

Last week, I made my first proper visit ever to the main branch (any branch) of the New York Public Library. Given that I am already more than halfway through my first semester of library school, this milestone came shamefully late. It was an occasion for me to admit that I have admired the mission of public libraries only at a distance, and an opportunity to compare reality with theoretical ideals that I’ve spent the last couple of months cogitating. I was particularly curious about the mission of public accessibility and cultural representation, still feeling very much the outsider despite my academic immersion in the field. I came away with a mixture of positive and negative impressions, colored very much by my temperament, and usefully contrasted by my wife Ni’s more bold and outgoing relationship with the institution.

Our primary destination was the majestic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, with an eye to visiting the less glamorous Mid Manhattan Library after. The experience of ascending the steps to the Schwarzman Building ought to be familiar to anyone who has visited the similarly-styled Beaux-Arts environs of the Metropolitan Museum, and that similarity is borne out in the overall experience of exploring the building for the first time. Heavy tourist traffic flows in and out through designated in and out doors. A sleepy security guard gives the contents of your bag a cursory glance on a folding table, and elderly volunteers await your questions off to the side of the reverberating stone lobby. We received a straightforward instruction to go up to room 315 for library card registration.

That process was blessedly easy given that I had pre-registered with a little bit of personal information online. All it took was handing over my NYC ID card and allowing the employee at the card desk to designate that as my library card. Had I not registered in advance, a designated card-registration computer terminal stood at the ready nearby. This smooth experience was a marked contrast to a previous aborted attempt to get a card at the Jefferson Market branch in Greenwich Village. An impromptu visit to that elegant branch had ended in frustration with ambiguous instructions and an uncooperative computer. The Jefferson Market branch is an elegant one in an affluent, centrally-located neighborhood, and I am neither cognitively challenged nor unable to speak English. Therefore, despite the ease of my registration in Midtown, I can’t help but imagine that the process can be daunting under less ideal circumstances. Now in possession of a working NYPL card, I remained at a loss as to what to do with it.

The flow of traffic pulled Ni and me straight into the newly reopened Rose Main Reading Room. Tourists clustered near the entrance and circled the perimeter as if walking the aisles of a cathedral, while patrons sat with computers both public and private like supplicants in the nave. For me, that same grand cathedral sense of being on the outside of things pervaded. I was there as a spectator. However, the activities I saw taking place at the main tables were not esoteric, and resembled nothing so much as a Manhattan cafe with a lax policy toward laptop-squatters. I was heartened to see a postal worker comfortably streaming video on his phone. As a beautiful public space, this functions nicely. Reference volumes fill shelves along the walls, and I was surprised at the amount of material in languages other than English. My impression is that the librarians approached the population of this banner space with a progressive eye. The first shelves I perused contained mostly Latin American poetry. I stumbled upon some Telugu dictionaries, shelves full of overviews of social issues, and most impressively of all, an Ainu-English dictionary.

Across the hall, on the east side of the third floor, another reading room stood in stark contrast to the airy beauty and diverse representation of the Rose room, the windowless walls lined with portraits mostly of late 18th century American aristocrats. A feeling of being in a rich stranger’s house pervaded (like visiting the Fricke or Morgan Library), and persisted as I explored further, finding numerous locked doors labeled for specific use by researchers. One door, instead of an RFID-activated lock had a sign reading “Center for Scholars and Writers, please knock”, but my timidity outweighed my curiosity and sense of my own scholarly or writerly credentials. The barriers to entry were for the most part understandable and reasonable given the building’s status as a tourist destination, but I was disappointed to find the Dorot Jewish Division roped off with a sign cordoning the area off for researchers only. I wanted to poke around in search of information on the town in Belarus that my great grandfather came from, but this evidently would require more planning and knowledge of library procedures.

I couldn’t help but feel that our deepest browsing took place in the gift shop. Ni studied several posters at length and settled on a US map so she could get a better handle on the 50 states. Strangely, that which was for sale felt most permissible to touch. I can’t have been alone in this feeling, because the gift shop was more crowded than any other area we had visited. Clearly the Schwarzman Building’s functionality tended to two opposing extremes, those of public attraction and temple of deep research. The quotidian book-lending element of a public library was markedly absent or held at a procedural distance. Clearly I needed to complete the picture by visiting the Mid-Manhattan Library.

The atmosphere there differed vastly, as expected. A patina of (over)use lay over everything, from the worn wall-to-wall carpeting up to the Cold War-era foam ceiling tiles. The smell of bleach hung in the air from a bathroom being cleaned. Clearly nothing here would come to harm from my browsing. The fiction section was amply populated with colorful trade paperbacks from authors I’d never heard of, a welcome reminder that purely entertaining literature exists outside of the English major canon. This catalogue straightforwardly served a broad public that included me, too–I found myself a copy of Demons by Dostoevsky and got out. No fuss, no muss.

The contrast between these two manifestations of the NYPL suggests to me that there is work to be done in making higher-level library functions more intuitive and welcoming to the general public. Schwarzman’s rarified museum atmosphere belies the truth that its resources are for public consumption. I’m convinced that there’s untapped potential both in the library and the public itself, and that socially relevant research may take place at a greater scale outside of the academe if only some perceptual barriers were lifted.

Red Sails, Data Ocean

By evolow

In the 18th volume of Progressive Librarian, William F Birdsall calls for “A Political Economy of Librarianship”, and, by extension, of information. He lays out an incredibly concise and apparently prescient critique of the ideology that governs information commerce. Fifteen years on, I’d like to use this reflective piece to take stock of the info tech economy, the problems that have developed since Birdsall’s writing, and the work that remains to be done.

Birdsall’s appraisal of the “ideology of information technology” consists of seven bullet points that in essence describe a free-market capitalist system in which information is the main form of capital, and laborers and consumers adapt to play their part within the system of information capital. In summation, he writes “the ideology of information technology promotes a fatalism that encourages political passivity by claiming that our fates are determined by inevitable technological change, the ‘natural’ laws of the free market, and the uncontrollable gale forces of global creative destruction.”

This fatalism has become all the more apparent as its fomenters and practitioners have blossomed into a recognizable social class, the “knowledge worker who is prepared to go anywhere in the world to sell her or his skills” and “is expected to have no loyalties to the local community and its public institutions.” In 2001, these information capitalists would have largely resembled the audience in the famous Steve Ballmer “developers” chant video, essentially a room full of brainy dweebs associated mainly with producing software for office workers. In the late 90s/early 00s infosphere, these guys existed across an unbridgeable divide in the popular imagination from the ‘cool’ computer geek––think of the computer hacker “Invisigoth” from The X-Files, the cast of The Matrix, developers of violent FPS games like Half-Life and Deus Ex, et cetera. In the intervening decade and a half, however, the sweaty billionaire and grimy hacker poles of information professionalism have converged, arriving at a consumerist, bourgeois, and superficially cosmopolitan middle ground. What happened?

I suspect that the information technology industry circa 2000, though lucrative, was still small enough to be populated with, if I may be glib, ‘true geeks’—people interested in computing for computing’s sake. Since then, the growth of the information job market outpaced the ability of the education system to fill demand for skilled labor, and the user-centered turn in the industry’s direction (embodied particularly in social networking and the parasite economy of on-demand service apps) has changed both the aesthetics and the soft skill set of the profession. With aestheticization have come a shared “clean” design language and a valorization of “innovators” like the deified Steve Jobs, his Olympian ancestor Nikola Tesla, and his earthly successor Elon Musk. Rank and file employees, for their part, are fed through purely vocational for-profit “boot camp” programs like General Assembly, with no objective besides securing a comfortable middle class career.

The “knowledge worker” that Birdsall posits serves to produce and control the distribution of the knowledge capital that is the lifeblood of this new economy. Birdsall’s second bullet point in the ideology of information technology states, “in the knowledge-based economy, only the marketplace should determine how information, its primary raw material, is generated, priced, and distributed.” Media piracy temporarily ruptured the boundaries of this strict, mercantil-ish system, but the old order has to some degree reasserted itself through the sanctification of streaming, subscription-based models. The piracy issue highlighted the important distinction that information, unlike bullion, is infinitely reproducible and distributable. While net neutrality stands, the channels for free information remain blessedly open. Libraries in this political economy ought naturally to serve as hubs for free information (duh), but suffer from the content-mill stranglehold of tech giants and media verticals on production and the mere visibility and convenience of commercial competitors in the information market.

On the content-production front, I’d like to point to the vaunted Library of Congress project to archive every tweet ever. This is a small but important step toward (being glib again) the socialization of social media. LOC recognizes the cultural relevance of platforms like Twitter, and Twitter stands to gain a sheen of legitimacy and prestige. On this front and that of boosting libraries’ visibility and usability, however, there remain labor issues to be tackled. The former involves wresting the rights to content by freelance writers or creators from media properties that exist outside the library-compatible worlds of traditional newspapers, magazines, and journals. The latter requires sweeping change to the education and training of information laborers.

The aforementioned crass social class of knowledge workers exists and continues to grow because the free market has been quicker to adapt to employers’ and technology’s demands for skilled work than the conventional education system. Legions of developers enter the market possessing and desiring nothing more than the mechanistic skillset to perform their role and the ability to adapt to incremental changes in the technologies they use. Without merely becoming more training camps for this class of laborer, the education system must step in and give ideological structure to this economy. Critical thinking and a small measure of altruism are needed, lest the all of the most skilled laborers continue to be drawn to corporate salaries over public sector work. I see a small seed of hope for this in the interdisciplinary framework of Critical Information Studies proposed by Siva Vaidhyanathan, with some challenge presented by the task of bringing it from the postgraduate level down to the more economically useful grounding of secondary or even primary education. As generations of young people grow up with ever increasing levels of immersion in information technology, it will not do to delay in teaching some critical thinking about just where all that information comes from, and what will become of it down the road. Librarianship will not replace knowledge professions from within the corporate sphere, but it has a lot of growing to do before it earns its rightful place in restoring values to the information economy.

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