Libraries: Raising the Numerator

Something has gone wrong in the organisation, production, and maintenance of things. This is no pathetic fallacy, for it’s not just that we constantly confront the world of commodified objects as a world of social relations. It’s that we confront that world of commodified objects as a hostile world of social relations of hatred, coercion, competition, boredom, emiseration, and exploitation. The entire built world of capitalism is a literal record of hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions, stacked millions of hours high. And it is that which surrounds us, at all moments. -Evan Calder Williams, Hostile Object Theory

The tone here is pretty angry, which is something I’m less likely to stand behind, but this is worth considering in the context of libraries, public, academic, or otherwise. That is to say, the social role of libraries: a polite buffer zone that pulls our resources out of the social-coded world of commodities and into a different social order. At he very least, something along the tones of Lewis Hyde‘s Common as Air which follows in the Lessig tradition of calling for open intellectual commons, but spends more time talking about the legal framework and cultural understanding of “the commons.” Lately, Google has fallen to this increasing commodification of what was mythically thought of as the “free” internet. It’s search has fallen to a plethora of useless websites when it comes to reference questions, and wikipedia is still holding strong as the quick-and-dirty but still helpful internet reference of choice. Essentially, I feel like the increase in commodified reference is the result of Google posing to be merely an aggregator as opposed to a curator, and as a result, it suffers from other companies gaming it to race to the bottom line. When our information is turned into a raw commodity, it takes on the characteristics that Willams talks about, “hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions.” Sadly, even the Harvard Business Review is savvy enough to make a similar point:

Consider a mini-case study: America. America’s got a (major) competitiveness problem: its goods simply aren’t in enough demand by the rest of the world — and it isn’t all the fault of China deliberately keeping its currency undervalued. More deeply, it’s the fault of a three decades spent chasing lowest common denominators, by any means necessary, instead of elevating numerators even slightly. To get serious about igniting its exports, America’s going to have to elevate the numerator, setting incentives for a new generation of products, services, markets, industries that produce stuff that’s envied, treasured, and adored by people across the globe. -Umair Haque, The New Calculus of Competition

I’m skeptical of this for one reason: Haque predicates the raising of the numerator on the happiness that a given product can achieve, and puts this in front of creating an enduring benefit to society. But information and the creation of new knowledge is not really a happiness game, it is ideally part of the “creating an enduring benefit to society” game. Happiness that can be bought is of a dubious sort, and while buying and selling is not inherently evil, the profit motive rarely produces the effect that Haque is after. More often, it races to the lowest common denominator, and likely will continue to do so.  It’s our job to raise the numerator, and the best way to do that is to remove the production of knowledge and access to information from the marketplace. This might apply more to publicly funded libraries, but all of them have to potential to cut information out of the cycle of buy/sell that is closely monitored by the strictures of intellectual property, interrupting the record of hate, drudgery, longing, and withheld explosions by providing a place for those things to be without the expectations that formerly encumbered them.