“Impostor syndrome” – a product of indoctrination?


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.


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.

My challenge to experienced librarians: lobby for a better degree

Graduation at Canterbury Cathedral (image c/o University of Kent on Flickr)

Note: Since writing this post, Ned has radically rewritten his post due to some people “misinterpreting” the original. Which is fair enough. It’s slightly annoying that now this post (and Rosie Hare’s excellent post – read it!) seems a bit odd (not least when I have quoted something that now no longer exists, which makes it look like I am fabricating elements of this post – I do have a copy of the original if anyone doubts me!), but I can’t control what other people do on their websites/blogs (nor would I want to!). It does raise some interesting ethical questions, but I can’t be bothered to pose them here to be quite frank. All I’ll add to the post below is that it emerged as a result of some discussion with a number of fellow professionals who raised more or less the same concerns. Indeed, I received a lot of supportive comments after publishing it. It’s not the kind of thing I normally like to get into on this blog as I’m not really interested in writing about issues that are somewhat inward looking professionally. But I thought there were some points that had a broader impact that was worth exploring. Anyway, I shall leave the post here as it is, regardless of the fact it now lacks context. I may, however, close the comments as it seems pointless to leave a thread open to a post that now appears devoid of context. That said, the crux of this post still holds true. I do think it would be a very worthwhile thing for new professionals, uni departments and professional bodies to have some discussion about the courses and whether there are opportunities to develop the programmes. So I guess on that level this post still has some relevance.


I read with interest Ned Potter’s post calling for new professionals to “create your own degree”. It’s fair to say, I think, that I agree with the question Ned poses, but I fundamentally disagree with the answer on a number of levels. Rather than write a comment on Ned’s post, and run the risk of being seen as just a contrary negative type, I thought I’d be better to outline my position in my own blog post (no-one wants blog post length comments on their site!). But first I’ll start with where I agree.

With the caveat that I have only experienced one course and have only heard the odd comment about other courses (so I’m not prepared to make any sweeping generalisations) it seems to me that possibly there is a need to rethink how the courses are structured in terms of content. In my experience, there wasn’t enough focus on social, political or ethical issues (aside from the Information Society module). But I also think there was too much focus on the ‘library’ aspect of the course rather than the ‘information’ part (it is called an MSc in Information and Library Studies after all – more on this later). Of course different people on different courses have different experiences, but if I could wave a magic wand, those are the elements I would boost up (as well as some of the new tech stuff of course). So yes, I agree that the question needs to be posed.

However, I think the framing of the ‘answer’ is particularly troubling in this current climate. In effect, it reinforces the idea that you don’t need a qualification to provide a library service, anyone can do it so long as they attend a few conferences and read a few books or articles. Place this in the context of public libraries, and you have quite possibly made Ed Vaizey’s argument for him. We don’t need professionally delivered library services because there is nothing a librarian can offer that Mr and Mrs Smith down the road can’t do. There are MOOCs they can do, articles they can read, they can pay to attend conferences. So seriously, what’s the point in qualified librarians having anything to do with the service? As someone who follows the issue of public libraries pretty closely, the logical conclusion of the “create your own degree” argument is troubling (it also smacks of a somewhat Conservative individual responsibility position).

I also have problems (and have had with some time) with the librarian/information professional thing. All librarians are information professionals, but not all information professionals are librarians. There are many many other jobs you can do with the qualification aside from ‘librarian’ (I had a list on this site which sadly bit the dust when I had the database fail). Ned says in his post:

They are, in any case, joining a profession which IS dying. It is shrinking and will continue to do so. When people ask me if they should become a librarian, I say no. I personally love it, but how can anyone, in all good conscience, recommend this profession in the current climate? It would be irresponsible to do so.

I don’t think the profession is dying. I think in many respects it’s expanding (there were no Freedom of Information officers before 2001 and Data Protection is becoming increasingly important). There may be fewer opportunities for ‘librarians’ but I would argue this is possibly not true for the information profession in general. So if someone asked me if they should become a librarian, I would not say no. I would say “think about what you can do with a LIS qualification other than a librarian, yet still utilising roughly the same skill set”. That, for me, would be the responsible position. Which brings me back to the design of the courses, it should be about taking a broader look at the profession, upping the ‘information’ aspect. That would then, I think, prepare people far better for a career in the information profession.

Finally, I have general social concerns regarding the belief that someone could spare the time (and expense) to construct their own course. I personally think this would lend itself particularly well to the middle classes, but less so to people of a working class background. You can, after all, get financial support for formal education whereas such support would not be available to attend expensive conferences. Indeed, who would have the funds to pay to attend a course, take a day off work, book accommodation etc etc? Not someone with limited funds. And certainly not if you were working in the private sector (I can well imagine what my boss back in my retail days would have said if I specified I needed a certain batch of days off to attend a conference – even if I could afford it). Cash poor are not necessarily time rich (in fact, I’d argue that they are not time rich at all).

So, I think I should throw down my own challenge. If you believe that someone who works full-time and has limited funds has the time to construct their own degree, I would argue that equally someone in a well-paid, professional post has the time to lobby for better degrees. If you, as an experienced qualified professional, believe the course is not up to scratch, I’d suggest the following:

  1. Pull together what you think the existing courses lack.
  2. Build a network of other like-minded folk.
  3. Lobby university departments and professional bodies to consider the changes to the programme you believe are necessary.
  4. Refine your technique until you are successful.

Because if you think that someone has the time and money to construct their own degree, there is almost certainly no excuse for you not to do the four steps above. We either preach from a position of privilege or we act to bring about the changes that benefit us all. I know which I prefer.

Opening the floodgates – Library Land and the perils of the free market

Lauren Smith recently wrote an excellent post on the “political elephant in the room” in libraryland.  She hits the nail bang on the head in terms of the need to be conscious of the language that is used and how this impacts upon both the profession and beyond.  For me, one of the biggest concerns in this regard is the influence and power of the rhetoric of the market, particularly the creeping impact of free market ideologies and where this will ultimately lead.


It is important to be clear that the free market is not a benign force that can be easily manipulated.  On the contrary, it is a dangerous force that threatens to destroy professions and create a culture of amateurism.   The profit motive is not one that drives up standards, instead it diminishes them substituting the ideals of quality for “cost-effectiveness” and supposed ‘efficiency’.  Some might argue that, handled with care, free market ideology can be ‘humanised’ and adapted to make it benign and acceptable.  I would argue, however, that this is at best naive and at worst highly dangerous, particularly in the field of information production and consumption.  There is a pressing need to be aware of the nature of market forces and be prepared to confront them, but adopting the mannerisms and ideologies of the free market is not the way to do so.

In his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides a number of examples of the consequences of permitting the market to gain a foothold in areas where it was previously anonymous. For example, Sandel points to the impact the market has had on baseball paraphernalia and memorabilia.  According to Sandel, the collection of baseball memorabilia and autographs went from being an innocent activity to satisfy an individual collector, to a ruthless marketplace where people literally fought for the right to own highly marketable and valuable property.

The turning point came in the 1980s when such memorabilia became viewed as “marketable goods”, bought and sold by a growing number of collectors. Seeing the growth of this market, baseball players jumped in and began offering their autographs for a fee (sometimes for as much as $20 per autograph).  By the end of the century, the market was such that fans literally fought over memorabilia.  In one case, a ball hit for a record breaking home run led to a mass brawl and months of legal wrangling in the courts.

It is unlikely that baseball players trading their autographs knew the consequences of their actions, but they certainly hastened the extent to which baseball memorabilia became a highly lucrative business.  It is interesting to note that whilst many baseball players did play the game of selling their autographs for money, a minority did not.  That minority found the notion of selling their autographs for money obscene and undermined the relationship between themselves and their fans.  However, it is clear that due to the actions of the majority, the market corrupted this relationship and those who did refuse to open up to the market were unable to stem the tide.  Those who did “play the market” very quickly found that the market ended up playing them.

However, such naivety when it comes to markets is not restricted to sports. Troublesome though that undoubtedly is, there are areas where a failure to grasp the danger of playing with market forces can have an even more serious impact on society.  This is particularly the case in the field of information.  Where the information sector has been opened up to the market, there have been disastrous consequences and where it has not yet had an impact the prospects are bleak.

Education, for example, has increasingly been forced to open up to the marketplace.  Again, Sandel relates the potential impact that commercial interests can have on the education sector.  In relation to its impact in America, Sandel points out that whilst there has been a degree of commercialism in schools for some time (he points to the use of Ivory Soap in soap-carving competitions in the 1920s and ads in high school yearbooks), this influence has steadily risen since the 1990s.  A particularly good example of this is the rise of Channel One.

Channel One was launched in 1989 by Chris Whittle.  Whittle offered schools free television sets and video equipment in return for an agreement that the school will show the program every day and require all students to watch it.  As well as broadcasting a twelve minute news program, Channel One was also packaged with two minutes of commercials.  Due to its reach, it was able to charge corporations such as Pepsi, Taco Bell and the Army up to $200,000 per slot.  According to Sandel, Channel One effectively paved the way for corporations to have a significant presence in US schools, including corporate sponsorships and product placement.

This market ultimately extended to the distribution of “sponsored educational materials” to schools and a host of promotional materials sent to teachers.  As a result, students could learn about nutrition from materials supplied by McDonalds.  This is troublesome in many respects.  Schools should be a space free from bias and a place to encourage critical thinking, this is seriously compromised when the commercial sector has such an influence.  Indeed Sandel points to the example of Proctor and Gamble offering an environmental curriculum explaining that “disposable diapers were good for the earth” (Sandel, pp. 197-198).

Whilst these examples are restricted to the United States, they should cause alarm in terms of the existing plans for the education system in the UK.  The training of professional teachers is already seen as an expensive luxury.  Michael Gove has previously made it clear that a teaching qualification is not necessary to teach in academies.  As far as he and the government are concerned, teaching is not a skill to be acquired.  Whilst some might argue that education in our schools at present is severely lacking in applying critical thought in teaching, the introduction of unqualified teachers will surely exacerbate the extent of the problem.  Without a background in training and an ability to impart critical thinking, the role of the teacher merely becomes one of imparting unfiltered information and providing “crowd control”.  De-professionalisation is the ultimate aim, primarily because professionals are expensive and amateurs are, almost by definition, cheap.  The government are keen to encourage those from business and the private sector to get involved and teach, the removal of the need for a teaching qualification makes this significantly easier.  How long before corporations have members of staff on the payroll teaching in our schools and distributing materials that amount to nothing more than free publicity for our corporate elites?

Of course, the ultimate goal is to significantly reduce the traditional role of the teacher (some might argue to remove the teacher altogether).  The first step in this process is the de-professionalisation enacted by Gove.  The next stage is to automate the teaching process.  Think this is a far-fetched notion that is a long way off into the future?  Think again.  The latest Private Eye reveals that one corporation is already taking steps to make this a reality.

Rupert Murdoch recently announced that he was planning to “take on the education establishment and empower pupils” (words like “empower” are always utilised when the opposite is true).  The aim is to replace teachers with tablet computers in each of the schools with which Amplify (formerly known as Wireless Generation) has a contract.  Indeed, Amplify has announced it is developing its own “tablet-based platform” to “bundle curricular and extracurricular content” and “facilitate personalised instruction and enable anywhere, anytime learning”.  The tablets themselves would be paid for by reducing teacher budgets.  This is all happening in the United States but, of course, with deprofessionalisation a key government education strategy, it is not far-fetched to imagine that the technology would be adopted here at some point in the relatively near future.  With budgets effectively squeezed, pre-loaded digital content provides an attractive and cost-effective alternative. After all, you won’t need a teaching qualification if you are merely presenting pupils with pre-loaded content on a digital device.  As Private Eye comments, this is a “real world nightmare, where digital learning is used to turn schools into closed, captured markets for Murdoch.”

As for advertising in schools, now schools have been granted control over their own budgets, how long before headteachers desperate for money start selling advertising space within their schools?  Indeed, the US experience is instructive and deeply troubling.  Where schools have struggled financially, the market has offered a ‘neat’ solution.  But is this welcome?  And, more importantly, where is the debate?  Rarely is there any real debate or discussion about the impact that such commercialisation will have on our education system.  And yet the consequences of such developments are severe.  Are we really content to allow the commercial sector a significant presence in our school system?  Surely we want our children to experience an education system that encourages critical thinking and debate rather than brainwashing them with commercial messages provided by our school’s sponsors?

The impact of the market has already had a significant impact on the ways in which information is distributed.  One only need cast a glance at the impact the market has had on journalism to see that our access to quality information has been severely compromised.  As commercial pressures have grown, so have the media sought to reduce costs and protect their bottom line.  This has led to a move away from expensive investigative journalism (with the odd honorable exception) and towards a culture of churnalism.  To be a truly informed citizen in the so-called information age, one has to be more than just a consumer, one needs to actively seek out accurate and reliable information.  It is easy, however, to be complacent – to accept the information we are given without question, particularly when it is presented as authoritative and reliable.  Finding accurate, reliable information is time consuming, and that is before we even contemplate the dearth of critical analysis skills.

In short, the extent of the market has had a significant impact upon us in terms of the quality of information that is available to us as adults, and there is a serious threat to the quality available to our children.  Our sources of information are increasingly commercialised and subject to the whims of the market.  As Chomsky wrote in What Uncle Sam Really Wants:

“The media are only one part of a larger doctrinal system; other parts are journals of opinion, the schools and universities, academic scholarship and so on.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pg 69)

In order to challenge these doctrinal systems and the systems of power, Chomsky reinforces the power of the library to connect people with original sources and thus circumnavigate the doctrinal systems that are in place.  Libraries, as repositories of information and providers without bias, enable the populace (with a bit of work admittedly) to access the materials that the larger doctrinal systems and power structures ignore.  They offer, effectively, the last bulwark against the influence of commercial interests in the dissemination of information and, therefore, the only institution standing that can ensure effective, participatory democracy (that is, true participation of the populace in our democratic institutions rather than the effective fig leaf that presently exists).  However, they only have the potential to do so. As Steven Harris noted back in 1999:

“Librarians should start recognizing that there are inequities in both the production and consumption of information, and that libraries themselves can reinforce those inequalities.”

There are inequalities (created by the doctrinal systems of education and the media) and both libraries and librarians can either reinforce them or challenge them.  It is fair to say, I think, that at present they are failing to challenge them.

The institution of the library and the role of the librarian are now under unprecedented ideological assault.  As the profession has failed to communicate its value, so it has seen its value greatly diminished.  As Lauren points out in her post:

“Agendas have been set and we haven’t acknowledged how political in nature they are. Librarians and information professionals don’t control the discourse around library and information issues. We haven’t made it clear what values we’re espousing, because a lot of the time we aren’t savvy enough to know. We’ve courted private companies and governments whose values directly undermine the values of librarianship, like free expression of thought, privacy, and equity of access.”

This is exactly the problem.  The power elites and the market (private companies) have no interest in the provision of access to information equitably and without bias.  Indeed, they are interested in the opposite, to preserve the status quo and ensure that the existing doctrinal systems are both broadened and consolidated.  It serves the interests of the market to ensure that these doctrinal systems are not undermined.  To ensure this, institutions that presently exist outside the realms of the market need to be brought inside.  Which is why we are witnessing the de-skilling of the library network, both through privatisation and amateurisation (ie volunteer run libraries).  The market cannot function effectively whilst there are elements existing outside it.  Control of all aspects of information dissemination (through education, the media and the public library network) ensures a world in which information is truly controlled by the market and there is no telling where this might lead. Whilst it is true that librarians have been slow to address the inequalities of the production and consumption of information, will the success of the assault on the profession make it more or less likely that these inequalities will be addressed?  The answer is, I think, self-explanatory.


The only way to limit the perils of the free market and its entrenchment of the doctrinal system is to ensure that it is confronted head-on.  This means debating openly and honestly about the institutions that we value and confronting the impact that the market will have. As Sandel concludes in his book:

“Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square.  But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided.  It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades.  The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance.  Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.” (Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, pgs 207-208)

But it is not enough to simply deliberate about the meaning of the social practices we prize, we also need to confront and challenge those that seek to control and widen the doctrinal system and consolidate the systems of power.  Again, as Chomsky notes:

“One of the things they want is a passive, quiescent population.  So one of the things that you can do to make life uncomfortable for them is not be passive and quiescent.  There are lots of ways of doing that. Even just asking questions can have an important effect…any system of power, even a fascist dictatorship, is responsive to public dissidence.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pgs 71-72)

We need to question, we need to stop being passive and quiescent.  We need, ultimately, to confront the elephant in the room.


Why address the digital divide?

Recently I wrote a series of posts looking at some of the data in relation to the digital divide and which groups in society are most affected by a lack of access to the internet. However, whilst identifying the nature of the divide and which groups could be identified as ‘information poor’, the reasons for addressing the depth of the divide have not really been addressed. There is a divide, but why does it need addressing and why are attempts to address it under threat?

As the data in my previous posts confirmed, it is generally (but not exclusively) the low paid and the most vulnerable in society who are presently on the wrong side of the digital divide and can be therefore described as ‘information poor’. Differences in income certainly play a crucial in consolidating the depth of the existing divide. Those with gross weekly earnings below £200 per week are significantly less likely to have accessed the internet at all compared to those earning over £500 per week. Likewise, the over 65s and the housebound are significantly less likely to have ever used the internet than other sections of society. Furthermore, it would appear that whilst many within these groups would state that the costs of having an internet connection at home are too high, it seems logical that many would also fall within the 50% of those who claim that they “don’t need the internet”.  Not to mention the proportion who believe they lack the skills. But why specifically should we be concerned about this?

Access to information is a key requirement for a fully functioning democracy. Without such access it is difficult for the electorate to know what our elected representatives are doing in our name at the heart of government. The growth of the internet, particularly sites such as They Work For You and What Do They Know, has made more information about the political process available than ever before.  This means, of course, that there is far more information to be consumed by those wishing to get engaged in the political process or to better understand political issues.  A report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2004 found that:

Those with high-speed internet connections at home are more reliant on the internet for news on the average day than dial-up users. Broadband users have a more varied mix of news media than other respondents. Of the news sources we asked about, broadband users seek out about 3 on the average day, while dial-up users turn to 2.7 sources, and non-users try 1.7 sources.

The implication is clear. Those that are connected seek more information on current affairs than those without. With the range of news sources available at a click of the mouse, it is perhaps unsurprising to know that those with a connection investigate more resources. Those without will rely on their (often entirely one-sided) daily newspaper or the broadcast media, neither of which will obviously present a comprehensive range of views, opinions or, indeed, facts. Greater access to the internet means a better informed electorate. Or does it?

Another study by Pew back in 2007 revealed the following (via Walk You Home):

Whilst there has been increased knowledge in certain areas, certainly very many areas demonstrated that the %age of Americans who knew certain key political facts had actually declined. The key difference between 1989 and 2007 being the growth of the internet of course. It would not be unreasonable to assume that with the growth of the internet would come greater awareness of a range of political issues. Keeping in mind, of course, that the earlier Pew report in 2004 (three years before the above survey) revealed that those with a broadband connection consulted almost twice as many news sources as those without a connection. However, there is one key difference between 2004 and 2007: the growth of social networking. Is it possible that the development of Facebook, Twitter et al have impacted upon the range of news resources any individual consults? Are they spending less engaging and more time networking?  Or is engagement in social networking leading to individuals being exposed to far more sources than they would have otherwise?  The internet of 2004 was very different to that in 2007. Of course, this is entirely speculation but one wonders what the impact of social networking has actually been on engagement in political issues and the extent to which it has enhanced or diminished exposure to a variety of news sources.

There are also, of course, economic benefits available to those with an internet connection. As anyone reading this will know, online retailers such as Amazon and Play have allowed people to purchase goods at much lower prices than those offered on the high street (which in turn has led to many high street retailers collapsing, impacting upon those who are not connected and have no option but to rely on the high street). And it is not just retailing, price comparison sites have enabled consumers to make substantial savings on insurance and utilities with one study in the US suggesting as much as 20% savings. Obviously it goes without saying that with such savings available those that earn less than £200 gross weekly income would substantially benefit from access to the internet. They are, without doubt, saddled with higher costs than perhaps could be available to them if they had access to an internet connection.

As well as economic benefits, there are substantial educational advantages available to those with an internet connection. A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, for example, revealed that there is a significant “positive relationship” between pupils’ use of ICT and educational attainment. Furthermore, The e-Learning Foundation claimed that:

…children without access to a computer in the evening are being increasingly disadvantaged in the classroom. Research suggests that 1.2 million teenagers log on to revision pages every week and those using online resources were on average likely to attain a grade higher in exams.

The charity cites BBC research in which more than 100 students used the BBC Bitesize revision materials before their GCSE examination. The children were found to have achieved a grade lift compared to those who did not use the online revision guides. The BBC study says: “This is compared to factors such as teacher influence, which was found to produce no significant difference.”

There is, therefore, a clear link between education attainment and home internet access.

What we see, therefore, is a clear divide between those children who have an internet connection at home and those who do not. Given that, as the figures revealed, a significant proportion of those on the lowest incomes either do not have an internet connection at home or have never used the internet, it is difficult to see how the children of those on lower incomes can break the cycle. With the potential impact a lack of access will have on their educational attainment, it is likely this will have a subsequent effect on the development of their skills which will then have a knock-on effect in terms of their ability to make use of the internet, even if they were to obtain a home connection in adult life. For without basic literacy skills how can we possibly expect an individual to be able to utilise the internet to their advantage? Indeed, the current literacy levels in the UK suggest that there are a great many people out there that need skilled support in order to take full advantage of the internet.

These are just a few reasons why there is (still) a pressing need to address the digital divide. It is depressing that after over ten years since the launch of The People’s Networkwe are still reflecting on the gap between the information haves and have-nots. Of course, a significant reason why we still need to consider these factors is that public libraries, for so long a key institution in getting people online and closing the digital divide, are under serious threat of closure. And not just closure, many libraries are being forced on community groups to be staffed by volunteers. There is not only a divide in terms of access, but also a divide in terms of skills. What is required is skilled support to ensure that the unconnected can get connected and reap the benefits the rest of us take for granted. Of course, there is still a degree of persuasion required. When many still do not consider that they need the internet (despite the various advantages outlined here) there is a need to convince them of the benefits access to the internet provides for them. Race Online 2012 also attempted to address this question, but there is still much work to be done, particularly when 5.7 million households do not have an internet connection.

Libraries have always been primarily concerned with providing free access to information. As such, they have a key role in providing access to the internet for the general public, ensuring equality of access to information across the board. If libraries do not provide this service what institution will? Sure, corporate providers may offer internet access to the general public, but that will be at a cost and those on the lowest incomes who are currently excluded are not likely to divert resources to use an internet cafe or equivalent. If substantial support is required (don’t forget 56% of working-age adults have literacy levels below a good GCSE pass) who will provide it? The commercial provider? If so, at what cost? No, if we want to ensure that the digital divide is closed and opportunities are truly available to all, our public libraries must remain in the front line. It is arguable that they have fallen short to a degree, but they still offer the best opportunity for providing the support required to close this divide. This means properly funded libraries with skilledsupport to ensure that those that need it have it. It is only through proper funding and support that we can close this divide and, with it, enrich our democracy, raise educational attainment and strengthen our economy. Bridging the digital divide not only benefits the excluded, it benefits society as a whole.