In defence of internet anonymity

Image c/o Thomas Hawk.

It recently emerged that Twitter has added the need to register mobile phone numbers as part of the sign-up procedure when creating an account to use the network. The move is, as is always the case, presented as part of their effort to protect those that use the service, particularly from abusive trolls. However, as with all such protections, it only offers protection to a degree and does actually create more danger for others.

For those of us that live in Western ‘liberal’ countries, the requirement to provide a mobile phone number is perhaps not massively problematic. It is fairly easy to obtain a mobile and use it without having an data connected to that phone (if you’ve watched The Wire you’ll know that those that wish to protect themselves from the law will use so-called “burner phones”). Outside of nations like the UK and the US, particularly in authoritarian regimes, there are far more hoops that need to be jumped through and the possibility of obtaining a so-called burner is fairly slim. As The Guardian noted, Turkey requires all mobile phones to be registered and a passport is required to obtain a sim card and mobile number.

The request to provide a mobile number in order to use the service is therefore troubling for those living in authoritarian regimes. As we know, communication tools that provide anonymity have played a role in overturning a variety of authoritarian regimes (although the extent to which these tools have played a role is perhaps overstated). Anonymity in Western liberal states may be perceived as a tool to harass and intimidate individuals, but in less democratic states they are essential for survival and for hope. Without this cover of anonymity, lives can and will be placed at risk. Anonymity maybe a troubling concept from our point of view (not least given the media coverage) but it is essential. When weighing up the social cost, the removal of anonymity will come at a much greater cost than if it was to be maintained.

Trolls are an unpleasant side effect of creating a space where everyone can engage in public discourse. But whilst there is a need to figure out how we tackle this phenomenon, we also have to accept that the internet will probably only ever be an imperfect space and that imperfection is what makes it so valuable. Because so long as there as there is anonymity, there will be trolls. But there will also be opportunities for dissidents to communicate, organise and challenge the status quo. Whilst I would not wish to minimise the harm that trolls cause to individuals (as I’ve stated before, I don’t buy into this current “right to offend” trend), I prefer to think of the positive impact of anonymity. The potential it provides for people to be free. Either free to engage in discourse without fear of reprisal or harm, or to seek to secure freedom from state oppression.

Of course services such as Twitter have to seek to protect those that use the service. But, when it comes to the internet, every measure of protection can also do great harm. This is true of removing the right to anonymity for those who wish to communicate free from fear of reprisal, but also in creating internet filters that prevent people from accessing information. Those filters may provide some benefit in terms of the things that they block, but they will also prevent those who are most vulnerable from accessing the information they need. Such measures are presented as offering protection to individuals (indeed, isn’t this always how states present measures that repress individual freedoms?), when in fact this is only partially the case. Protection for some, insecurity or danger for others.

Ultimately, we must seek to defend the right to remain anonymous online. It is not always comfortable, but then defending our freedoms to the fullest extent will never be entirely comfortable because we understand that there are those that will abuse the freedoms we are advocating. But we have to accept that the benefits of protecting anonymity far outweigh the consequences of removing this protection. Because the consequences of this will not be felt in the middle-class suburbias of the West, but within the communities seeking to throw off the chains of oppression.

Unemployment unchanged since formation of the Coalition in 2010

A quick post with some quick stats that I stumbled across this morning. From the Office for National Statistics website:

“Number of people employed on a “zero-hours contract” in their main job was 697,000 for October to December 2014…”

That’s nearly 700,000 people on contracts where the work is not guaranteed and they have an insecure income and, of course, zero employment rights (they are “zero” in terms of more than just hours). Effectively, these people are not employed as we know it. They are neither full-time nor part-time. They have work purely when the employer deigns to instruct them to work – often at very short notice (I know, I’ve worked in retail in a management role and know exactly how it works). So, it seems reasonable to me to package up the zero hour contracts with the figures for unemployment, because they aren’t employed in any real sense.

The latest employment figures suggest that 1.91m people are unemployed. If we tack on the zero hours contracts, we get a grand total of 2.6m unemployed (ok, let’s call it underemployed, or 2.6m people not fully employed). But if we have to do this for the Coalition period, we also have to do this for the period immediately before they came to office. You know, to be fair and all that (we all know Cameron likes to bore on about fairness).

In May 2010, when the Coalition was formed, unemployment stood at 2.48m. According to the (revised) figures from the ONS, there were approximately 190,000 zero hour contracts [PDF] in 2009 (last full year of the Labour government) and 168,000 in 2010 (the first year of the Coalition). If we split the difference and say that there were 179,000 zero hour contracts, and add it to the unemployment figure for May 2010, we get…a grand total of 2.6m unemployed/underemployed/not fully employed. So the figure is unchanged.

Despite the rhetoric from the Coalition (and particularly the Tories), the employment situation has remain largely unchanged in the sense that there are still 2.6m people in this country who are not full employed in the sense that they have stable hours, a stable income and proper employment rights. The only significant difference is that increasing numbers of people are being forced off the social security that they have been paying into, and into insecure employment. Well, that seems fair doesn’t it?

How librarians became Thatcherite and the myth of TINA

Image c/o Simon Q on Flickr.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 saw not only an end to the global conflict, but also to the old economic order. The election of the first Labour government in the UK paved the way for a rejection of the economic policies practiced in the pre-war era, and the acceptance of a new model of economic governance – one based on a belief that government intervention in the economy is necessary to create stability and prosperity. However, this adoption of a new economic approach was not solely the preserve of the Labour party; it was also (broadly speaking) accepted by the Conservative Party in what became known as the post-war consensus.

From 1945 onwards, economic policies formulated by John Maynard Keynes were adopted by both the dominant political parties. There were, of course, tensions on the margins of both, but in the centre (where leadership tends to reside within political movements) there was a consensus that to ensure security and prosperity, the government of the day must adopt:

  1. The goal of full employment;
  2. The acceptance of the role of trade unions;
  3. A mixed economy, with a degree of state ownership of the utilities;
  4. A functioning, equitable welfare state;
  5. An adherence to progressive taxation and redistributive welfare spending.

From 1945 to the late seventies, this consensus remained in place with both parties, to varying degrees, ensuring that Keynes’ economic theories remained at the forefront of government policy. This ultimately led to a great post-war boom and a far greater degree of income equality. However, this “consensus” was not without its tensions, with the right-wing increasingly dismissive of this economic consensus. In the mid to late seventies, these tensions finally burst to the surface and led to the termination of the Keynesian approach to managing the economy.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led to the final breakdown of this post-war consensus (arguably this began with Callaghan’s government going to the IMF and obtaining a loan which came with a variety of conditions regarding the shrinking of the state). Having been largely dismissive of the post-war consensus and the restrictions it placed on corporate Britain, Thatcher launched a programme of (highly unpopular) reforms to the economy. Assets were sold off, old state industries were attacked and the post-war consensus which had at its heart the notion of the “citizen” and “society” was abandoned, explicitly rejecting the latter and embracing a renewed faith in freedom, choice and the power of the individual. The erosion of the “citizen” had begun, replaced with a belief that we are, effectively, no more than consumers and customers who must be unconstrained by the state in a truly free market economic system.

In 1983, Thatcher underlined this break from the post-war consensus when she gave a speech to the young Conservatives. Mocking the Opposition, Thatcher asked delegates:

“Could Labour have managed a rally like this?”

(The answer from the delegates was, of course, “no”.)

She went on to add:

“Well, in the old days perhaps. But not now. For they are the party of yesterday. And tomorrow is ours.

“We are all here to state our faith in Britain’s future and our determination to keep her strong and free.”

Whilst this was clearly an attack on Labour, it also signified that, under her premiership, the post-war consensus was dead. It was as much a message to her own side as to the opposition. When she refers to “the party of yesterday” she means a party wedded to the post-war consensus, as Labour remained in the early 80s. When she says “tomorrow is ours” she doesn’t just mean the Conservative Party, she means supporters of her particular brand of conservatism. The “tomorrow” evoked is, clearly, a Thatcherite vision and it is the Thatcherite vision of society that will, in her belief, endure. Indeed, as her next sentence makes clear, not only will it endure but it will be fundamental to a “strong and free” future. This vision was part of the overall belief pushed by her administration that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). The only path to prosperity is the Thatcherite path; there are no other viable options (and certainly the ‘old’ approach was not to be considered viable).

For Thatcher, the only path to ensure security and prosperity was a shrinking of the state and an adherence to free market economics, influenced by figures such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. After the economic shock of the 70s and the subsequent IMF bailout, the only way to ensure the country was secure and remained one of the world’s leading economies was to fully embrace the free market, unencumbered by state interference (as they saw it). There was, as far as Thatcher and her supporters were concerned, no alternative. The alternative that was envisioned by Labour was considered archaic, a remnant from a previous age, alien to the realities of the modern world. A rejection of the Thatcherite path was considered a danger to the UK, a manifesto for instability and self-destruction. As far as Thatcher and her supporters were concerned, the monetarist counter-revolution influenced by Friedman’s economic ideas was essential to overturn the Keynesian orthodoxy that had existed in the post-war period.

TINA has become so deeply ingrained in our society that the Thatcherite ideology has percolated its way throughout our social and political life. We saw, with the emergence of Tony Blair, that even the Labour party cast aside any remaining adherence to the post-war consensus and accepted broad swathes of Thatcherite policy, dispensing with any remaining notion that they could in any way be considered a party of the socialist left. Under Blair, the party adopted the mantra of the free market and trumpeted its ‘values’, ushering in a new era of corporate influence of state infrastructure (see the infamous “Clause 4 Moment”). It now seems barely possible to consider alternatives (say, for example, the raft of policies that were accepted as part of the post-war consensus) without being painted as either a dinosaur from an earlier age, or a dangerous radical. What was once an accepted position across the political establishment, part of a broad consensus, has become either ‘radical’ or old-fashioned.

This market orientated doctrine has infiltrated all of our public services and is having a damaging impact upon professions. We have seen, as free market ideas have infiltrated public services, a growth of commercial, corporate language within the public sector. We have seen this in the rise of the use of terms such as “customer” and “marketing” in areas where they once had no place. Our language has become corrupted, commercialised in a way that wasn’t conceivable pre-Thatcher. Whereas once the rhetoric was about citizens and their rights, now it’s about consumers and their choices. This has become so deeply ingrained that rejecting the language of the market is considered backward or dangerous.

We have seen this within librarianship. We have had our own TINA moment. The embrace of consumerist language is, as Thatcher’s ideology always insisted, the only game in town. Increasingly we are led to believe that we have to adopt both the language and the approach of the market to ensure our security and prosperity. For example, in a document entitled “What Makes A Good Library Service”, CILIP (the professional body for library and information professionals) advised that for a service to be considered “good”:

Staff should be helpful, knowledgeable, welcoming and well-trained. They should be involved in a workforce development programme. Staff in front line customer service roles should be supported by specialists in service planning and promotion, leadership and management, and those areas of service delivery requiring specialist skills and expertise.

In 2010, the now defunct Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) published a practitioner guidance document called “What do the public want from libraries”. The document contains 31 references to customers. One section, “Expanding the offer – target genuine customer needs, don’t squeeze out books… just add coffee”, advised (with fairly clear implications if not adopted):

Coffee bars should be seriously considered by all libraries who don’t have one already. As well as driving up visitor numbers they can generate income and are an opportunity to build links with a local business.

The Society of Chief Librarians recently trumpeted additional funding from Arts Council England (ACE) by claiming it would be used “locally in areas critical to customers’ lives and well being”. And ACE, recently given the task of overseeing libraries following the disbanding of the MLA, worked with Locality over a six month period last year to:

“…explore existing good practice and assess the potential to further enable income generation to support and enhance as well as to improve the overall resilience and sustainability of library services.”

Again, income generation (whereby citizens become customers) is seen as essential for “resilience and sustainability” (much as Thatcher’s reforms were supposedly, as her supporters presented it, crucial for the resilience and sustainability of the UK econonmy). The consumerist narrative that is a crucial foundation of current economic and political orthodoxy, has become central to the survival of public libraries. The implication of the work between the Arts Council and Locality being that without this “income generation” the future of library services is under threat (there is no alternative.)

Our need to accept this terminology is pushed at us from both within and without the profession. Its use by official bodies (particularly bodies representing the profession) normalises it. The shift to market-orientated approaches that has emerged since the counter-revolution has infiltrated not only our public services, but our professions. The only viable way forward, so it seems, is to accept this reality and orientate our services to ensure a degree of customer services excellence. If we don’t, we risk the stability and long-term future of the service. We are, as the country was in the mid-70s, at a point of crisis. Salvation will come by adopting the language and structures of those that prosper within the free market.

Of course there are alternatives. We can ensure the survival and prosperity of both the profession and libraries in general through alternatives to market-orientated rhetoric, just as there are alternatives to liberalised free market economies (see Syriza’s rejection of the austerity orthodoxy).  There is a very real danger that we could find ourselves boxed-in, only seeing solutions that have their roots in the market. We wouldn’t be the first profession to make this mistake. Economists themselves made the mistake of believing that the free market, unencumbered by the stabilisation of the state that Keynes advocated, would provide the answers to our economic woes and bring prosperity and stability. As the past seven years have demonstrated, they have been proved utterly wrong. As economist Paul Krugman notes, “Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions.” Economists made a mistake in rejecting alternatives because it believed in the market, we’d do well not to make the same mistake.

Libraries – it’s a “question of priorities”

(Image c/o Freaktography on Flickr.)

At least according to Martyn Allison who, according to his Twitter bio is a “former national advisor for culture and sport at the IDEA now running my own company Management Improvement Services”. Which probably should tell you all you need to know, particularly how we have managed to find ourselves in the state we are in given these are the kinds of folk advising the Local Government Association. If these are the kind of people influencing policy then, well…

Mr Allison was referring to a tweet last week regarding volunteers running libraries:

When challenged on this, he responded:

Now, there is nothing unusual here. It’s a familiar line of argument by those engaged in the dismantling of our public library service. They don’t want to have to do it, but they have no choice. They are merely weighing up the services that are more vital for the community. Is it roads? Care for the elderly? Helping people find housing? Protecting childcare? It’s an argument that plays on certain emotional responses and ultimately disables any attack (similar to the politician’s trick of making statements you couldn’t possibly disagree with). After all, who could argue against care for the elderly? For protecting our children? WHAT KIND OF SICK INDIVIDUAL ARE YOU IF YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THE ELDERLY OR OUR CHILDREN!?!? And so on, and so on…

Of course, this argument is flawed (as if we, or they, didn’t already know this). Let’s consider, for example, that there are around 7 million people who have never used the internet (more who do not have an internet connection at home). Then let’s consider that a whole host of services are increasingly being pushed online. Now let’s revisit the groups of people who folk like Allison claim to be helping by protecting services that directly affect them.

The elderly need care – Yes, they do. Council websites (certain my local council at least) provide access to information about a care home, advising you on the processes and where you can go for help. They also provide advice if you are housebound or need support to remain in your own home. Now, you can obtain this information by other means, but it is obviously far more convenient if you can do this online, putting some at a massive advantage. And let’s not forget, if there are not trained staff (and properly remunerated) we are expecting volunteers to understand the information that is available and be able to guide people to it.

Aside from general care, there is also a need to ensure they are isolated from their local community. The provision of housebound library services for those that need it, and a safe space for others is vital.

Take away libraries delivered by trained staff and you make it harder for the elderly to get the information they need and access the care services you claim to be protecting. Cutting libraries over care services does not protect the elderly, it just creates new problems for them to have to deal with, placing barriers that inhibit their ability to get the care they require.

Roads need repairing – This is an easy one. Roads do need repairing. Kent County Council offer a website that enables individuals to report potholes which can then be repaired within 28 days. Again, those who are not online and don’t have access to a public library can forget about submitting a request to repair the roads (other councils offer this service too). So yes, it ensures there is a pot of money to repair roads, but it also makes it harder for many to report the need for repairs.

Children need protecting – Guess what? Internet again. Council websites provide a wealth of information (again, see Kent County Council) for both children who are victims of abuse or adults worried that children are the victims of abuse. Not only that, but libraries provide a safe space for children after school, to do homework, or just to read (and that’s aside from the obvious benefits in terms of literacy). Public libraries provide a space that offers protection for children. They provide a safe space for children to go when they need to do homework and need to escape abusive relationships at home or when they need to escape bullying and abusive peers. They provide a safe space to learn about personal issues that they would not be able to discuss with adults or their peers. In short, libraries are vital spaces to provide the protection that children need. They are not as obvious as some spaces, but take away a library supported by trained and paid staff who understand their obligations with respect to child protection, and you take away a vital place of sanctuary for those who are victims of abuse.

People need housing – Again, how much information is available online for those in need of housing? How many websites are there providing guidance and support? How many provide information on homeless housing? How many provide guidance for those concerned about individuals who are homeless? Again, remove a library, or hollow it out, and you are attacking the people who you claim to be defending by cutting libraries before the services that you believe they are most immediately in need of.

Let’s not pretend that by cutting library services rather than cutting other services you are not having a massive impact on the most vulnerable. You are. It’s just that rather than hitting them directly, you are hitting them in areas that they won’t realise they need until it’s too late. You are not protecting them, you are merely delaying the harm you are doing to them. If it comes down to a “question of priorities” then cutting back and closing library services suggests that your priority is not to protect the most vulnerable, but to protect your own interests.

Syriza – there may be stuff to learn from this…

Image c/o thierry ehrmann on Flickr.

It’s difficult not to get carried away with the victory of Syriza in the Greek elections. Their partnership with the Independent Greeks is likely to result in some inevitable disappointment following the heightened expectation that has come with the rise of a new (and much needed) political force in Europe. Besides, putting your faith in any political party making good on its promises is to be at best somewhat naive. That said, a party standing in the UK on the same platform as Syriza would undoubtedly get my vote and so I am pretty pleased that, despite all the odds, they have secured victory in the election. Not only secured victory, but done so by challenging the narrative.

Personally, I think there is a lot to learn and a lot of confidence to take from the experience of Syriza. It demonstrates that no matter how skewed the narrative is, no matter how engrained the dominant ideology, it can still be challenged and it can still be overcome. Despite the dominant ideology and the continent-wide acceptance of austerity as the necessary path out of the economic crisis, and despite the threats of the elites aimed at the Greek voters, a challenge to the orthodoxy has been successful. It is, after all, possible to create a compelling alternative to the dominant ideology. The successful challenge to the narrative is something that should give us all hope that the paradigm (in whatever context) can be shifted. In every field touched by the rhetoric of neoliberalism (from governance to public services), we are told there is no alternative. Now we know that not only is it possible to build an alternative narrative, but that it is also possible to pursue a different path. We should remember this every time the cynics tell us there is no choice, that neoliberalism and the metamorphosis of citizens into customers is the only viable option. If we are bold, imaginative and truly radical we can create something distinct and alternative. The lesson of Syriza is that, with prolonged chipping away of the edifice, an alternative is possible.

Do we really have a right to offend?

Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.
(Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.)

There has been a growing trend in recent years to argue that there is effectively a “right to offend”, that people do not have a right to take offence.  But is there a “right to offend”? It certainly seems that an increasing number of people believe that there is such a thing (this often comes mixed in with arguments over the right to free speech), from Cristina Odone to David Cameron to Stephen Fry to Ricky Gervais. Confounding what one might reasonably expect, this notion of the “right to cause offence” has embedded itself across the political spectrum. Everyone from the liberal left to the far-right have pushed the line that no-one has the “right to be offended”, based on the notion that people choose to be offended by speech and can choose not to expose themselves to hateful messages and harmful language if they don’t want to see it. As far as the defenders of this so-called “right” are concerned, words are incapable of causing actual harm and therefore any sense of “offence” is meaningless. Of course, this train of thought relies on the belief that words are devoid of any social, cultural or historical context and merely exist in isolation. Which, of course, they do not.

The right to offend

We’ve seen the rise in this “right to offend” mentality in light of the attack on the “satirical” magazine Charlie Hebdo. Here, again, the argument that we should be able to offend whoever we want emerges. It is, so the proponents argue, the right of the cartoonists to insult Muslims, whether they are rich or poor, in positions of power or the disenfranchised. Unlike good satire (which should always punch up not down), broad brush cartoons attacking Muslims are indiscriminate. They do not distinguish between those in power and those without.

When it comes to free speech, we have already accepted as a society that this is not an absolute right. There are limits enshrined in law (although there are those who argue that these limits should not apply). Freedoms have to be balanced, we cannot argue that all rights are absolute, as there are times when these freedoms come into conflict. For example, the right to be able to live in a safe environment and not feel threatened by others, surely trumps the right to free speech (particularly when it comes to racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc). Not for nothing did the German constitution of 1949 stipulate that:

“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

We all have a right to live with dignity, to live free from the threatening and abusive conduct of others.

Furthermore, we cannot overlook our responsibilities in exercising our right to free speech. One cannot use language that is offensive or threatening to minorities or marginalised groups whilst also detaching oneself from the responsibilities inherent in using such language. As Will Self recently argued, “our society makes a fetish of ‘the right to free speech’ without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right”. We have to be responsible for the language we use and the harm it causes. We cannot wash our hands of it and push the responsibility solely onto the victim for their response.

It is necessary to accept that there are limits, whereas the “right to offend” suggests there are none. And yet, as a society we have accepted that there are limits. As Gary Younge points out in The Guardian, every country restrains free speech to a degree:

In 2005 Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against Israel and the Jewish people. In 2008 a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo was fired after refusing to apologise for making antisemitic remarks in a column. And two years before the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, it rejected ones offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ for fear they would “provoke an outcry”.

Far from being “sacred”, as some have claimed, freedom of speech is always contingent. All societies draw lines, that are ill-defined, constantly shifting and continually debated, about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities. The question is whether those lines count for Muslims too.

Indeed, France has been struggling with this in the light of the terrorist attacks, arresting those who have made distasteful “jokes” seen to be in support of those responsible for the series of murders that rocked the country.

We have, as a society, broadly accepted that there is a right to be offended (albeit in very particular terms ie hate speech). It’s no real surprise to find that the vast majority of those who defend the “right to offend” are white, middle class males. These individuals cannot be “offended” because their culture is not under threat they are the ones who, after all, wield the power in our society. When you have power, what is there to be offended by?

Free speech and religion

Although I am a (fairly militant) atheist, I tend to see that there is a significant difference between criticising a religion such as Islam and Christianity in the West. We often hear that Christianity is an easy target – we’re all happy to laugh at Christianity, but wouldn’t dream of doing so with regard to Islam. There is, of course, a substantial difference between the two. We live in a country built on Christian beliefs, on Christian traditions. I grew up in a Christian country. A country where Christianity wields power that other religions do not – 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords and can make or break government legislation. No other religious group has such representation at the seat of power.

We do not have a “right” to mock Christianity per se, but mockery in the face of a force that wields power is reasonable, particularly as it is the dominant religious identity. Islam, on the other hand, is not. It is not part of my cultural heritage and is certainly not accepted as part of our supposed “shared cultural identity”. I have no connection to it. It is something ‘other’. It is not my place to lampoon it because it is not my culture to lampoon. I have no understanding of Islam and its tenets (even if I did, I would still feel uncomfortable exclusively ridiculing a religion that is not part of my cultural heritage). However, I do have ample understanding of Christianity. Mocking Islam as someone brought up in a Western Christian cultural environment makes me feel very uncomfortable. I would not mock other aspects of others’ cultural heritage or identity so why should I mock their beliefs, no matter how irrational they appear to be?

Our freedoms…

Meanwhile, whilst the best efforts have been made to ensure our eyes are diverted towards the many millions of people who had nothing to do with the attack (apart from suffering from the attackers’ lie that they are one of them), the real satire has been gradually unfolding. We’ve been subjected to passionate pontifications about the importance of the freedom of the press, pontifications that ring more than a little hollow when placed in their proper context. As is typical of those in power in desperate need of some good PR, leaders with a questionable commitment to human rights have used the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to assert commitments to free speech and a free press. Not only are our leaders engaging in such stunning cynicism, but prominent voices in the media (ironically) have also been keen to jump on Islam and assert the importance of a free press.

Take Douglas Murray for example. Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society and media spokesperson for the neoliberal far-right. Whilst he laments the state of the free press with regard to its collective failure in the UK to reprint the cartoons that supposedly led to the deaths of 12 individuals, he has not always been the greatest defender of a free press when it comes to confronting the danger of an over-powerful state. A free press when it comes to attacking those least likely to do us harm, versus that of a state that can exert its power over us at will.

Then there are the numerous leaders who announced that they were “Charlie Hebdo” on the streets of Paris. How hollow their words sounded when they are guilty of repressing the free press within their own states. And this hypocrisy didn’t just afflict those from countries in the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, no sooner had David Cameron announced to the world “je suis Charlie”, than he was back home announcing his (laughably idiotic) intentions to ensure that no-one can ever have a private conversation ever again.

A free press should only be defended, it appears, if it is sticking the knife into a minority group rather than those occupying the seats of power. Yes, this is the kind of free speech that must, apparently, be defended – the kind that punches down rather than punches up.

What we should be watching is not the many millions of Muslims throughout the world who merely wish to practice their religion in peace (no matter what we may feel about religion in general) but, as any good satirist would tell you, it’s the state. The powerful. We should be looking up, not looking down. For whilst the state wants us to focus on millions of people who have nothing to do with the atrocities supposedly carried out in their name, they will use this opportunity to remove the freedoms they claim bind us together as part of some notion of shared values. It happens time after time (even to those who are supposed to be watching the state closer than most). They preach solidarity with us, but the reality is that the state is often the enemy of the people and we should never allow their games of distraction to permit us to forget this.

Freedom of Information and getting things done

Last night I was very privileged to have been invited to the 30th anniversary celebration of the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CfFoI). I have to concede, that I was more than a little surprised to have received an invite, I am not someone who works within the field and therefore have no first-hand experience of dealing with the Act or any real expertise in the area. That said, as a librarian I am passionate about the importance of an informed citizenry that can both engage fully in the democratic process and hold elected officials to account. For this reason, I am a great believer in the Act and believe that the CfFoI is a vital force for good in a country that has a history of keeping citizens in the dark.

Listening to those who have been working for 30 years to firstly establish a Freedom of Information Act, then to keep the pressure on to ensure that an imperfect Act is improved and defended from efforts to try to water it down and diminish it (and we know full well there will be repeated efforts by agents of the state to diminish the Act and undermine its credibility) was particularly inspiring. As someone involved in various campaigns and groups, a lot of the words really rang true.

Campaigning is hard. It’s all graft and grind with very little reward. Indeed, the fact that it took 20 years for the CfFoI to be successful in getting an FoI Act on the statute book underlines how difficult it is to be successful. It takes years of dedication, a whole host of sacrifices, very little glory and perpetual optimism. As one speaker said last night, campaigning is not about photo ops and marches, it’s about the daily grind, doing the grotty (and often tedious) work that takes your campaign forward and that, ultimately, leads to success. Successful campaigns are built on years of hard work.

From my perspective, I always argue that it is best not to get bogged down in believing that you will get results quickly. That what you aspire to will come to fruition within a short time frame. It won’t. It’ll take years. Some of the change you may aspire to will probably not even happen within your lifetime. The important bit is to do the graft and lay the groundwork. So long as you are realistic, I believe you can maintain that dedication and enthusiasm for whatever cause you are involved in. If you are too unrealistic, you will very quickly find yourself burnt out and disillusioned. Fight for what you believe in, but be aware that it will take time, effort and dedication. Change does not come easy.

The people behind CfFoI have kept that dedication, that determination to be successful in effecting real change in terms of how we are governed. By creating an environment where at least there is a chink of light where before there was only darkness. The challenge now, in my view, is to turn that chink of light into something bigger.

Ian Hislop speaking at last night’s event.

One other thing that was re-emphasised for me last night was the importance of building connections across the information profession. I certainly find within the world of the librarian we often seem to exist in a silo that is detached from other information professionals. I struggle sometimes to understand this. Of course we all have our individual areas of expertise, but I think it is important for librarians (who after all are concerned with facilitating access to information) to be aware of and engaged with such discussions across the profession. As librarians we should be engaged with the fight for freedom of information, we should be helping citizens to utilise the tools available to them to hold their elected officials to account. We should be engaged in data protection, particularly in a world where data is increasingly being bought and sold, often without the awareness of those who the data is extracted from. As librarians we should be engaged in making information and data more accessible with regards to the state, whilst protecting individuals from the commodification of their personal data. When one considers the ethics that underpin our profession, it is clear that we should be engaged in these areas.

The last ten years are not an end with regard to the battle to ensure transparent governance, they are a beginning. With further funding cuts in the pipeline, the growth of private sector contracts to deliver public services presents new challenges. As government seeks to outsource public services, so we lose our right to know. It is clear that the Freedom of Information Act will need to be expanded and adapted in the years to come. To have any hope of achieving that, groups such as the CfFoI need to continue keeping the pressure on. But for them to do so requires all of us who believe in their aims to show our support in whatever way we can to ensure that not only does the Act continue to remain relevant but that the light it shines on how we are governed gets brighter rather than dimmer. The efforts of those who have led the campaign over the past 30 years demonstrates that whilst it won’t be easy, we can be optimistic.

You can find out more about the Campaign for Freedom of Information here. I’d urge you to support them in whatever way you can.

How government is exacerbating the digital divide

(Image c/o Mike Behnken on Flickr.)

There is a common mis-conception that to bridge the digital divide, we merely have to provide everyone with access to an internet connection. Of course, as many of us know, the reality is much more complicated than that. Not only do they require a working and accessible computer with an internet connection, they also require the skills with which to exploit this access to its fullest potential (not to mention the associated issues around varying speeds etc etc). But it’s not just about skills and access, there is also a reliance on those putting information online to do so in a way that is as accessible and user-friendly as possible. This is particularly important when it comes to governmental websites.

I’ve written many times before about the government’s attitude to going digital. It is both poorly conceived and highly damaging. The efforts to move benefits solely online (as well as making job-seekers find jobs online via a governmental portal), is particularly troubling as those most reliant on benefits are also least likely to have an internet connection. The shift to services online would cause serious issues for many who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. However, it’s not just the fact that these services are shifting online when there is still a sizeable chunk of the population who have never used the internet, the lack of care and consideration in the development of such websites is also very troubling. It’s for this reason that I was interested to read FOIMan’s recent blog post on finding information via gov.uk and ico.org.uk (the information commissioner’s website).

The government’s main web presence, gov.uk, is particularly poorly conceived and raises huge issues for those without the skills to navigate the site properly and find the information they need. Even for those with a good standard of computer literacy, the website is problematic at best. As FOIMan explains:

If I want to find information on “freedom of information policies”, a search brings up a few random policies from government agencies, some answers to FOI requests, and FOI stats. It doesn’t take me to any government-wide policies that would previously have been on the Ministry of Justice’s website. There’s enough anecdotal comment on Twitter and elsewhere to suggest that I’m not alone in my frustrations.

The consolidation of multiple governmental websites into one solitary portal whilst seeming a good idea at the time (why have loads of websites widely distributed?), without separate departmental websites you are left with a vast website that makes finding particular pieces of information a particularly arduous task. And why should finding governmental information be anything other than easy and convenient? As FOIMan puts it:

The problem is that gov.uk appears to be solely concerned with the delivery of services in this way. For those of us who want to get at policies, procedures, statistics, reports – we’re stuffed.

This is government information. Information we are all entitled to access not only because we have a right to know, but also because this information can be used by us to hold the government to account. If we cannot easily access reports, statistics, policies etc etc, how can we effectively hold the government to account? A cynic might argue that that’s the way they would want it…

This does raise serious issues about the nature of our democracy as well as the interpretation of the internet by governments. The internet provides a fantastic opportunity in liberal democracies to bring the people and their elected representatives closer together. It provides opportunities to make it easier for citizens to hold their elected officials to account. Opportunities they may be for us, in terms of those in power they are undoubtedly threats. The construction of gov.uk hints at the broader governmental attitude to the internet. Yes, it can open up government and make it easier for the people to access information on the workings of the state. But it is also a threat to their power and authority. So piecemeal efforts are made to open up government via the internet, whilst simultaneously making that information difficult to obtain. Indeed, we know from various other proposals that government see the internet as a threat, when it should be seen as a democratising tool.

There is an opportunity to utilise the internet in order to build bridges between the electorate and the elected. To make our democracies more responsive and to make it easier to hold governments to account. Unfortunately, the attitude of the government towards the internet continues to be one where rather than bridging divides (both within society in general, and between the state and the individual) they are exacerbating existing ones.

How neoliberalism disenfranchises us…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact of the neoliberal culture on our organisations and the way we operate within them. The imposition of the current HE environment (and it is imposed, there is nothing democratic about it) is causing a massive shift in the way universities are run. Increasingly, we see universities becoming competitors with each other. There is a renewed focus on “the brand”, of how to stand out from the crowd/competitors of how to drive up student applications and to increase revenue etc. There’s nothing new here. We all see it and read about it every day. This is what it was designed to do. There are, it goes without saying, consequences of this shift for all of those that work in this environment.

As has been demonstrated throughout history, neoliberal environments tend to come hand-in-hand with authoritarianism. We’ve seen this, for example, in Chile during the 1970s where the Chicago Boys had their opportunity to embark upon their economic experiments whilst the Pinochet regime kept the Chilean people at bay. We know that neoliberal reforms are unpopular, undemocratic and, ultimately, disenfranchise the populace – taking away publicly owned institutions and placing them in the hands of private companies. We see this manifest itself today in the student protests. The post-2010 reforms to HE (which, let’s not forget, have their roots in the Blair era) have re-awakened the spirit of student protest that has for so long remained dormant. Neoliberalism is unpopular with all but those who wield the power. And it is through neoliberalism that those with power reinforce it.

As I said before, this has consequences. For the Chilean people, for example, it led to a life of fear and terror as the Pinochet regime set about dismantling all of the public institutions that had developed and prospered. The people had no say in this dismantling, they had to endure it and stand by helplessly as power was concentrated in the hands of a small elite. This concentration of power is part and parcel of the neoliberal process. The two are inextricably linked because neoliberalism encourages a system where power is concentrated.

Contrary to how advocates of neoliberalism portray it, it is not an ideology that frees people, it constrains them. In an organisational context, we find replications of authoritarian structures the more neoliberal the environment around that structure becomes. So, for example, we find in many large corporations there is a very top-down, authoritarian approach to how they do their business. Everything is centralised, controlled from the centre and individuals within the structures (particularly those at the bottom end) often have no influence on the system. They are cogs in a machine. Everything is controlled for fear of potential damage to the brand. And so we find that large corporations often replicate the structures we find in authoritarian regimes. Centralisation of power for fear of failure of the regime if power is too widely dispersed.

But what relevance does this have to HE? Well, we have found ourselves in an environment that is neoliberal by design. It has created a sense of competition, a Darwinesque survival of the fittest, where the weak will perish and the strong will prosper. This creates a fear factor: a fear of the failure of the regime. The only way to respond to this fear, as they see it, is to centralise power. By centralising, so the theory goes, you can gain control and minimise rogue elements potentially unbalancing the regime. This centralisation, therefore, restricts the freedoms of the individuals working within these structures. The ability to influence the organisation is rapidly diminished.

The consequence of this is that we have less control. We are less able to do the things that perhaps we might like to do, because we are disenfranchised. As structures become centralised, the importance of consistency throughout the organisation becomes key (because this is more efficient according to the capitalist class – “efficiency” being a key mantra of the neoliberal ideology). No longer can we communicate with users in the way we see fit, but instead we have to communicate in the way the organisation sees fit. There is no freedom in the sense of control over our own work and immediate environment. We have to submit to the will and concerns of the over-arching structure within which we reside, this is the danger of the neoliberal environment created around the structures we inhabit. This goes for library services as much as any other aspect of HE.

To ensure we have the freedom to do our jobs in the way that we, as professionals, believe they should be done, we must surely first resist the shift towards a neoliberal culture? For it is this neoliberal culture that will inhibit our freedom and prevent us from fulfilling our roles as professionals, with the knowledge and expertise to perform our roles in the ways we see fit. If we are to be subsumed by the neoliberal culture, we will not have that freedom. We will not be able to perform in our roles as we see fit. We will become consumed by the structures that have developed around us as part of this cultural shift. We can talk as much as we like about the things we should be doing, the approaches we should take, how we can reach out beyond our traditional role. But, ultimately, if we do not fight back against the structures that are growing around us, this shift towards neoliberalism in libraries, then we will not have that freedom. We will not have that power. Perhaps, ultimately, all we will be is a cog in a machine? And if we are to fight against the culture, how do we do it?

Creators not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries

The following post was written in collaboration with Andrew Preater.

We are often presented with two choices within librarianship: a forward-thinking approach and a supposedly old-fashioned approach. These are sometimes characterised as progressive and conservative positions respectively. We argue, however, that this is a mis-characterisation and, in fact, the forward-thinking approach could be best described as conservative.

When considering what is progressive and what is conservative we need to consider our context. We exist in an environment that increasingly focuses on market fundamentalism as the default approach, and assumes markets as the most efficient path to provide solutions, drive progress, and ensure the most equitable outcome for all. Indeed, market fundamentalists argue that where there is a fault, it is due to a failure to make our economic system truly market-oriented. We see this for example in the way the cause of the current economic crisis is presented as rooted in public spending, rather than the failure of free market economics.

For us, this raises a question: what is progressive? Slotting in comfortably with the market consensus, the status quo, or embarking on a path that is visionary and alternative? Surely if we are to ponder what constitutes forward-thinking, we would want to consider alternatives that are original, distinct, and even radical?

The use of language is important. The packaging of certain ideas as “progressive” more easily allow questioning, protesting, or rejection of such ideas to be cast as old-fashioned or even regressive. Alternatives are, by their nature, a block on progress and their proponents unrealistic and outdated – perhaps even luddites selfishly putting their own interest above improvements for their service users. We see this abduction of language played out repeatedly throughout social and political discourse. A particular path – typically one that rejects a sense of ethics – is presented as inevitable, and any opposition can easily be dismissed as the archaic complaints of an isolated and outdated few.

Regarding libraries, a “progressive” approach has increasingly accepted marketised solutions to service provision. As a profession we have broadly accepted the idea of members or users as “customers” or “consumers”, and accepted the need to adopt market strategies to meet their needs. Within the broader context of a societal shift towards neoliberalism, it is hardly surprisingly the societal consensus – the common sense of our time – has been replicated within libraries. This is so accepted that a rejection of this approach, for example rejecting the label of “customer”, has become seen to be old-fashioned and outdated.

This progressive approach to libraries is problematic. It advocates a belief there is a market relationship between the service and the user, with barriers placed between the two, and reduces the relationship between libraries and users to a transactional one with the library supplying information – viewed as a commodity in a market setting. Strategies based on market approaches seek ways to overcome these barriers, to better understand users and research their needs to market the service more effectively and to more efficiently provide commodified information. However, we argue a more radical approach might see library users incorporated into the library service itself in a model of co-creation of service and co-production of knowledge, with librarians challenging dominant, marketised models of service provision. In a model of co-creation or co-ownership users would own the service as much as those running it. This would negate a need to “market” the service or to promote “customer service” as users would already be fully embedded within the service itself.

While not perfect by any means, the approach taken at Mondragon University in Spain offers an example of what can be possible if we re-calibrate the relationship between our services and our users. Rather than making the user distinct from the service, the user (in this case the student) is incorporated into the running of the university. Mondragon realises this through a democratic governance structure with a General Assembly composed of a third staff, a third students, and a third outside interested parties. As David Matthews’ article notes, this Assembly has significant powers from deciding priorities to dismissing senior managers. This is certainly radical in the current climate of higher education in the United Kingdom.

The Mondragon approach is far from ideal. It does, however, point to alternative ways of delivering HE and, potentially, for delivering services to students and our broader publics, and there are lessons we can learn and utilise for delivery of academic and public library services. There is no doubt this sits outside the normative discourse in UK HE. It is, in that sense, a radical and forward-thinking approach in opposition to the conservative marketised approach that dominates.

The problem we face is, increasingly, alternatives to the market-based approach such as that offered at Mondragon, seem so far removed from the dominant ideology as to be almost impossible to imagine within the existing framework. As we have moved further down a consumerist path, the default position of our profession has shifted further towards neoliberalism so alternatives become increasingly seen as too “radical”. Whereas a rejection of a market-based approach was once seen as acceptable, partly due to it being at odds with our professional ethics, such opposition has become seen to act as a barrier or an unnecessary restrainer on progress, and those expressing such moderate views have become irritants that “hold us back”. On the other hand, those enthused by commodification of information and market approaches are motivated and driven to enact changes they feel are necessary.

As once-moderate alternatives are seen as increasingly radical, so that creates a range of problems. Spaces for resistance shrink and the effect is to make a move to an alternative seem so large, that it seems barely possible to realise. Indeed, the effort to engender such change becomes so large as to encourage a sense of hopelessness at the task ahead. This hopelessness itself paralyses opposition to neoliberal approaches and even inhibits engagement with the issues at hand. People feel that the task is so substantial, so difficult, that it is not worth making an effort to challenge the dominant ideology.

This plays out against a backdrop of economic crises and austerity economics that make any form of resistance that much more challenging. For example, in public libraries we see fears that during cuts to public services those who speak against the dominant ideology will be those targeted first as trouble-makers. In higher education we see the use of political policing and other forms of repression of student and trade union protests as a warning not to resist.

The library profession is hampered by a growing apathy at its centre. There is a motivated or ‘activist’ core on both sides, both driven by ideological convictions to realise alternatives in the delivery of services. But there is a disengaged, detached middle who are less motivated. This middle are a powerful weapon for the forces of progression. They can be counted on not to protest or resist because they lack the motivation or will to engage on this level, due either to exhaustion or a more general apathy.

This is not to apportion blame, or pretend we can deliver a radical alternative by being a bit more professionally engaged. Across the board we see a tendency for people to engage less with the forces affecting them, evidenced by declining political party membership and declining trades union and professional organisation membership. Opposition is stymied and alternative paths are inhibited as we lack both spaces and structures within which to organise and the willingness itself to resist.

Herein lies a major challenge for radicals to overcome. The odds are stacked against them both in terms of those driving “progression” and an exhausted or disengaged middle. Disengagement benefits orthodoxy after all, not alternatives: the alternative requires action, progressives merely require a weak, ineffectual alternative to prevail.

Advocates for a radical alternative need to be patient. With the odds so stacked against them, an alternative approach will not be quickly accepted and adopted: it will take time. Radical alternatives must be constructed carefully and persuasively. At this stage, the most significant victory for the radical alternative can have is to open dialogue about the alternatives. Without dialogue, without alternatives being voiced and discussed, there is no hope for a radical alternative. So long as the progressive option is dominant and unchallenged, it will remain ascendant.

We need public discussion about the alternatives because it sparks interest, galvanises those who lean towards a radical alternative, and in doing so, builds momentum for a movement. But in sparking discourse, the radical alternative must capture the language. It has to re-frame the discussion. It has to be made clear that the “progressive” course is not forward-thinking, but rather sits within a conservative viewpoint that accepts the dominant ideology, rather than pushing against it to create something new and alternative. It is not true progression but rather it is drift – in part due to the lack of critical analysis that would accompany serious progression.

It is possible to create an alternative. We have the skill and imagination to construct an alternative vision to that which sits comfortably with the dominant ideology. But to do so we must communicate the alternative clearly and publicly. We must be careful in how we utilise language to ensure that the alternative is not perceived to be simply harking back to the past, but as something new and challenging. Something that has not previously been visualised or realised. Something that is distinct from the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Something alternative. Something radical.