the Cassandra in me

photo of a person against a digital backgroundI had a long and interesting chat last week with my partner. He knows I’m a bit obsessive about privacy and the social consequences of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and the rest of the Silicon Valley marauders. But somehow we had never quite connected the dots to the rise of populism and the erosion of trust – particularly that classical propaganda move, throwing up enough disinformation that people don’t trust anything and simply give up, either putting their trust in a leader whose lies are their lodestar (because he proclaims everything else to be fake and the work of their enemies) or assuming they have no power because there’s no way to know the facts. My partner pointed out that in my “last” Inside Higher Ed post I talked about the last ten years but not what’s in front us. So he persuaded me to make one last post – something short to encapsulate the ideas we’d talked about. I’m reposting it here.

We are in a global epistemological crisis, one that’s largely invisible by design.

The impact of the long-term cultivation of information channels that sow distrust of institutions and spread “alternative facts” has been magnified and globalized by the reckless power of Facebook, Google and other information intermediaries. These corporations sweep up the details of our lives to persuade, predict and nudge, undermining our freedom and safety while making it easy and profitable to spread hate, lies, anger and distrust, damaging our ability to agree on how we can arrive at factual truth and cultivate generosity and common understanding.

It will take a combination of efforts to overcome this crisis: political will, legislation, public policy, responsible technological improvements and civic engagement, as well as knowledge of the social and historical roots of our fractures, insights from information and media studies, and a broader definition of what it means to be information literate.

Higher education needs to do everything it can to bring its best traditions, knowledge, values and commitment to the public good to the struggle as we deal with this crisis. It matters.

We have much to contribute if we have the will.

PS: if you are interested in higher ed, information literacy, or the effects of technology on society to watch for the report coming from Project Information Literacy on January 15 – something I was excited to work on with PI Alison Head and the incredibly well-read Margy McMillan.

Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash.

5 thoughts on “the Cassandra in me

  1. Thank you, again, Barbara, for how much you have helped me think about all of these issues, and to be a better librarian and citizen. I find myself wondering why it so hard even to find agreement about whether education in general, or health care, or some set of basic civil rights (like voting) are public goods. I have the privilege and joy of watching the emergence of awareness of our students as they begin to see that they are part of structures and institutions that they could help dismantle or rebuild (or that they sometime think work just fine). The struggle, the persistent questions, and profound doubt are what I have come to embrace in many ways.

    As a librarian (on those increasingly rare occasions when I can practice my craft), I always want to help student see how finding “answers” should lead to asking more questions. As an administrator I am grateful to still be working at a time when the ethos of open education is strong on my campus, to question what we think we know about “student success,” and work to include students in conversations about what we know, how we know it, and what we do with it.

    1. Thank YOU, Celia – you inspire me. Isn’t it weird that we’re so captured by systems that want to give us answers – now through humanoid talking spyware like Alexa – rather than help us explore questions? I think that’s why it’s so hard for library “discovery” layers to seem as efficient and “easy” as Google. It’s just the entrance to a fascinating maze where how we seek shapes what we ultimately find (which is likely to be … more questions!)

  2. I look forward to more of your wonderful thoughts here!
    Can you please email me the PI report? I don’t check Twitter often/
    Many thanks!

    1. Sure, I’ll send an email. I use Twitter mostly to keep up with interesting links people share, but am always thinking about alternatives for when it becomes too toxic. Which it is for too many people.

      1. Twitter is no more toxic than other platforms but it’s overload with little value for a lot of time.
        I do review the daily email updates.

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