This CityLIS Reflections and Research post is by David Bawden and how Library and Information Science can help in a post-factual society.
The irony is that by now it was supposed to be perfect. For most of my working life in the library/information area, first as a practitioner and then as an academic, the emphasis was on providing access to information. Most of the time, whatever the topic, there was never enough information, and accessing what there was could be difficult. Then came the web, Google, Wikipedia, social media, mobile information, open access, and the rest. So that now, we should be living in an information nirvana, where we have ready access to all the information we could need, for any purpose. And indeed, to an extent, that is what we have.
But we also have, as Luciano Floridi has pointed out, a situation where we can carry a device in our pocket which gives us access to the accumulated knowledge of humanity; and we mostly use it to send each other pictures of cats, and to have arguments with people we don’t know. [Not that I object at all to pictures of cats, but you get the idea.] More seriously, we have fake news, alternative facts, a post-truth and post-factual society, filter bubbles, and all the other accompaniments of what seems to be a deliberate retreat from the rational, knowledge-based world that many of us believed we were naturally headed for.
What to do? Specially, what can be the particular response of the LIS discipline and profession, as distinct from political and social ideas to which we might individually or collectively subscribe. Some early thoughts on this were presented by my colleague Lyn Robinson, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. Debate has, of course, intensified since then. What I hear are, for the most part, calls for more education, more information access, and more information literacy. Now, as someone who has been employed in education for nearly three decades, much of it spent researching, teaching and promoting issues of information access and information literacy, I am certainly not going to argue that we don’t need more of all three. But I have to say, I don’t think they are enough.
On education, I believe (and obviously have a strong personal interest in believing) that the more the better. But one cannot ignore the evidence that some highly educated people are rather stupid, and seem to delight in promoting extra stupidity; nor that many relatively uneducated people are rather wise. So I think that education, while an unarguable public good, isn’t of itself enough.
Information access? Yes, that’s good, on the whole, But, alas, we can see that misinformation and disinformation proliferates just as well as valid information. I was particularly struck by seeing this unfold in the Twitter responses to the Quebec shootings of 29th January, with false information repeated and embellished to meet the need for facts to suit pre-determined conclusions. Over fifteen years ago, Lyn Robinson and I argued, in a paper on libraries and open society, that providing a ‘free flow of information’, with access to all available and relevant sources, is necessary but not sufficient to support an open and democratic society. While only this month, a paper in The Information Society argues cogently that providing access to the ‘right’ information does not in itself bring about desirable policy outcomes. It’s also worth remembering that one of the few things that have been established beyond doubt by several decades of information behaviour research is that everyone – academics and politicians included – deal with information through satisficing and the principle of least effort. And what could involve less effort – physical, technical and mental – than getting from Twitter and Facebook a selection of news and information recommended to fit in with your prior beliefs. Full and unimpeded information access is a necessary precondition for improving things, but let’s not imagine that more of it will be any kind of solution.
Information literacy, then? (Or digital literacy, or metaliteracy, or media literacy, or whatever, it doesn’t matter.). Isn’t more information literacy the answer, getting people to choose good sources, and to reject misinformation and disinformation? Well, up to a point. But, as many people more qualified than me on this topic, have pointed out, it can’t be the full answer. If we take a rather simple understanding of information literacy – the ability to find, access and use appropriate information – then many of those who appear to embody the post-truth era are highly information literate; it’s just that they choose to regard as appropriate only those sources which support their own world view. Perhaps then we just need to focus more on the ‘critical appraisal’ aspect of IL? Not so; our post-factual friends will say, rightly, that they are highly critical of any information that doesn’t support what they know to be right. And anyway, as Lane Wilkinson has pointed out, the most widely-used information literacy frameworks and standards have almost nothing to say about ‘truth’ or ‘facts’. Asking “did media literacy backfire?”, danah boyd has given a thoughtful analysis of the failure of information literacy to enable people to cope with a “very complicated – and in many ways overwhelming – information landscape”. While information literacy is certainly needed more than ever, it may need to change its nature if it is to make the impact it should.
Lyn Robinson and I have argued for the promotion of understanding, as much as the provision of information, as a remit for the library/information disciplines and professions. I think that this might go some way to overcoming the ‘alternate facts’ issue, but in itself it is not a panacea. We take understanding to be a coherently arranged body of truthful information, with the individual items linked by logical and meaningful relations. However, such understanding, if we remove the ‘truthful’ criterion, may be possessed by anyone who has given some thought to an issue, including conspiracy theorists of all kinds, and deniers of everything from climate change and the moon landings to the Holocaust. And these people will all be able to point to a set of coherent information sources to back up their understanding. Perhaps what is needed is the promotion of some form of ‘open understanding’; you don’t really understand something until you have genuinely considered the alternative viewpoints. I think Karl Popper, who argued that we should subject our ideas to the most severe criticism we can muster, would approve of that approach. It is hard work, though, for any of us, and probably unappealing to the conspiracy theorists and deniers.
So, what should we, the LIS profession and discipline, do now? I have no convincing answer; at least not one that offers an immediate quick-fix. Certainly, it will involve a combination of carrying on with our information access/literacy work, plus activities on a wider canvas, with a specific ethical commitment to opposing the post-fact/post-truth nexus. As Georgina Cronin says, in her wide-ranging analysis of what librarians can do in a post-truth society: “Educate. Vote. Protest. Whatever it is, do it”.
Perhaps one specific, and important, role for LIS, actually quite a traditional one, is to keep the information environment, or that part of it which may be to a degree under our influence if not control, in a clean, tidy and welcoming state. This will involve a variety of activities, from reporting abuse on social media, to helping to remove fake news, to adding citations to Wikipedia, and much more. In the new information environment this process, which Floridi has dubbed the moral duty to both clean and to restore the infosphere to a proper ethical status, is both very difficult and very important.
But I am not too disconcerted by the lack of any immediate quick-fix. If Luciano Floridi is right, then we are living through an ICT-led ‘fourth revolution’ (following those associated with Copernicus, Darwin and Freud), leading to a radically new ‘hyper-historical’ information-dominated environment; certainly that fits with the experience of those of us who have been around the information world for some time. And if that is so, then we should expect to have to take a while to work out our response: as danah boyd says, “the path forward is hazy … no simple band aid will work”. And Floridi has commented more than once that, precisely because the changes we are encountering are so great, so is the need to step back and think calmly, philosophically, and at length, about how to react, rather than seek a rapid response.
So, if we in LIS have no immediate answer to the problems of the new information environment, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe, in being troubled how best to proceed we are reacting in the right way, and our ultimate contribution will be all the more effective. Immediate action certainly, but please let’s back it up by long term reflection.