the new passivity

Well Kevin and I are best friends. We have a real disagreement. He is interested in what technology wants and I’m like, “what do I want?” In a nutshell. It is convenient for Facebook to have no privacy. Because it will allow Facebook to roam more freely. Is that good for democracy? Is that good for intimacy? -Sherry Turkle, The Internet’s Not Grown Up

These are questions worth mulling over, and remind me of some research by danah boyd, showing how teens define privacy in networked publics. As it turns out, teens have a nuanced understand of privacy because they live in social situations that have unequal transparency. Calculated understandings of privacy enable them to perform  in social spaces, fitting messages to the technological medium and selecting which media to use depending on how private things need to be. Following that, statements like the one below make a lot of sense. It is the issue above, but writ large:

The demand to participate can become coercive, exhausting the very collective faculties it officially celebrates. While interactivity can be imagined as the “like” or “retweet,” it also encompasses the “agree to terms” button. The supposedly democratic call to dialogue and participation can turn sour when people have good reasons and desires to retreat. -Jonathan Sterne, What if Interactivity is the New Passivity?

Often, non-participation isn’t desirable, so strategic publicity is a useful option, which is the response boyd sees in teens. Sterne’s tougher point is that “interactivity” has become as coercive as the “passivity” of media of old (TV, Radio). Again, it’s a question of uneven transparency, so the call to engage which can’t be ignored has to be shunted to the side. If the internet wants to grow up, it needs to be put in its place, such that the medium is no longer the message, which is handier for us than it is for the makers of communication technologies:

Slow Media are discursive and dialogic. They long for a counterpart with whom they may come in contact. The choice of the target media is secondary. In Slow Media, listening is as important as speaking. Hence ‘Slow’ means to be mindful and approachable and to be able to regard and to question one’s own position from a different angle. -Benedikt Köhler, Sabria David, Jörg Blumtritt, The Slow Media Manifesto

This is the opposite of the McLuhanistic arms race that is the primary driver of information technology today. Increasingly, the medium has become the message, and as a result, the target media has gained primacy, making content conform to the medium. If we are serious about information literacy, it is not acceptable to only teach critical thinking about content, but also the content packaging. Interactivity is the new passivity, and if we are going to help people make sense of it, then it’s time to slow things down when it suits us.

Why moblie isn’t always the answer.

Another disconnect surfaces among IT professionals and faculty when specifying essential technologies in the classroom. IT staff believe that mobile devices hold a much larger potential than faculty do. For example, whereas 44 percent of IT staff identified the smart phone as essential, only 12 percent of faculty chose that. -Dian Schaffhauser

This is from the end of an article entitled “The Problem with Classroom Technology? Faculty Can’t Use it.” I don’t think can’t is the answer. From that sentence alone, it looks like a faculty choice. It brings back the old saying that “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I’m sure that faculty have good reasons to not adopt new technologies, outside of reticence or fear. Let’s look at how teens (current and future undergraduate students) use cell phones:

Some of the more public-facing features are used the least, including general internet use, social networking and the severely-underused-by-teens feature of email. All of the most-used features tend to be personal or private. Among adults, Pew finds that almost 1/3 have smartphones, 87% of them email, and 68% of them go online with it, although 59% of smartphone users go online mostly with another device. The user groups skew towards younger adults, with higher incomes and higher levels of education. There are two factors going on here: use and access. Teens use mobile devices for private communication, and that trend likely applies to adults as well. Secondly, data-enable mobile devices are expensive, so access is not universal. Stepping into a classroom and requiring an expensive device already alienates those who do not have them. Beyond that, it asks students to use a personal communication device to become part of a public project. Why is this such an issue? Consider danah boyd’s research on teen’s understanding of privacy. Keep in mind that they will be adults someday.

Throughout these conversations, teens consistently come back to the importance of control and personal agency. They believe privacy has to do with their ability to control a social situation, how information flows, and where and when they can be observed by others. -Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teen’s Attitudes, Practices and Strategies. pg.5.

Personally, I do not know many faculty or staff who communicate with students over personal channels, instead, we all tend to rely on institutional ones (campus emails, office phones, after class, during office hours). Because of these well-established social norms, asking students to engage the class on a personal mobile device seems out of line. Only 12% of faculty choosing to be more open with their understanding of the social norms of online communication is understandable. It is not that they cannot use them. Instead, they choose not to.

Why librarians don’t need PhDs, but need the sublime.

The fairy tale is marvelous not only for the extrodinary adventure it narrates but also because these always stay the same, forever identical to the point of seeming unique.

Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, 94.

I’m going to put out a word I have no real place to use. Reification. It came out of the haze of my undergraduate learning, likely from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. But the fallacy of reification is to mistake an idea for a thing. I feel like this is one of the biggest issues with Jeff Trzeciak’s proposal to replace librarians with PHDs and IT folks. The idea is managerial: put people out there who know the information already, but that’s a tricky idea:

Unlike the traditional, Kantian sublime, which supposedly restored us to a knowledge of our own freedom of will and mind in the face of the infinite and amazing, here the entire vast machine of knowledge serves only to remind us that we’re trapped within an inescapable totality.

Librarians, especially reference and instruction folks, have a funny relationship with information and knowledge. We know that information and data are things out there we can find, but stop at the threshold of reifying our own knowledge. By doing so we are able to negotiate with our patrons (yes, a student is a patron: their tuition pays our salaries), and any instruction or assistance becomes a collaborative effort. It allows us to move outside of the imagined totality of reified knowledge that the empirical sublime uses to ensnare.

Looks like the kids will be alright after all.

Wikipedia, for the bootstraps.

It appears that this result is consistent with Head and Eisenberg’s (2010) finding, demonstrating that most students use Wikipedia anyway. That is, they merely do not inform their professors that they use Wikipedia and avoid citing it in their papers.


The two top reasons for not verifying information were Wikipedia use for obtaining background information and Wikipedia use for obtaining an idea of a topic. Other highly rated reasons were the following: overall good enough content, Wikipedia use due to easy accessibility, the need for time to check with other sources, Wikipedia use due to convenience, and need for mental effort to check with other sources.

Finally, students are not discouraged to use Wikipedia, despite their professors’ discouragement of Wikipedia use in general. Interestingly, students’ observing their peers’ experiences with Wikipedia was correlated to their use of Wikipedia, their consideration of Wikipedia as one of the top Web sources and their satisficing with Wikipedia. Despite the need for further empirical studies, it appears that the results are consistent with recent studies, demonstrating that peer endorsement increasingly becomes important in their acceptance of information sources to the Net generation, as opposed to formal authorities in networked environments (Flanagin and Metzger, 2008; Ito, et al., 2009). Further research is needed to examine whether and how social endorsement plays out in students’ credibility judgment of social information sources.

Is there really a need for further research, once you’ve verified what is generally true about information seeking behavior? I’m not a digital native/of the net generation (born 1981, if you have to know), but I feel like the focus on the specific resource misses the point. Students always learn from other students and in their own experience that using Wikipedia to get a quick overview works fine, and that they will get in trouble if they cite it. Alternatively, taking a hit on the paper might just be less important than other things they’re doing. They learn from their peers, much in the same way that if I have a question about librarianship, I ask other librarians around me before I consult the literature, because most of the time, peers and local practice matter more. Besides, we’re social creatures. We all love a good chat.

The Flood and canon-less context

Gleick’s book has an epilogue entitled “The Return of Meaning,” expressing the concerns of people who feel alienated from the prevailing scientific culture. The enormous success of information theory came from Shannon’s decision to separate information from meaning. His central dogma, “Meaning is irrelevant,” declared that information could be handled with greater freedom if it was treated as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness. -Freeman Dyson’s review of Glieck‘s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

The idea that information is something that can free of meaning works against the goals of information literacy. It makes me think of art. The only way to “get” it is by one of two ways: read up on it, or go see a lot of it. These are not bad things in themselves, but they require more time and effort than a lot of folks have. At Art Fag City, Paddy Johnson makes the case that in a culture where intellectual default is institutionalized deconstruction paired with populist leanings, “it’s worth mentioning that one of the few ways we afford expertise in a culture that rejects the canon is by demonstrating that we have more work experience than others.” To Johnson, the result is an emphasis on consuming a high volume of art as a marker of expertise over having a good eye for quality, although she and everyone knows that volume only goes so far, regardless. What volume does get you, above and beyond anything else, is context in he absence of an official canon.

Information literacy should be the art of helping students build up a context. What strikes me as odd about the ACRL information literacy standards is how little they discuss an understanding of context (especially the student’s own) before jumping into the “determination of extents of information,” perhaps it would be wise to back up and ask students to examine the whole field in front of them, even the small parts they already know. The resulting context gives them a chance to develop their taste for information, whereas a contextless search leaves them floundering with the results. In this case, meaning is highly relevant in the information retrieved because it anchors everything in a context: a ongoing conversation that envelops research. By founding information literacy outside of context, we strip the most important part from true literacy: meaning.

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.

Data dreams and what it means to be a good librarian.

Personalization is the holy grail of education technology, but it can’t be achieved without mechanisms for rich data about each student’s learning. And that data must be persistently stored and appropriately accessible. Matthew neatly turns the traditional metaphor of a “digital locker” on its head by replacing it with the “data backpack” — a container that goes everywhere the student goes.

It sounds nice, being able to keep track of kids so they don’t fall through the cracks. But quickly it is revealed that this O’Reilly Radar blog post is based off of  a white paper written by Lauren B. Resnik and Larry Berger, supported by the Wireless Corporation. It was just acquired by News Corp. If the amount of editorial discretion that News Corp.  tends to exercise goes into educational software used by 3 million students, it is time to be weary of the result. Still, the real question worth raising is this: why is data the holy grail of personalization? This the fallacy of Facebook. When your friendships become wholly data-driven, you lose something along the way.

All of this resonated when I read a blog post Michael Stephens wrote about his Office Hours column  in Library Journal:

I’ve received some good feedback, including this from Nann Blaine Hilyard, director of the Zion-Benton Public Library in Zion, IL:

Michael’s closing paragraph recalls something that Lawrence Clark Powell wrote:   “A good librarian is not a social scientist, a documentalist, a retrievalist, or an automaton. A good librarian is a librarian: a person with good health and warm heart, trained by study and seasoned by experience to catalyze books and people.”

I was one of the lucky ones and received a world-class education, not because of technology, but because of the people who taught me. In libraries as in education, the increased use of technology does not replace the presence of thoughtful, considerate, and well trained librarians. People make personalization, data does not.