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It's the Attention Economy, and It's Stupid

A few more thoughts about access to information as a core value of librarianship . . .

July 4, 2018
 
 

This coda to my last blog post is, in part, inspired by John Warner’s latest discussion of replacing human teachers responding to writing with machines that can read for structure and grammar but not for meaning, because meaning is not required to prove you can write. (In fact, according to the people selling this program, being able to write nonsense according to formula is proof you can write well! As if writing and meaning are separate categories.)

It’s also inspired by a piece in the New Yorker about people who believe the earth is flat and have the evidence to prove it – because there’s an abundance of evidence to prove just about anything you want, right now, and being able to “do the research yourself” is somehow affirming, a form of liberty. You don’t have to trust traditional authorities. You can find the truth yourself, online, and you’ll find a community of people who will agree with you to confirm your free thought.

And this is probably also influenced by a fascinating study on how Evangelicals read the news the way they study the bible, recently discussed in a Columbia Journalism Review article.

Basically, access to information in abundance so you can find "evidence" for whatever you want isn’t what’s needed, it’s access to good information and some sense of what you can trust – and that’s where things get complicated. Where there are great divides about basic epistemology and a large number of public voices telling large numbers of people not to trust traditional institutions like journalism, science, or scholarly work, it’s impossible to agree on what’s “good.” And without trust we’re just bumbling through thickets of stuff, much of it stripped of context clues by aggregators. (If you aren’t following Mike Caulfield’s work, I recommend it.)

And that’s not all, as they used to say in the Veg-o-Matic ad. We have an information economy that depends on both volume and attention. That leaves traditional means of establishing truth (to the best of our knowledge) not only at a disadvantage, it pushes traditionalists to speed things up, increase their numbers, and jazz things up to get attention at the risk of corrupting what we know and how we know. We’re publishing so much science and scholarship today to prove we deserve jobs and grants that nobody has time read it. Every reporter is expected to file more stories 24/7 and add video and maintain a social media presence, and those metrics are analyzed like goat entrails to discern your career’s future. Who has time to do deep research or in-depth reporting or even to read and reflect with such high demands for churning out content? Who has the right to decide for us what to read if not the Feed, the algorithm, the app that’s tugging at our sleeve demanding attention?

Oddly enough, librarians have been between this rock and hard place for a long, long time. One of the earliest debates in public libraries was about whether librarians or readers should determine the purpose of the library. Was it a place that would educate and elevate citizens with improving and educational material, or should readers have a say in what they wanted to read? Censorship of salacious, inflammatory, or unedifying material was common library practice for decades, though librarians quickly learned they wouldn’t have much public support if they were too bossy about what the public should read. Curate books, but let readers choose, too.

The American Library Association formally rejected censorship when it adopted the Library Bill of Rights in 1939, which urges librarians to “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” Written originally by a former journalist-turned-librarian in 1938, it has become foundational to librarians’ identity. (But that was not always so. It’s significant that when a professor of English literature implored librarians to speak out against book burning and censorship in Germany in 1933, the association decided not to take action. There’s an issue of Library Trends that has a lot of interesting articles on the subject.)

This debate kept going. A major postwar study, the Public Library Inquiry, urged librarians to embrace a more useful role in society by serving businesses and policymakers instead of providing cheap thrills for the unwashed. The public continued to assert an interest in choosing their own reading. That debate exploded in the 1980s when “give ‘em what they want” became a battle cry for those who defended purchasing multiple copies of high-demand books, scandalizing those who thought the library should stock the classics (which, of course, they still did, because some people still want to read Jane Austen and Charles Dickens). But public libraries began to take lessons from retail and it’s now common for the public to be referred to as “customers.”

In academic libraries, “give ‘em what they want” has also taken root in a combination of paying for access to pretty much any article ever published instead of owning things (a perfectly reasonable thing to do as journals go online and increase in number). Book curation is suffering from a crisis of both budgets and confidence. It turns out a lot of books librarians have bought over the years haven’t been checked out, so it seems reasonable to simply lease large collections of ebooks. You may not give ‘em what they want, but you give them plenty of choice and you’re not on the hook for choosing poorly.

This is fine in a world in which students who make completely false claims are deemed good writers by a machine that can recognize form but doesn’t care about meaning. When Facebook removes a news article with political content because machines can’t tell the difference between journalism and campaign ads but knows their brand is in trouble. When profitable local news organizations are being harvested for parts by private equity firms and the only way to survive is to appeal to the great engines of the new data economy fed by hidden auctions where “eyeballs” are bought and sold every second in a weird market of high-frequency attention trading. Access to our attention degrades the value of information as a way of making sense of the world.

Really paying attention takes time and judgment. If access to information is ever going to matter, it has to be decoupled from a demand for more, more, more productivity and more, more, more metrics of attention to feed the ravenous broken beast we’ve created.

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