Odds & Beginnings

odds and endsI started to type “odds and ends” as a title for this post, and then had to make a pun. Forgive me, but this is my first post-IHE entry. It has been odd to not have a weekly deadline breathing down my neck, having been blogging for food since 2009. But it has also been freeing and I just have to get used to that freedom and use it for good. Here are some things I’m doing and reading.

So, this is happening – I get to go back to ER&L, a gathering of technically-inclined and savvy librarians in my long-ago stomping ground of Austin, Texas this March. I get to talk about the Project Information Literacy study I’ve been working on with researcher extraordinaire and PI Alison Head and Twitter maven and all-around-wordsmith-and-scholar Margy MacMillan. This is what I promised to talk about:

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.

The report comes out next week. I think it’s a worthy addition to a body of research that I’ve admired for … well, as long as I blogged for food. For the past decade PIL has been studying information literacy primarily from the perspective of students using rigorous social science methods, both qualitative and quantitative. It has managed something that’s really hard for librarians who work in libraries and do research on the side – conduct national studies at multiple institutions, involving thousands of students and many research partners. It has been fascinating to see how a project this complex and with such high standards comes together.

Even better, I’ve been able to take what Alison and I dubbed my “hobby-horse” out for a gallop. I’ve been thinking for years that information literacy has to be more attentive to not just finding and using information, but to how it’s created and what’s involved in its circulation. And all of that beyond the world of academic publishing. So much of our time is spent introducing students to academic forms of expression that we don’t get to connect it to the kinds of information they encounter in their lives and beyond college.

And these days, that has enormous social and political implications. PIL’s news study made great strides in looking at the current, confused situation that has been so deeply influenced by incredibly profitable and gigantic intermediaries. Though it’s smaller scale and qualitative, I hope this study contributes further to bringing information literacy together with what’s happening with information today. Tech corporations suck up the details of our lives to create doppelgangers of data that are, evidently, so valuable they make Google and Facebook and Amazon and all of their empires among the most wealthy in the world. They alter our cultures. They decide elections. They turn human relationships into commercial exchanges of attention and fame. Of course, they don’t do this all by themselves, but they are instruments of persuasion built on a late-capitalist model of what makes humans tick. And that model, at a global scale, is influencing how humans tick. So we need to think about that when we think about what it means to be information literate.

Okay, so there we are – a report out next week, a talk in March, and here are a few things I’m reading.

Ruha Benjamin’s book, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code – it’s good! A couple of quotes I noted as a taste:

“It is certainly the case that algorithmic discrimination is only one facet of a much wider phenomenon, in which what it means to be human is called into question. What do ‘free will’ and ‘autonomy’ mean in a world in which algorithms are tracking, predicting, and persuading us at every turn?” p. 31

“coded inequality makes discrimination easier, faster, and even harder to challenge” p. 33

I’ve been coming across a lot about AI and ethics lately, including a Boston Review article, “Technology Can’t Fix Algorithmic Injustice” by Annette Zimmermann, Elena Di Rosa, Hochan Kim. Here’s a quote:

What responsibilities and obligations do we bear for AI’s social consequences in the present—not just in the distant future? To answer this question, we must resist the learned helplessness that has come to see AI development as inevitable. Instead, we should recognize that developing and deploying weak AI involves making consequential choices—choices that demand greater democratic oversight not just from AI developers and designers, but from all members of society.

This notion that we’re helpless, the workings of technology are beyond our power and inevitable certainly came through as we talked to students for our study. Both Ruha Benjamin and this article argue we can insist on participating in and influencing decisions made about our social lives. So let’s go!

Finally, I keep returning to “My Layoff Letter Ground Up With Text from Meat Processing Trade Magazines,” a painfully funny – or is it funny but ouch! painful – essay by Tina Gross, a librarian and tenured faculty member at St. Cloud State University, which has decided librarians and humanities professors, but especially librarians, are no longer needed, though athletics . . . never mind. (I wrote about this previously.) Anyway, mashing up the letter announcing layoffs with language from meat-based trade magazines is inspired. And maybe it will inspire you to sign the petition.

2 thoughts on “Odds & Beginnings

  1. Thank you for sharing the petition. I just signed. Where would I be without the librarians who have helped and guided me all through my life?

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