It’s always a red-letter day when Project Information Literacy comes out with a report. As a librarian, I always found them thought-provoking, reassuring (oh good, it’s not just our students who do that), and inspiring models of research methods, setting the bar for both qualitative and quantitative research on a scale most librarians can only dream of. These reports have always been great to share with faculty across the campus who play a key role in learning how to navigate information. It really helps to have solid research when you’re advocating for information literacy instruction with scholars who want evidence.
My attention span hasn’t been great lately. I snapped up some advanced copies of books about tech and society (thank you Netgalley) but it’s all too easy to let my attention slip to checking the news or, worse, to Twitter, home of the social media paradox: the platform depends on attention, while totally obliterating it. Tim Hwang’s new book, Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet, out in mid-October, confirms a suspicion I’ve had for a long time. Targeted advertising doesn’t work – but because it drives so much of what we think of as “the internet” today, its approaching failure threatens to create widespread damage to our entire information infrastructure.
While doing some research, my partner got into a trove of old newspaper content. He idly tried searching family names and found an amazing number of mentions: birth announcements that listed every sibling’s name, meetings and election of officers of local organizations, a new job, the minor injury of a child (now in his seventies) in an accident. There was even a short article about a local man who was mentioned in a textbook my father wrote. Something important to an individual was considered worth sharing with the wider public.
The New York Technical Services Librarians, an organization that has been active since 1923 – imagine all that has happened in tech services since 1923! – invited me to give a talk about bias in algorithms. They quickly got a recording up on their site and I am, more slowly, providing the transcript. Thanks for the invite and all the tech support, NYTSL!
The Bigot in the Machine: Bias in Algorithmic Systems
Abstract: We are living in an “age of algorithms.” Vast quantities of information are collected, sorted, shared, combined, and acted on by proprietary black boxes. These systems use machine learning to build models and make predictions from data sets that may be out of date, incomplete, and biased. We will explore the ways bias creeps into information systems, take a look at how “big data,” artificial intelligence and machine learning often amplify bias unwittingly, and consider how these systems can be deliberately exploited by actors for whom bias is a feature, not a bug. Finally, we’ll discuss ways we can work with our communities to create a more fair and just information environment.
What a bittersweet Earth Day. As the day of protest turns 50, humankind has retreated indoors and nature is cautiously advancing into territory we claimed for Progress. You can see the mountains again from Los Angeles. You can see fish in the canals of Venice. Goats munch garden hedges in Llandudno as they venture into the empty streets.
I meant to keep blogging, but my brain has other ideas. So I think I’ll just riff here a bit about things I’ve been reading about life, libraries, and information issues we face today without adding much analysis to show how they connect. Those sparks of connection seem to be hard to come by these days. So what I’ll post here in the near future, if anything, will be more along the lines of a Commonplace Book, but less intentional.
During our current pandemic, people seem to crave timely and accurate information more than usual. We want to know how to protect our families and ourselves, we want to understand how a virus actually works, we want to know what will happen. That last one is especially evasive: the virus is new, so we can’t be sure how it will behave; we haven’t lived through a pandemic before; and we haven’t faced a major crisis under our current president. We want to keep up. It feels life or death, and bad information – let’s pack the churches on Easter! It’ll be fine! – tilts toward death.
Libraries and the Practice of Freedom in the Age of Algorithm
Abstract: How prepared are librarians, and the students they serve, to navigate technologies that are fundamentally changing how we encounter, evaluate, and create information? In the past decade, a handful of platforms have become powerful information intermediaries that help us search and connect but also are tools to foment disinformation, amplify hate, increase polarization, and compile details of our lives as raw material for persuasion and control. We no longer have to seek information; it seeks us. Project Information Literacy has revealed college students’ lived experience through a series of large-scale research studies. To cap a decade of findings, we conducted a qualitative study that asked students, and faculty who teach them, what they know and how they learn about our current information environment. This talk explores what students have taught us, where education falls short, why it matters, and how time-tested library values – privacy, equity, social responsibility, and education for democracy – can provide a blueprint for creating a socio-technical infrastructure that is more just and equitable in the age of algorithms.
It’s mud season. Not in terms of the calendar – things are still frozen around here – but there’s a political primary happening and that means mud is being flung. It’s nothing new. Happens every time. It just seems more immersive than ever because we get news, opinion, commentary, and outbursts of anger continually through the devices we turn to when we want to relax. Relax? Hah!
In 1985 Neil Postman argued we lived in a world where television, driven by advertising, had turned news into entertainment, which turned politics into a sporting competition and political figures into entertainers. Now we live in a world where our information sources, driven by advertising, make politics a sporting competition, and … yeah, like he said, only now news comes through non-news channels, which add layers of perverse incentives, and entertainment plays on a different set of emotions. Not amusement, but fear and anger, which turn out to be especially useful for keeping us engaged, which converts into advertising on systems that give everyone the chance to participate in the ad market by becoming brands.
There’s a lot going on in the world. Scrolling through my Twitter stream lets me skim across the top of it, dipping in here and there, saving an article, but mostly skimming. It’s oddly comforting, when things seem to be falling apart, to skim the surface.
But a tweet from a provocateur I don’t follow keeps coming up as people who I do follow throw up their Twitter hands (wings?) in frustration. A Library Leader thinks we should should embrace the gig economy, stop hiring full time library workers, and let a thousand gig jobs bloom. Because if you have a lot of gig jobs, you can be your own boss and make lots of dough if you hustle enough! Also, you will free yourself from the tyranny of the stable job and its “lack of flexibility.” Wake up, sheeple! It’s what those youngsters want! “The future workforce has less appetite for monotony as their grandparents.”
No kidding! Life is so not boring when you have a pile of school debt, no home you can afford, a looming climate catastrophe, and the thrill of not knowing what tomorrow will hold! A job? Three jobs? A fantastically exciting puzzle of what to do for child care when you have no idea what your schedule will be tomorrow? So flexible! But that absurdity isn’t what made me pause long enough to try and put my thoughts into words. It was the word “monotony.”