“Impostor syndrome” – a product of indoctrination?

impostor
Edited image c/o Tom Woodward on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Ever since #radlib15, I’ve been considering“impostor syndrome” and some of the issues that emerge as a result of its existence (read Andrew Preater’s more thoughtful take if you want to skip to the end of this). First, I want to begin by challenging and reframing the term, because it raises issues around the notion of it being a “syndrome” that, by extension, can be treated. I think the reality is that rather than a “syndrome” it could equally be considered as a form of indoctrination and perhaps should be more appropriately termed “impostor indoctrination”. Indoctrination, because I would argue this is a feeling that is imposed upon us we are supposed to have, rather than something that emerges due to an irrational thought process. It is a constructed state of mind, rather than the naturalised one that the term “syndrome” implies.

During #radlib15 I identified my own personal experience of this feeling. I come from a working class background, was educated in Kent (a county which still has selection at 11), I didn’t go to the grammar school and instead went to the state comprehensive – because, effectively, I “wasn’t good enough” to go to the local grammar school (it was argued in a tribunal that I would probably “struggle” at the grammar school, whereas I would perform well at the state comprehensive). This was followed by average grades at school, followed by below average university (for my chosen field) and several years of working in retail. I then had the fortune to meet my partner, who is a trained medical professional. Through her financial support, I was able to partake in postgraduate study, get my LIS qualification and, now, practice as a professionally qualified librarian.

The manifestations of “impostor syndrome”

My feeling that has emerged from this experience is one of “I do not belong here”. I come from what I consider to be a working class background, and yet I find myself in a professional that appears to be dominated by the middle class. No matter how my career develops from now on, I will always have that sense that I don’t belong here, because I was led to believe from the age of 11 that this is not for me. I’ll come back to this point later.

What was particularly interesting for me in this session is the perspective of someone who self-identified as middle class in the same session. Their sense was not that they didn’t belong, more that they didn’t measure up to some idealised version of a library professional. Their “indoctrination”, if you like, emerged from some marketised ideal of what a professional should do and behave like. The impostor indoctrination had imposed an ideal. You should be here, and now you are, here is the standard you should attain. I should add at this point that this feeling is not restricted to librarianship, it affects all manifestations of labour.

I think this feeling and how it manifests itself varies according to class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc. How I as a white male of working class origin interprets this feeling is perhaps different from a white middle class woman and, likewise, a black working class man. There is no single definition of what this feeling is or how it manifests itself. This is also why I feel unifying such different and varying experiences and feelings as a “syndrome” is not quite an accurate representation of the sense that one is an “impostor”.

The Ideological State Apparatus

I would argue that the feeling is part of an indoctrination process, an effort to control and ensure discipline amongst a broad base. Indeed, I think that Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) theory could be used as a framework for understanding how this emerges. Althusser argued in 1970 that the ISA operated as a way to disseminate ideology amongst the general populace. ISAs exist in all aspects of society, but Althusser argues that the education ISA is the predominant one. Althusser argues:

“It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).”

Which begs the question, if you are expected to have been one of those “ejected” at 16, ie sent down a particular path which made an alternative outcome less likely (eg to become of the petit bourgeois or a “professional ideologist”), would that not instil a sense of being an “impostor” once you emerge as a member of the petit bourgeois or “professional ideologists”? After all, you were identified as not being suitable material for such a position, so to arrive there regardless of the barriers placed in your way must surely create a sense of unease that you had somehow cheated the system and are at risk of being found out?

Althusser goes on to argue:

Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence’, of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.).

The education ISA is fundamental in schooling individuals in the dominant ideology but also in providing them with the ideology that suits the role they have to fulfil in society. If we then find ourselves in a position that we were not destined to fulfil, ie we were put on a path that pre-supposes you were more likely to be ejected “into production”, that would surely create a tension – a tension that ultimately emerges as a rejection of the indoctrination process thus it becomes a feeling of being out of place that emerges from a condition of indoctrination?

Likewise, there are those for whom  arrival at “the summit” is planned and expected. For this group, certain ideological expectations are placed upon them. They are expected and destined to exist at the summit, to act as “agents of exploitation”, “repression” and “professional ideologists”. Those that reject or do not exhibit the expected behavioural norms of the position, or who do not feel that they measure up to these expectations, are then also subjected to a sense that they are in the wrong place, because they do not feel they can measure up to that standard. Rather than feeling “I do not belong”, there is a sense that they are not fulfilling the expectations of those at “the summit”.

Ultimately, this tension is a desired effect of the educational ISA and ISAs in general. Indeed, this state of tension, of anxiety, the feeling of being an “impostor” is desired because it is a disciplinary technique. So long as people worry about whether they are in the right place or whether they are worrying about the standard/expectations that the educational ISA has inculcated within them, they will not challenge or upset the status quo. A precarious, anxious class is easier to control than one that is confident and assured. They will not challenge the status quo because their concerns are focused on development, on eradicating that feeling of being an “impostor”.

Precarity and anxiety

This feeling, as previously stated, affects us all. A feeling of insecurity is necessary, if not vital, to ensure discipline and maintain the status quo. As Richard Seymour puts it:

“For precarity is something that isn’t reserved for a small, specialised group of people – “the precariat” or whoever. It spreads. It affects us all. The whip of insecurity disciplines even those who were recently comfortable.”

The impostor indoctrination affects all of us, it ensures a widespread sense of insecurity in a variety of manifestation, all of which ensure discipline and help to maintain the status quo. Late capitalism has made us all “the precariat”, not just in the sense of creating a sense that our jobs our vulnerable, but also in creating a permanent sense of doubt about our capabilities, about our skills and knowledge. This unease, emerging from the indoctrination process through the educational ISA that either sets up an unobtainable ideal or that creates anxiety in those that have somehow cheated the system, ensures order and equilibrium in the system are maintained.

This creation of anxiety to maintain order has been a strategy throughout the history of capitalism. As Esme Choonara notes in “Is there a precariat?”:

“Over a hundred years ago Karl Marx explained how bosses use the threat of a ‘reserve army’ of unemployed workers to attempt to discipline those in work.”

To maintain order and compliance, one merely needs to create anxiety. Anxious labour is compliant labour. Compliant labour is, in the eyes of the elite, productive labour. Labour that is confident and engaged is ultimately a threat to the established order, because confident labour will seek to influence and challenge the established order. Better to create anxiety and unease than to risk disrupting the status quo which benefits the elite. Throughout history we find examples of regimes that use anxiety and fear to assert their authority and to ensure labour produces that which the leaders require.

This feeling, impostor indoctrination/syndrome however you wish to define it, is not only widespread, it’s also part of a deliberate tactic to ensure that the dominant ideology is not only maintained, but reinforced. Inward looking anxieties ensure control and discipline. If we are concerned about the precarity of our jobs, or focused on concerns around with whether we should be in a certain place, or whether we are measuring up to a standard that has been defined for us, we are distracted from the structures we exist within. For if we do not believe we are where we should be, or that we measure up to some standard, how can we hope to challenge and change the system? We cannot, and that is exactly what the system is designed to do.

 

Vandr – what is it and why should we take notice of it?

vandr
Image c/o Neo_II on Flickr (cc-by)

The following article was written for Information Today Europe, my thanks for permission to re-share the article here.

Digital natives. It’s a phrase that’s been commonly used in the media for some time now. Whether it’s in scare stories about the “decline in reading” to a supposed shift in work environments to how people engage in the democratic process, it’s a term and an idea that is pervasive when it comes to how we talk about the ways in which people use the internet. Pervasive, and yet entirely misguided. There is, of course, no such thing as a digital native, it’s a lazy reductive media term to describe a much more complex set of behaviours.

The theory of digital natives emerged as a result of a paper by Marc Prensky called Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants [PDF] in which he noted a radical change in students thanks to their immersion in new digital technologies. Prensky labelled these students as “digital natives” – ‘“native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet’. Alternatively, Prensky identified those that were not born into the digital world but have latterly adopted the technologies as “digital immigrants” – ultimately dividing individuals between the two groups when it comes to digital technologies.

Of course, this theory now sounds not only misguided, but dangerous given the assumptions it makes about individuals and how they engage in digital spaces. Indeed, since espousing this theory, Prensky has moved on from this notion of natives and immigrants inhabiting digital spaces. However, this theory still maintains a hold on media narratives due to the simplistic interpretation of a complex idea that divides people neatly into two camps. So if even Prensky has moved on from this model, how can we effectively describe and identify the use of digital technologies?

In 2011, David White and Alison Le Cornu posited a new way of looking at how people engage with digital technologies. Acknowledging the flaws in Prensky’s theory, they argue that the actual picture is far more complex. For White and Le Cornu, engagement with digital technologies isn’t so much a fixed thing (ie you are either a “native” or an “immigrant”), rather they propose that engagement with digital spaces is actually on a continuum. In their paper, Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement, they introduce the concept of two particular types of behavior – visitor behaviour and resident behavior (vandr). These behaviours are defined as follows:

Visitor – visitors get what they want and go, they don’t see the internet as a social space and have no interest in prolonged engagement.

Residents – residents see the internet as a social space and are happy to engage with others.

White and Le Cornu argue that the majority of people flit between the two behaviour types. One may exhibit visitor behaviours when, for example, they are booking flights or when visiting websites for a very specific purpose without wishing to leave behind a digital footprint. Alternatively, people exhibiting resident behaviours will have a tendency to engage, to use the internet as a social space to engage with others. Generally speaking, the vast majority of individuals move between the two, sometimes behaving as residents, sometimes as visitors depending on their needs or motivations.

This approach to understanding internet behaviours can be a particularly valuable way to consider the ways in which we deliver and facilitate access to information. Once we understand the ways in which people use the internet, the behaviours they exhibit and the needs they have, we can better orientate services to ensure that these needs are met effectively. For example, how we use social media in the context of visitor and resident behaviours can be a useful way to consider how these tools are utilised, ensuring that they are orientated in a way that takes into account these behaviours.

However, it’s also important to note that these modes aren’t necessarily an indicator of skill in utilising social media. As Donna Lanclos, anthropologist and noted critic of the “digital native” theory, puts it:

“People operate in Visitor mode because they find it useful, because the thing they are trying to do is operational, not because they are ‘not good at Twitter.’  And people are on Twitter, or FB, sometimes because they are connecting with people (and therefore operating in Resident mode) but sometimes because they want information (and are operating in Visitor mode).  Not because they are ‘good at social media’.”

Social media and visitor behaviours are not, therefore, mutually exclusive. You can still act in visitor mode and use social media as a tool, just a tool with a specific focus rather than as a tool to facilitate communication.

This theory of internet behaviours has had a substantial impact in terms of the ways in which I view social media and how I can use make more effective use of these tools. It has been, for me, a really useful way to frame social media use, focusing on particular tools, looking at how they are used and then considering the behaviours that they suit, and adapting their use to take advantage of this.

For example, blogs have great potential to be used as a tool to meet visitor behaviours. In my current role, I have orientated my blog to provide content for my School in a nice simple format, enabling them to access information quickly and efficiently. In providing a space that packages up key pieces of information in a way that is clear and accessible, I ensure individuals can get what they want and go. No more hunting around for guides on databases, a clear section on my blog provides a full list of the main ones. We know that when people want to access information, exhibiting visitor behaviours, they just want to be able to access the information quickly and efficiently. Large library websites are often a barrier to this, a more focused blog offers a way to meet visitor behaviour without provoking frustration as time is wasted finding the information they require.

Alternatively, tools such as Instagram are great tools for those operating in resident mode. As I noted in workshops last year at the NAG conference, Instagram users spend approximately 257 mins per month on the site. At just under 10mins per day, it appears to suggest the tool is used by those happily exhibiting resident behaviors (Pinterest users, according to figures published in 2012, spend approximately 98mins per month, suggesting people use it for a specific task). As I found when delivering my workshops, those in the 16-24 age bracket have long since shifted to the service from Facebook etc as a place to share visual content (a recent Ofcom report found that 35% of 16-24 year olds use Instagram as opposed to 16% of all adults – PDF). With that level of engagement, it clearly makes the case for library services to engage in this space and provide content that takes advantage of the resident mode users appear to be in when using the service.

Whilst it is useful to consider social media in reference to visitor and resident behaviours, it’s important not to be restrictive in how it is factored into social media use. As David White himself explains:

“What’s key here is to recognise that the type of platform does not mandate the mode of use. Apparently ‘resident’ style platforms such as blogs and Twitter are used very effectively by individuals in ‘visitor’ mode. Focusing on mode of engagement rather than specific technologies leads to more elegant and effective engagement strategies.”

Whilst it is useful to use these behaviours as a framework, it’s important not to fall into the trap of believing that Twitter is only ever used in resident mode. Tools such as Twitter are equally used effectively by those wishing to obtain information without leaving a footprint (searches and hashtags are particularly helpful in this regard). Social media platforms aren’t visitor or resident specific, rather they often meet the needs of these modes in different ways.

This notion of behaviours on a continuum is, I think, a really helpful way to consider how people use digital spaces. As Ned Potter puts it, there is the potential to “use social media platforms to provide easy entry points for Visitors seeking information AND use it to add our voice to a more Residential space and provide help and information as part of a community”. Prensky’s approach was very much of its time, but it’s important to move beyond that and understand that how people engage with online spaces is far more complex than the media (and others!) may like to present it.

Reflections on radical librarianship and #radlib15

anarchism
Image c/o Travis Gray on Flickr.

The Radical Librarian Collective has come a long way since it first started to emerge back in 2013. Back then I think it is fair to say that many of us involved in getting it off the ground had no idea two years later the third RLC gathering would have drawn to a close. Back then it was a bunch of like-minded people who felt that there was a need to bring radical politics into the discourse and had a vague idea that others might wish to engage in challenging some of the drift that had taken place in recent years.

Since those heady days of 2013, a lot has happened. As mentioned above, there have now been three gatherings of like-minded folk, an OA journal has emerged, there’s now a mailing list to encourage discussion across the library and information sector and there was the creation of an Open Access declaration to encourage a commitment to producing content that is free from copyright restrictions. Much has been achieved with much more still to do. As I always argue, the key to development is infrastructure building which must be progressed quickly to ensure momentum and avoid co-option (which emerged but currently appears to have been seen off).

What has been particularly notable has been the way RLC has been received. Initially there was a somewhat dismissive response (something that occurs when people build infrastructure that challenges accepted narratives), if not openly mocking. It’s noticeable in the last two years how that has declined as barely noticeable now. Partly, I think, this is due to a growing belief in the values and ideas behind radical librarianship. I’ve certainly noticed a growing radical rhetoric within the profession, particularly in the United States where a number of influential and highly respected individuals have been taking clear radical stances on key issues affecting our practice. Perhaps the highlights being Barbara Fister’s keynote at Lilac [pdf] and The Nation‘s coverage of Alison Macrina’s work in the United States (taking radical librarianship to the front page of a well-respected left-wing publication). We are still at early stages, but the movement has gathered momentum and asserting confidence, which perhaps explains the decline of the dismissals.

But what of #radlib15?

Once more the day was filled with interesting discussion and a political take on some of the issues that we face. In terms of my input, I ran or co-ran two sessions on the day. The first, with Sarah Arkle, focused upon the creation of small RLC regional groups. This is, for me,of utmost importance.ive had several discussions with other RLC folks in recent weeks about how RLC can push forward as a thing. For me, the building of small groups is crucial. Ultimately, I believe, small distributed groups that are part of a larger national network is where we should be. The annual national gatherings should then be about pulling together these small regional groups to share actions, discuss activities and work together to strengthen all that underpins the radical librarianship movement. I think issues are best resolved locally rather than nationally, and where there are resolutions, they can be shared and incorporated across all groups, spreading throughout the network.

At the end of the day, we encouraged people to pull themselves together geographically and exchange contact details and, ultimately, organise. There was some talk about building local radical networks, so I’m pretty optimistic that this will start developing and I’m excited about the potential of it doing so. (You can find notes from the session here and here [pdf].)

The other session I proposed was on Althusser and Ideological State Apparatuses. I won’t get into this too much here as its something I would like to explore further in a long form piece of writing, exploring the theory and its relationship with our practice. The theory itself is something I stumbled upon last year and has been whirling around my head ever since I read the piece. I’ve always been interested in how ideologies are spread and disseminated throughout a populace and it’s something that I feel has a strong relationship with our work practice as facilitators of access to information.

In terms of the session itself, I felt that a discussion around this theory would be interesting because there are a number of points of discussion that could be brought into it. I’ve often remarked in discussion with people that specifics in relation to theory is my weak point. Whilst my entire first year on the English Literature aspect of my undergrad was literary theory (which, by the way, I think looking back was vital in developing my critical thinking skills – Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory being the only text we really devoured for a year), I have never been good with specific theories. Indeed, the history aspect of my degree has had a much greater influence on the way in which I understand the world around me from a political perspective. Essentially. I like to learn from the deeds of others rather than the thoughts of others.

In terms of the Althusser piece, I think there is some interesting theory for the theorists to get stuck into, but there are also ideas that are very easy to relate to our practice and how we operate. It was for this reason I thought it would be a good point of discussion and certainly I got the impression that similarly non-theory minded folk got as much out of it as the theory orientated ones. One thing that I think did help with this session, was the 15mins of silent reading to begin with. Whilst I had posted the extract online before the event, I figured it would be good to just ensure we were all at the same starting point and just quietly read to ourselves within the group. Something about this seemed both somewhat radical (in an “unconference” that is all about talking and sharing ideas) but also calming coming as it did at the end of the day. Should I run a session like this again in the future, I will definitely try to incorporate that silent reading aspect once more. (You can find notes from the discussion here [pdf].)*

I took a lot from the other sessions on the day, but I won’t go into my feelings about every session here. There was, however, an interesting discussion about imposter “syndrome” (which was recognised as a problematic term due to the connotations around clinicalising the feeling) that got me thinking a lot about class and the marketisation of our role. This arose as a result of a couple of blog posts by Elly O’Brien and Laura Woods. My take on this as a thing is entirely personal, but having grown up in a working class household in Kent (where we have selection whereby at age 11 you are either sent to a grammar school with supposedly higher standards of learning or a state comprehensive) I can identify with the notions of being somewhat of a fraud. What was interesting was hearing how this feeling manifests itself in those from a middle class background. I’d roughly characterise this as:

“I shouldn’t be here” (working class) vs “I’m not measuring up to the expected professional norm” (middle class)

That’s a rough approximation (obviously nothing is as binary as that), I’d be interested in how others view the distinction.

It was also interesting to consider the disconnect between a marketised version of ourselves and the ‘real’. The trauma of this disconnect thus provoking stress and anxiety which feeds into a feeling of being an “imposter”. It’s an interesting area of discussion when taking into account class issues as well as the neoliberal construct and the extent to which this provokes a trauma related to an unattainable ideal.

As always, I took a lot away from the day and it will take me some time to process things fully. What I have identified, however, is that sense that these discussions are becoming accepted and there have been efforts to try to incorporate them more widely in the discourse (see the recent CILIP Conference). As I have argued before though, this is a dangerous moment for those of a radical persuasion. The more ideas are incorporated into mainstream discourse, the further away they move from their radical roots. In essence: be aware of co-option. The ideas and concerns that lay behind RLC are radical in nature and sit outside mainstream discourse – that should not be forgotten.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a Schopenhauer mis-attributed quote (to Schopenhauer) I wish I had been aware of when I wrote about the journey of radical language a little while back:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

I think this is something I can certainly identify with as things have developed over the past two years.

I feel very fortunate to have been involved in two entities that have had at least some influence on general discourse relating to our practice. Both Voices for the Library and RLC have been (and continue to be) things I feel fortunate to be associated with. Not only because of what they represent and what they have achieved, but also because they have enabled me to collaborate with people I hold in high regard and have a huge amount of respect for. Whilst I do reflect on what they have achieved thus far with a certain degree of “how on earth did this grow into something?”, my focus is always on the process of building and pushing things forward. So I look forward to the continual construction of infrastructure with fellow radicals in order that we can continue to build solidarity and mutual support in the face of an ideology to which we are united in opposition.

* Further to this, I am looking at establishing (alongside fellow like-minds) a radical library chat with the first one being a discussion of Althusser’s ideas. I hope to get this up and running within the next two weeks so keep an eye on RLC for details.

How do we attain liberty?

Liberty
Adapted from an image by Amaya Rodrigo on Flickr (CC BY-NC license).

We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.

– George Orwell

One of the things that has interested me in recent years is the seemingly increasing numbers of self-identifying “libertarians” inserting themselves in public discourse. This is true of the media in generally, but particularly on social media where barely a day goes by without a “libertarian” invading your space and offering their own particular perspective on society. What I find particularly interesting, however, is that these “libertarians” appear to put themselves on the extreme right of the political spectrum. You could accurately describe them as far-right given their very extreme belief in small state and economic freedoms (obviously such a description is upsetting to right-wing libertarians given the way that description has historically been applied, but it is perhaps the most accurate description of their position). That they predominantly use a medium that wouldn’t exist were it not for state investment we should perhaps put to one side.

What I find interesting in their beliefs is their view that they are the ultimate defenders of liberty. That only the libertarian right are truly advancing the cause of liberty by continually and persistently lobbying for a smaller state and less state regulation, predominantly less economic orientated regulation but also a superficial focus on personal liberty. Superficial because, I would contend, it is not actually the right that are the true keepers of the flame of liberty, but the left.

The left has been tainted for some time as the movement for the large state. That a left-wing ideology advocates for a large state with a small corporate sector, and a certain curtailment of individual liberty. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the 20th century was dominated by a particularly malevolent form of socialism which was authoritarian and deeply oppressive in nature. However, at its core, left-wing ideology is ultimately an ideology of liberty and true freedom, rather than one of bureaucratic control and state authority.

A right-wing libertarian ideological approach, however, is painted as one where individual freedoms are valued and can be achieved through the shrinking of the state and the freeing up of corporate power. But is this really the case? Will a smaller state and less restricted private sector actually lead to greater freedom and liberty for the individual?

When I think about the cutting back of state regulation of the private sector, I immediately identify such a rolling back of regulations with an assault on workers’ rights. So often the regulation that is restricting big business is there as a bulwark to protect the rights of the workers as well as of wider society. The “cutting of red tape” so often results in disempowering the workforce or relieving big business of its responsibilities to the communities in which they operate. Devoid of the “burden of regulation”, would large businesses really operate altruistic and in a way that encourages individual freedom? Or would they act in a way that would impede the freedoms of citizens? If one was to examine how a corporation operates (hierarchically, often with very strict controls on the actions of its workforce via contractual agreements), one could only conclude that they would not encourage freedom, but continue to act in a way that limits individual freedom and is authoritarian in nature.

When I look at my own field of work, I have to conclude that the road to libertarianism as envisaged by the right is a mirage. Look at the publishing industry. Should publishers be completely free to operate without state restriction, would they operate in an altruistic way that strengthens individual freedom? No, they would not. Would a publisher enable an ebook, for example, to be distributed freely and without restriction, without those in receipt compensating the publisher? Unlikely. Would a publisher enable large tracts of its work to be copied and distributed without impediment? No, it would not. If it hurts their income stream, it is a threat to their existence. Where it is a threat to their existence, they must take measures to limit the damage it causes. By taking action on this threat, they are limiting individual liberty. Allowing them to operate entirely freely does not free the individual, it merely frees the profit making enterprise.

In terms of the approach by the left, the road to liberty would initially take a more authoritarian strand in the short-term but this is necessary to achieve the desired outcome: individual liberty. So, regulation is needed to protect the individual in the first instance, but it may be necessary for the state to assume control of the means of production (ie the publisher), thus ensuring that the threat of “copyright theft” no longer applies as the state is not seeking to make a profit, rather it is purely there to ensure that production takes place. As we move into a left-libertarian approach, we would find that not only is the corporate entity no longer in existence, but neither is the state. The copying and distribution of texts would, consequently, result in no penalty (arguably in a left-libertarian state, capital would be abolished) and rather would be a natural state of being. This would result, therefore, in a strengthening of individual liberty. In the right-libertarian “state”, corporate interests would be able to punish and restrict the freedoms of the individual. Without a threat of punishment, the individual truly becomes free.

I would contend, therefore, that the road to liberty is a road that branches left rather than branches right. It is the left that ensures liberty, it is the right that creates the illusion of liberty through a superficial economic freedom that ultimately shifts power from the state to corporate entities rather than to the people. A true libertarian, therefore, can only be of the left, never of the right and the notion of a right-wing libertarianism is, essentially, an intellectual fraud. The challenge for the left, is to once more take ownership of the cause of liberty and ensure that the left’s vision of justice and liberty is the default.

How “austerity” will exacerbate the effects of the digital divide

Image c/o Derek Bruff on Flickr.

During the last parliament, the Coalition government introduced a number of changes to the benefits system, one of the key changes for the unemployed was the introduction of Universal Jobmatch and the requirement to use the service to seek employment. The problems with this service were obvious (to all apart from the government it appeared). Despite the perception that we are all online in this digital world, there remains a significant proportion of the population that have either never been online or do not have internet access at home.

The latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) underline that despite a decline in numbers of people that have never used the internet (down 1% to 5.9m people in total), lack of connectivity remains a significant hurdle for a sizeable proportion of the working age population. Whilst there has been positive talk in the media about the steady decline of those that have never been online (whilst noting with some surprise that even in this day and age there are people who have never opened a web browser), there has been little exploration of the impact this divide has in terms of government policy (Sky hints at it in their sub-headline – “despite the internet being a key part of everyday life” but doesn’t go beyond that).

According to the estimates provided by the ONS, approximately 1.4m people of working age have never used the internet (ie people aged from 16-64). Although the figures are not available with regard to internet access within the home, we can safely assume that there are more than 1.4m people of working age that do not have an internet connection at home. That said, the ONS does report that around 1.1m people overall last used the internet more than three months ago which would lead us to estimate approximately 6-7m do not have internet access at home. We’re probably getting on for nearly 2m people of working age that do not have the internet at home (although that’s a guess based on the available data, rather than evidence based). How many of those are also currently unemployed is difficult to say as the ONS report doesn’t provide this level of data.

Estimates for number of people that have never used the internet by age (%age).
Percentage of people that have never used the internet by age.

Furthermore, the figures are particularly stark when it comes to disabled people. According to ONS estimates, 3m people “who self-assess that they have a disability in line with the Equality Act definition of disability” (to use the ONS terms) have never used the internet – approximately 27% of disabled adults. Furthermore, of the 1.1m who had last used the internet more than three months ago, 0.5m were disabled adults. For the 16-24 age bracket, 95% were recent users of the internet compared to 99% for non-disabled users.

The estimates for both those of working age and disabled people underlines the difficulties many will suffer due to government policy towards benefits and unemployment. Both those that have never used the internet and those who do not have access at home face significant barriers in terms of seeking employment. They are at a disadvantage anyway due to the increasing expectation by employers that applications will be submitted online, the government’s reinforcement of this by requiring the use of Universal Jobmatch simply exacerbates the problem. That the areas where the numbers of people that have never accessed the internet also tend to be areas of the country with high unemployment simply underlines the difficulties many will face.

According to the ONS, the ten regions with the highest proportion of the population that have never accessed the internet are:

Counties %age never been online
Northern Ireland 18.8
Highlands and Islands 16.9
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly 16.8
West Wales and the Valleys 15.7
Lincolnshire 15.2
Merseyside 14.8
South Western Scotland 14.6
South Yorkshire 14.4
Lancashire 14.3
West Midlands 13.3

The regions with the lowest proportion of people who have never used the internet:

Counties %age never been online
Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire 9.8
Dorset and Somerset 9.6
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire 9.5
Outer London 9
Kent 9
Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Bristol/Bath area 9
North Eastern Scotland 8.5
Inner London 8.2
Surrey, East and West Sussex 7.9
Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire 6.7

It hardly comes as a great surprise to see southern counties with a low proportion of people that have never used the internet, whilst the north has significantly higher proportions in some cases (there’s an 8.5% difference between Berkshire et al and Lincolnshire for example). It’s also not surprising to discover that the areas with high levels of non-internet use also seem to match up with areas of high unemployment.

The most recent statistics for unemployment provided by the ONS aren’t broken down in quite the same way as the figures for internet use, rather than counties they are broken down by region:

Region %age unemployed
North East 7.5
Wales 6.7
Yorkshire and Humber 6.6
West Midlands 6.4
London 6.2
Scotland 6
North West 5.7
East Midlands 4.9
East 4.4
South West 4.3
South East 4.2


Although it’s hard to draw substantive conclusions with data pulled from two distinct datasets, it does seem that areas of high unemployment coincide with areas where higher numbers of people have never been online. More investigation would need to be conducted to see exactly what proportion of those that have never used the internet in areas of high unemployment are unemployed (or in employment with limited job security – eg zero hours contracts). That said, it’s highly likely that those 1.4m people of working age that have never used the internet are in a particularly troublesome position. With an increasing demand to use the internet to seek employment, those 1.4m are clearly disadvantaged as they do not have the skills or access enjoyed by those that are online. Without a level playing field in terms of internet access, many of them will find it difficult to obtain secure long-term employment.

It’s also worth noting that within those areas of high unemployment and relatively high numbers of people that have never been online, public libraries provide an absolutely crucial service. By providing free internet access and trained members of staff that can provide the support required, they can make a huge difference in closing the digital divide for the 1.4m of working age that have never been online. Without a public library in which they can access the internet, it is difficult to see how those who are unemployed can get online and seek work. In the areas of high unemployment listed above, the public library will be a vital service in terms of getting individuals back into work. Any library closures in these areas will hit the unemployed particularly hard.

Unfortunately, with a mandate to further pursue a programme based on voodoo economics (ie “austerity”), it is hard to believe that libraries won’t be hit hard over the coming five years. However, you cannot both cut funding to statutory services (like public libraries) and expect to reach “full employment”, because those statutory services will be the mechanism by which people get into work because they do level the playing field, ensuring “opportunity for all”. As cuts to funding accelerate over the coming years, it seems fair to say that the consequence of the digital divide will be increasingly grim for the unemployed as support services are stripped right back, leading to increasing numbers of sanctions and, quite possibly, an ever growing demand for food banks. The consequences of the digital divide during a period of austerity are clear: precarious employment, poverty (in employment as well as for the unemployed) and a “recovery” that seems even further away than it did in 2010.

It Was Nationalism Wot Won It

Image c/o Brad Hammonds on Flickr.

It’s taken me some time to process the outcome of last week’s election. A part of me has been in denial ever since waking up that Friday morning and discovering that not only had the Tories garnered more seats than Labour, but had also managed to garner a majority (albeit a fairly slim one). The one small bright spot for me? That UKIP failed to succeed in increasing their number of MPs in Kent, indeed, managing to lose their only MP in the county. Small comfort when their share of the vote massively increased of course.

Of course, in many respects, I shouldn’t be too disappointed. I’m not a Labour voter after all. However, I am “of the left” so whilst I wasn’t a supporter I would obviously have preferred a Labour government to a Tory one, no matter how far to the right the Labour party resides (for all the predictable blather from the right-wing press, they hardly stood on a socialist platform). But the sheer horror of the reality of a majority government is already starting to unfold with the attack on Human Rights legislation and proposed restrictions on freedom of speech (who said the Right doesn’t do authoritarianism?). Whilst I have my issues with the Labour party, and whilst they may have a dubious record on surveillance, I certainly feel like my civil liberties would have been afforded more protection under Miliband than Cameron (again, political rhetoric in general would suggest this runs against what the left and the right stand for).

What is clear to me is that nationalism was the winner in this election. Varying types of nationalism of course, but nationalism nonetheless. A more benign, civic nationalism in Scotland, and a resurgent English nationalism (perhaps fuelled in part by Tory propaganda about the impact of SNP influence in Westminster). I have my issues with nationalism in general, but I understand that, on the face of it at least, Scottish nationalism is at least benign in comparison to its English counterpart. Racism and xenophobia certainly play no part in the agenda of the SNP. The same cannot be said for the English variant of course.

And this is where the problem lies, I believe, for the Labour party if it is to have any hope of forming a government of any description in 2020 (whether in coalition or, seemingly unlikely, a majority government). The 2015 general election seems, to me anyway, to be a classic case of the Conservative approach to limiting the power and influence of the working class. As has always been the case, nationalism seeks to divide the working class, playing on fear as well as evoking a sense of patriotism. It has been a long-held tactic of the right to play on these fears and thus divide the working class, ensuring that any party that represents their interests has little chance of gaining traction.

Indeed, this is evidence of precisely this tactic being employed by the Conservatives and the Liberals between 1918-1922, as Selina Todd explains in her excellent The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class:

“After 1918 both Liberals and Conservatives worked hard to forge mutually beneficial alliances in English, Welsh and Scottish municipal politics. These alliances were, as the historian James Smyth points out, ‘always for one purpose – to keep Labour out of office’. They did so primarily by courting the vote of those electors who swelled the ranks of organisations like the Middle Class Union, and whose anxieties about taxation and working-class independence most Liberal and Conservative politicians shared. But these parties also offered a negative appeal to working-class voters, by promoting an anti-socialist message that stressed its links to ‘foreign’ Bolshevism, violence, tyranny and economic instability. Voting Conservative was, for some working-class men, a vote that marked them out as patriots…”

In this case, whilst there doesn’t as yet appear to be any data to corroborate it, it would appear that playing on the ‘fear’ of Scottish nationalism influencing Westminster led to some voters swinging behind the Tories.

Certainly the decline in the working class vote has been identified as a prime cause for Labour’s failure to turn their expected minority government into a reality. Initial voting analysis provided by the House of Commons Library indicates that the steady decline of the working class vote has continued in this election. According to Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth, the figures show that whilst the middle class Labour voter has remained steady, the working class has steadily declined:

2005 – 48% DE voters

2010 – 40%

2015 – 37%

For AB, C1 and C2 voters, Labour actually managed to make small increases on 2010.

As was expected, a Labour failure has brought out the Blairites who argue that a “return to the centre ground” is where electoral success lays. Of course, by “centre ground” they actually mean middle class voters, because that is the demographic New Labour acolytes are most interested in. “Aspiration” is already the keyword in the leadership campaign as the race to become The New Blair starts to take shape. Given Ed Miliband managed to marginally increase the middle class vote, it would appear that the “centre ground” should not be the prime concern for a party that was built to represent the interests of the working class.

For me it seems clear where the fault lines were in Labour’s election campaign. They made the grave error in 2010 of letting the Conservative party seize the narrative about the economic crisis. Whatever the reality of the situation (ie that Cameron and Osborne backed Labour spending and offered no alternative when the crash came), the image has stuck in the mind that Labour, once more, brought down the economy, like they always do (certainly that is a line that I often hear from my parents, both working class). That this was not effectively challenged was fatal and allowed the Tories to point the finger at Labour as a risky bet for a safe economy (of course, the Tories have pursued roughly similar policies since 2010, so not doubt there will be a further economic crash on their watch).

But they also failed to communicate a set of ideas that would alleviate the suffering of those at the bottom end of the income scale, those that have been hit hardest by five years of voodoo economics. The predatory capitalism analysis certainly rings true in terms of how our capitalist system operates in the United Kingdom, but what does it mean to someone being hammered by the bedroom tax, lower living standards, zero hour contracts and alike? It is the very people who the Labour party should represent that have been overlooked which has, as a result, hurt them greatly. It is not that Labour were too far left, nor even that they weren’t left enough, it’s simply that they didn’t manage to communicate effectively with those they were supposed to represent.

It would be, in my view, a fundamental mistake for the Labour party to further abandon the working class vote and chase after the middle class with talk of ‘aspiration’ and ‘wealth creators’. It is an extension of the same fundamental misunderstanding about the election in 1997 in which any Labour leader would have triumphed (I refuse to buy the narrative that Blair was somehow the man who rescued Labour, it was the Tories that rescued Labour). Of course, Labour may well choose this route in a desperate attempt to get to power by being ‘nice Tories’. I’m afraid that if they do, they will have already lost the election in 2020.

Radical librarianship and the language journey

House of Knowledge by Jaume Plensa, via Flickr.

Recently I attended the 2015 Lilac conference at Newcastle University. At some point I’ll write about this a bit more on my other blog, but something occurred to me whilst I was there and it got me thinking about the process of language in public (and in this case, professional) discourse. Specifically, I got to thinking about how frequently the term “neoliberal” had come up, which seemed at odds with the things I had been hearing from people who have been to such conferences in the past (this was only my second such conference).

Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that there is a very specific journey in terms of radical language and how it is processed in a professional context. I ultimately narrowed it down to five steps in terms of the journey of the term “radical librarian”, although admittedly I am not entirely happy with some of the terminology here:

Hidden
˅
Ridiculed/Dismissed
˅
Recognition
˅
Shift in outlook
˅
Embedded

Hidden – Virtually non-existent in professional discourse.
Ridiculed/Dismissed – Where the language emerges but the majority reject it or ridicule it.
Recognition – When it is clear a new perspective is emerging and then starts to enter the discourse.
Shift in Outlook – When the language and ideas start to shape perspectives.
Embedded – When it becomes a natural state of thinking (I’m not happy with this particular terminology actually, so I’m open – as always – to critiques/suggestions etc).

I see the Recognition stage as particularly crucial. It is at this point, after the language has emerged, that it is most susceptible to corruption and co-option. Once it becomes a thing that people are talking about, there is a danger that it begins to be seen as “a cool thing”, a thing that can enhance reputations or raise profiles rather than a thing that challenges the status quo. I see this stage as particularly dangerous if the ethos of “radical librarianship” is to remain true to itself. As the terminology emerges from the ridiculed dismissed stage, it becomes a term that some can use to differentiate themselves and enables them to be seen as visionary/alternative/leaders, capturers of the zeitgeist. This co-option waters down and weakens the radical baggage that comes with the term, turning it into something mainstream and non-radical. So, I’d argue that this shift from “dismissed” to “recognised” is very dangerous for those with a radical perspective.

The key, I believe, in maintaining the purity of the radical ideas expressed through language is to keep building radical infrastructure throughout the above language process. It’s important for radicals to keep building, to be strong and determined throughout every stage of the journey of the language. They must not be afraid to push forward when it is hidden, nor be cowed into abandoning it when they are ridiculed or dismissed. Likewise, when the recognition stage is reached, it is vital to ensure infrastructure is continually built and built openly and quickly. This would, in my mind, manifest itself in the continual growth of Radical Librarian Collective gatherings, in the further development of the journal and the various other means by which we communicate radical ideas.

I think that the process of continually building this infrastructure can undermine any attempts by the mainstream to weaken and undermine radicalism, for how can their co-option take root if authentic radical ideas are being built in parallel? How can they portray themselves successfully as radical, when it is clear that their ideas are not nearly as radical as they suggest? Rather than their ideas undermining radicalism, radicalism undermines their co-option.

It then follows if we successfully negotiate the recognition step, to continue to remain true to radical ideas, we can successfully shift outlook to a more radical perspective (rather than the mainstream, watered down variant). Once we shift outlook, we can reach a point where the radical ideas take hold and become the default as opposed to the position it held during the hidden/dismissed stages where it was marginalised. But the key is to keep building foundations, keep building infrastructure…if we stop, then we risk the danger of the recognition stage going against our favour and resulting in a perverted radicalism that serves to line pockets rather than engender real change.

As I said, these are very rough ideas that I’ve sketched out from what I have noticed in the professional discourse. I am not overly happy with some of the terminology I’ve used to describe the process as I see it (I’m unconvinced “Embedded” is a term that I believe aptly describes the final step that I envisage). But I would be interested to hear how others view this process and whether this holds true for them, or whether they have a different perspective.

What is a radical librarian?

 

Photo credit: ijclark cc-by.

I’ve considered and then abandoned writing on this topic before for many reasons. In some respects, I felt it was too introspective and expending too much time and energy on something that is really a fringe concern (I’d rather concentrate on doing stuff than getting into a drawn out cycle of discussion about language etc). But it keeps cropping up as a point of discussion so I thought I’d put my thoughts down, not least to ensure that in future I can just point to a URL rather than repeat the same perspective ad nauseum.

I would like to add that these are my personal views and my personal interpretation of the terminology. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation I am affiliated to (I want to make that clear in case people assume that the definition I use for the term “radical” is the definition everyone involved in RLC subscribes to) and I accept that there will be those who hold to very different interpretations of the term than that which I subscribe to. I obviously don’t believe that the following is definitive, and I would certainly very much value other perspectives on this, not least to more fully inform my thinking.

The first thing I think is important to clarify is that, for me, radical doesn’t mean smashing up windows or engaging in illegal and violent activity. You know, the kind of radical that the media likes to present to us. Radicalism for me doesn’t mean violence or even law-breaking*. I think those who have difficulties with the word “radical” break down broadly into two groups: those who think it represents a violent/law-breaking attitude and those who think the term itself is a bit, well, teenage. Being a radical (in whatever form) does not mean that one is either violent or a law-breaker. There is, clearly, a difference between a criminal and a radical.

Last year I wrote a post explaining how librarians enable neoliberalism with particular reference to Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses” (such as education, which is obviously an area where librarians play a key role). Althusser argued that the dominant ideology is reinforced by these ISAs. That the dominant ideology relies on these state apparatuses to ensure it can consolidate its influence, reinforcing its dominance. This notion of the dominant ideology (ie capitalism) is, principally, where I draw my definition of the term radical.

For me, what is radical is to offer something that stands in opposition to the dominant ideology.  Rather than accept the capitalist environment within which we operate, a radical position would be to not only oppose it, but to advocate something that runs counter to it. Because for me, to be radical in the current environment is to reject the language and ideology of capitalism and to work towards something different, something that runs counter to the orthodoxy.

As the position of the radical is determined by the dominant ideology, I would argue that a radical now is not necessarily a radical “then”. In other words, with respect to librarians, the roots of our profession are tied up with certain professional ethics. These ethics, in a neoliberal society, are attacked and, if we are not careful, severely diminished. But remaining true to these ethical roots is by nature radical. Should we, despite the best efforts to erode and corrupt our values, remain true to our ethical foundation, then by definition we are remaining defiant to the dominant ideology. Navigating through a neoliberal, extreme capitalist environment whilst holding onto our core values, is a radical act, because the conditions are designed to weaken and corrupt our resolve.

Basically, for me, a radical librarian is someone who remains true to the core ethical foundations of our profession…in fact, not even stays true, has it at the core of everything they do. But it is also about rejecting the dominant ideology and about seeking to find ways to undermine this ideology. For me, undermining it could be allowing a space for these ideas to be discussed and built upon. It could be in creating a journal, in building a physical event whereby like-minds can share ideas and plan actions, in seeking to explore alternative structures/approaches to those that currently exist within the profession. It does not mean engaging in violent activity, in militancy. You are a radical, in my view, merely in challenging that dominant ideology.

I’m not sure how much all of that even makes sense and I’m certainly not sure if I have even clarified how I define what it is to be “radical”. I’d obviously like to hear more about how others define it. Whether you agree with how I interpret it or not. Ultimately, the hippy that I am, I would like to see if there is some consensus in how we interpret what it is to be “radical”. Not least because the above doesn’t even really satisfy me, even as an entirely personal interpretation.

Update 6/5/15

* I should have added here that whilst radicalism ≠ violence or law-breaking, some may wish to express their radicalism in these ways. What I am getting at here is that being a radical is not necessarily expressed through violence or law-breaking.

Interview for El Mundo Web Social

(Full image available CC-BY – ijclark.)

The following interview on communications and radical librarianship was conducted with El Mundo Web Social (you can read the original Spanish version here). Many thanks to Fernando Jerez for approaching me to be interviewed on these topics for his site, it certainly got me thinking about the motivations behind some of the things I do, as well as considering what are, I think, the fundamentals of a good communications strategy.

  1. You are working in a university library. What do you think about the situation regarding adaptation (training) of fellow professionals in terms of social networks?

I think social media has come a long way in libraries in recent years. Whereas there has been some reluctance to engage with the medium in the past, I’d argue that we have moved on significantly in the past couple of years. It is no longer seen as a fringe communication tool that we can ignore if we choose, rather it has become an essential tool in our communications armoury.

That said, there are still some in libraries who, whilst seeing the need for it at an organisational level, don’t see the value of it as a professional tool or as a tool that needs to be on their radar. It’s still seen as fringe in a professional context, even if not in an over-arching organisational sense. There are difficulties associated with this, particularly as social networks help to foster professional discourse and enable the profession to progress in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible before when practitioners were so widely dispersed and often remote. I think it is important to talk about and demonstrate the value of engaging in the medium, but ultimately we have to accept that some will not be converted.

  1. Taking a look at your presentation “Designing a better library experience“, you are talking about some concepts to develop, including ‘commitment’ as the basis of strong, open communication. How do you explain to general managers of libraries the need to increase this investment in online communication?

I think it is vital in the current climate that libraries, institutions and users are brought closer together. I am a great believer in flat organisational structures and I believe that, as much as possible, users should be engaged in the overall running of the service. It’ll take some time to get there, but communication is a key element of laying the foundations to enable such integration to take place. I’d argue that close co-operation between users and the service will create a better service that meets their needs and strengthens the bond between the service and the user.

A stronger bond between the user and the service has a number of positive effects, not least a positive perception of the service by those that use it. Through open dialogue and effective communication we can ensure a powerful relationship that benefits the library as well as the overall institution. However, this must be a two way conversation, it must avoid being hierarchical and must ensure that we learn from those we communicate with as much as they “learn” from us. This is particularly important as social media provides a public forum and such public interactions, if employed effectively, can help to ensure greater collaboration and co-operation with those that use the service. Whether we want to succeed in the terms set for us by a competition orientated, marketised HE, or whether we want to move towards a more cooperative model of library service provision, online communication plays a key role in bringing us closer to the user with the subsequent mutual benefits that brings.

  1. In your articles you speak often of progressive marketisation of services in libraries. Do you think public libraries in social networks are directed to the user ‘as a customer’ or ‘as a citizen with rights’?

I’m very critical of the use of neoliberal terms which act as enablers to a damaging and regressive ideology. As a result, I try to avoid terms such as “customer” as I believe that this is an inappropriate term for the people we engage with in our libraries. The term “customer” immediately creates a barrier between us and the user which then has to be overcome, usually through the use of “marketing strategies”.

For me, as someone who has worked in a retail environment for many years, a customer interacts with a service at a very limited level. I find the use of the term “customer” troubling because the relationship between HE and a student is nothing like that of a “customer” and a retailer. A retailer sells a complete product that the user purchases and uses as they please. In HE the relationship is more of a partnership as we work with students, in co-creation of knowledge to ensure that they obtain the best possible education and ultimately create informed, educated citizens. They don’t buy a good education, because to accrue knowledge is reliant on the user as much as it is on the service provider. It’s a collaboration rather than seller/buyer relationship.

This is also true for public libraries. Public libraries are not there to sell a product to a user, they are about helping to ensure a well-informed, literate citizen that is able to play a full role in the democratic process. Whether this is by ensuring all children have equal access to information resources, or whether it is by tackling the digital divide by providing free access to the internet to ensure everyone has equal access to government as services and information shift online.  Public libraries are not about producing and enabling greater consumption, but in ensuring that, as much as possible, all can engage equally with society and the democratic process.

So, I would argue that at present many are orientated to communicate with users as “customers” but, I would further argue, this is a consequence of a shift in local authority to the belief that profit and consumption are primary concerns whilst engagement in the democratic process and people as citizens being secondary concerns (if it is even on the radar at all). This shift is, in my mind, a direct consequence of the ingrained neoliberal ideology that has corrupted our public services and placed concern for the profit motive above that of the public good.

  1. You’re part of the “Radical librarians” in England (and Voices for the Library too), which emerged from the difficult situation facing public libraries due to cuts from the Government. This movement has a good presence in social media. How do you think you are helping to address the situation from the organized events, blogs and social networks?

The radical librarians movement emerged not just out of the so-called “austerity” agenda here in the UK, it is also a reaction against the increased marketisation of libraries in general,  the gradual corruption of the profession as ethics are abandoned in the hope of remaining “relevant” and a renewed focus on the roots of the profession. We have slowly grown and I think we have seen a slight shift in rhetoric across the profession in general since the emergence of RLC (Radical Librarians Collective), although I am realistic about the extent to which this is the case.

It has not been without its difficulties however. Initially there were many dismissive voices that were dispiriting and challenging to those of us that wished to open up spaces for conversations that had hitherto been hidden. There is also, of course, the danger of burn-out borne of unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve. For me, I think it is vital to ensure that you remain idealistic in thought and deed, but realistic in expectations. I think too often the idealistic can be too optimistic about what they hope to achieve and, in doing so, they run the risk of being exhausted and dispirited if their expectations aren’t realised. I think it is important to understand that building a lasting alternative takes time. What is vital is to build infrastructure, whether that be through gatherings (I don’t like the term “unconferences” but I guess that’s the popular term), journals, blogs and social networks. The building of radical frameworks is crucial to achieve what we want to achieve and our minds should be focused on that rather than outcomes.

In terms of RLC, the journal, social media and the gatherings all lay foundations for consolidation of radical ideas within the profession. By providing a platform for radical ideas, we increase the prospects of the ideas spreading and a clearer understanding of what it is to be radical with respect to the information profession. Before RLC, there was little room for such public discourse. The emergence of RLC not only provides a space for such discussion, but leads to an opportunity for it to spread and take root.

I think, by its nature, the emergence of such groundwork is important as, in the long-term, it helps to address concerns and sows the seeds for radical change. It is a long haul, but a continued focus on infrastructure building is our best hope to challenge the status quo.

  1. Librarians, at the library and the social networks, are working to improve access to information for citizens. People can have more knowledge, but … how to be aware of our freedom to change things, in your opinion?

I think it is vital that we (as librarians) facilitate access to information about alternatives. In the current climate, both politically and professionally, we are beset by the myth of TINA (There Is No Alternative). At a political level, this manifests itself in the belief that “austerity” (government spending cuts) is the only logical path to ensure national and economic wellbeing. In terms of our profession it manifests itself in the belief that the only way to ensure our relevance is to adopt the language and strategies of the market. Anyone seeking to espouse alternatives risks being seen as outdated and failing to acknowledge contemporary realities.

I see it as therefore vital that we facilitate a raised awareness of our freedom to change things. Not only in terms of citizenry but also professionally. The myth that we are neutral is a problem that besets our profession and needs to be overcome. We are a political profession that makes political decisions with every book we purchase and every collection we maintain, because our decisions are filtered through our own beliefs and prejudices. There is an imperative to provide the information required for individuals to form their own judgements. Users must not be steered, but we must ensure that the information sources we facilitate access to are valid and have a solid empirical basis and be wary of the dangers of applying equal weight to all resources. We must also make them aware of the risks inherent in the resources they use, but be mindful of overt intellectual direction. In facilitating such access and ensuring we avoid overt intellectual direction, we empower users and encourage greater intellectual freedom and therefore enable greater awareness of the freedom citizens have to engender change.

We must embrace the political nature of our profession. Realise that our core mission is to provide equality of access to information for all. In terms of our democratic systems, this means facilitating access to state information by guiding people on how they can hold the governing to account through Freedom of Information legislation. It also means giving people the tools to ensure they are protected from state surveillance and an abuse of their privacy.

Teaching these skills can undermine the current structures as people become aware of the methods by which they can protect themselves from the state apparatus, capitalist appropriation of their data and a pernicious neoliberal agenda. Providing such skills can help citizens not only understand how they can initiate change, but also ensures their own freedom. Citizen awareness of our freedom to participate and transform the world should be absolutely central to our profession, for without awareness of such freedoms we cannot ever be truly free.

Net neutrality – internet that serves the many or the few?

Democracy is for people not corporations
Original image Backbone Campaign on Flickr. Used under a CC-BY licence edited with filter.

The issue of net neutrality has been rumbling around in the United States for sometime now. For many years there has been a battle waged over the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and government should ensure that all data on the internet should be treated equally. Opponents of net neutrality in the US include a significant number of tech companies, including Cisco, IBM, Intel, AT&T, Verizon and many more.

Why is net neutrality an important issue? Well, there is the obvious point that equitable delivery of data benefits all of us. If certain data is prioritised over others, we are likely to see the internet morph into something very different to that we engage with now. Without net neutrality we could find small independent websites and platforms being marginalised in favour of the giants of the internet. The danger of this on a major information resource is clear: a substantial narrowing in the range of sources individuals will access for information, with all the implications that comes with that.  Bruno Maçães, Secretary of State for European Affairs for the Portuguese government, recently put it:

Allowing internet services to discriminate between different sources or providers of content would slowly start to turn the internet into a particular message rather than a medium for every possible message…

Net neutrality stands for the very simple principle that the internet is equally open to every kind of content. It is about being able to experiment with every possible use of the internet, so that only the best survive and even these are not able to tilt the environment in their favor and stave off the next wave of newcomers. This debate is not about prices or costs. Let the cost of internet access be as low or as high as market forces and public policy will make it, but before everything else make sure that all data is treated equally. The internet is a sort of collective mind. Like every mind, it may become more or less captive; more or less free. Net neutrality is a question of free speech.

Despite the powerful opposition to the principles of net neutrality, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently voted to protect it, ensuring closer regulation of the broadband industry. Unsurprisingly, opponents of the principles of equitable data delivery have launched a legal challenge against the new rules, in what is sure to be the beginning of years of wrangling between government and the corporations seeking to roll back the regulation (or “red tape” as they see any efforts by the state to protect the rights of citizens).

Yet, whilst the debate over net neutrality is nothing new in the United States (see this rather Obama-centric timeline), in the UK (and Europe for that matter) the debate has been rather quiet. Indeed, one would be excused for believing that this isn’t really an issue that affects us over here. That our internet service is already protected from any attempts to chip away at the equitable delivery of data that has been fundamental to the growth of the internet as a vital information source for millions. But the same arguments that have been taking place in the US could soon be making their way over here, with a recent proposal from Latvia (currently holding the European presidency) threatening to pave the way towards an abandonment of the principle.

The Latvian proposals have certainly been warmly welcomed by some within the business community (headline on the Fortune websiteNet neutrality is not for Europe), which perhaps explains why a majority of the 28 EU member states have now voted in favour of changing the rules (who said the EU was a block to the free market?). In a set of proposals that include a postponement of the abolition of roaming charges across member states, revised rules would “bar discrimination in internet access but allow the prioritisation of some ‘specialised’ services that required high quality internet access to function“. The moves come amongst a concerted effort by Europe’s two biggest telecom operators arguing that certain kinds of data traffic should be prioritised on their networks. They have been joined by Nokia, who argue that “certain futuristic technologies” will need to be prioritised. It certainly would appear that efforts to ensure a two tier internet have hardened further in Europe as the US has re-asserted the principles of net neutrality.

So far, the EU’s digital single market commissioner Andrus Ansip has remained resolute. At a recent European Voice event, Creating Europe’s digital highways, Ansip reiterated the importance of net neutrality:

We need strong net neutrality rules and more coordination on spectrum.

On net neutrality, there are three elements we should address:

Firstly, we need to make sure that the internet is not splintered apart by different rules. This is why we need common rules for net neutrality.

Then, we need an open internet for consumers. No blocking or throttling.

And we want an internet that allows European industry to innovate and provide better services for consumers.

It remains to be seen to what extent there will be “strong net neutrality rules” across the EU. Certainly the voices opposed to it are powerful and, as we have seen in the United States, even the supposed victory of the FCC has resulted in legal challenges being launched to prevent new regulations.

The internet is awash with talk of great threats that could destroy the internet and do irreparable damage to this vital resource. However, the threat posed by a retreat from the principles of net neutrality are stark. The consequences will be a narrowing down of information sources, a move away from an internet where all data is treated equally towards one where priority is given to those with the deepest pockets. This presents serious dangers and will hammer in nail in the coffin of the internet as a resource for the many, and instead create an internet that serves the interests of the few.