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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