Language, libraries and ‘The Market’

The central market in Valencia, Spain.

One of the trends in library rhetoric is the increasing use of neoliberal words and terminology. This has been ongoing for some time and, in many ways, is nothing new (indeed, the discussion about it is nothing new). However, it seems to me to be ever more prevalent as growing numbers of people talk about library services (and public services in general) in broadly capitalist terms. We see this through the growth of the use of terms such as ‘customer’, ‘marketing’ and, most recently, in the suggestion that libraries should adopt a ‘market orientation’.

Language is probably not given the importance it deserves. Care needs to be taken with the words we use and how we use them. Words have meaning, but they also come with baggage. It can help engender cultural change within an institution, changing the collective mindset and corrupting the values of an institution.  There are increasing efforts, some might argue, to “roll-out neoliberal logics” within institutions and language is a powerful tool in paving the way for these “logics” to take hold.

But what of neoliberalism? Why should we be concerned about language reflecting neoliberal ideals? Self (Rolling Back the Market: Economic Dogma and Political Choice, 1999) argued that neoliberalism consists of five main dogmas:

  1. The “free market” and market led growth are the principal and most important sources of wealth.
  2. Large incentives are necessary to market efficiency.
  3. The wealth created by free markets will trickle down to benefit all members of society.
  4. The market is intrinsically more efficient than government.
  5. Government should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives to ensure greater efficiency.

Neoliberalism argues that public services are inefficient unless they adopt market strategies to deliver services. Public services should, in effect, adopt a ‘market orientation’. It is by adopting such a strategy that, according to neoliberal dogma, public services will thrive. Not only should we be wary of the strategy, we should also be wary of the terminology that enables it.

Concern about the use and meaning of language is undoubtedly unfashionable. To value language and its meaning is to be too old-fashioned, to hold back progress or to be an infuriating block on progress.  This is a typical characteristic of neoliberal debate – to present the argument as being between two opposing and simple perspectives:

1) The forward-thinking, progressive view.

2) The old fashioned, backwards view.

Such a strategy is well established by neoliberals: neoliberal ideas are painted as progressive, forward-thinking and exciting. Opposition to such ideals (and there will be opposition when espousing neoliberal ideals that are odds with the values of the majority) is somehow a block on progress and somewhat old-fashioned. These old-fashioned perspectives, underpinned by a fear of change, prevent us from making progress. It’s not just about the way they use language, it’s about the way in which they frame the debate.

Language is repeatedly abused by neoliberals to further their goal of turning us from citizens to consumers [pdf]. Our language has become increasingly capitalist, which is perhaps unsurprising when one also considers that we are increasingly living in conditions that could be best described as ‘extreme capitalism’. One does not necessarily cause the other, but it cannot be mere coincidence that our language is increasingly utilised in capitalist terms. Does the shift in language facilitate the growth of the capitalist system, or does the expanding capitalist system influence our language? Is language, in fact, the weapon that enables the rollout of “neoliberal logics”?

In 1961, Raymond Williams pondered the term ‘consumers’ and wondered if we were seen as ‘users’ instead of ‘consumers’:

“…we might look at society very differently, for the concept of use involves general human judgments – we need to know how to use things and what we are using them for… whereas consumption, with its crude hand-to-mouth patterns, tends to cancel these questions, replacing them by the stimulated and controlled absorption of the products of an external and autonomous system”.

Perhaps the changing of our language influences the way we view our society and how it might develop. Maybe using ‘consumers’ (or ‘customers’) instead of ‘users’ sows the seeds of a particular mindset. A mindset that sees society as one filled with consumers rather than citizens, one that enables the establishment of these “neoliberal logics” within institutions.

It is primarily due to concerns about the extent to which language enables the expansion of “neoliberal logics” that I am weary of its growing (mis-)use in libraries. I’m not comfortable with talk about ‘market orientation’ (or ‘marketing’ if I am entirely honest) with respect to public services in general, let alone with specific reference to libraries. Libraries do not exist in a market (although it could be argued that HE libraries operate increasingly within a market environment). Talk of “market orientation” in terms of a public service is, for me, deeply troubling (and I come from the retail sector where such language is obviously deepy ingrained). Not least because one has to question when a market based solution has ever worked for any public institution (clue: never). But also because of what the word actually means.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘market’ as:

Of a manufacturer, advertiser, etc.: to place or establish (a product) on the market; esp. to seek to increase sales of (a product) by means of distribution and promotion strategies. Also (in extended use): to promote the public image of (a person, organization, etc.).

Marketing is:

The action or business of bringing or sending a product or commodity to market; (now chiefly, Business) the action, business, or process of promoting and selling a product, etc., including market research, advertising, and distribution.

Using the terminology of the market simply validates it and encourages its spread, enabling the “neoliberal logic” to take hold. By adopting capitalist language we accept that information is a commodity (a product) that can be promoted and sold (marketed) – in essence “neoliberal logics”. If we accept the logic, do we then accept that our services should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives?

Is it appropriate to frame information as a commodity? And, if it is, how do we square this with our professional ethics? Commodities have prices, it therefore follows that if we treat information as a commodity we accept that it has a price. But if we are concerned with facilitating free access to information, isn’t there a conflict? In a neoliberal, extreme capitalist state the answer is, of course, that there is and that, therefore, the conflict must be resolved in favour of the market (the market trumps all in an extreme capitalist society). We then become marketers and sellers of a product, rather than facilitators of access to a social good. The roll-out of “neoliberal logics” would be complete.

The problem for me is exacerbated by how such terminology is couched. If you oppose such language (as I mentioned above) you are seen as obstructive block to progress, an out of date annoyance. This is how the discussion is often framed: accept market terminology or face marginalisation. The truth is, however, that that particular side of the argument is actually deeply conservative and is, in many respects, the real block on progress. After all, how progressive is it to adopt the terminology and strategies that constitute much of the frameworks of our capitalist society? Surely to reject capitalist norms is to be progressive and forward-thinking? Is a fascination with ‘market orientation’ the actual block on progress? Shouldn’t resistance to “neoliberal logics” be respected in a professional context, rather than rejected out of hand as obstructive? Such resistance is, after all, entirely in tune with our professional ethics.

The adoption of capitalist language and strategies lacks imagination. It’s easy to reach for a solution readily available from there, even when such solutions have had limited success over there.  It seems much harder to come up with a strategy that is substantially different. It takes time and effort to construct something new. We can do much better, we can construct something imaginative and distinct. We do not have to adopt capitalist, neoliberal norms because that’s the path others have followed. We have the skills and the capabilities. It’s no good being fearful and negative, believing that we can do no better than what is done there. We have to believe that we can construct something better.

And this is where the debate often leaves me filled with despair – it prevents us from constructing something new, from using our imagination to construct something better. If you dare to criticise the rollout of “neoliberal logics”, your argument is nullified at source, prevented from being explored in any meaningful sense. There are alternatives, there should not be one dominant voice in the debate, all avenues should be explored and critiques should be a launching pad for further discussion not seen as a threat. However, neoliberals and arch-capitalists frequently frame the debate in such terms so as to close down the opportunity to explore alternatives – leaving us in the state we are in now where we have seen continual ‘progress’ towards an extremist capitalist state.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to be fearful of the alternatives. We do not have to accept that by rejecting capitalist rhetoric we are, in some way, holding back progress. We do not need to enable “neoliberal logics” to take hold within our services. Fear may prevent us from taking action, from challenging existing norms to create something distinct. But we shouldn’t be fearful of rejecting these norms and creating something new. We have it within ourselves to build an alternative, we just need to be fearless, collaborative and patient.

Locked Twitter accounts – what’s the problem?

The need for locked accounts – do they say more about our society than they do about the individual? (Image c/o Thomas Quine on Flickr.)

The growth of social media has presented us with opportunities to connect with people in new and varied ways. Through its use, we can build networks with like-minded individuals and use this network to our advantage both personally and professionally.  However, whilst this ability to build such a network is largely positive, for some this creates serious difficulties.

One of the things I have been struck by when reading the huge volume of “just signed up for Twitter, here’s what you do next” type blog posts (and are there plenty of those floating around) is the extent to which they encourage openness and the importance of engaging with the medium in a very public way. Indeed, it is not unusual to encounter the belief that unless you are fully open, you are not really getting the best out of the medium. This does, of course, present difficulties for those who may have issues with embracing such a public medium and would, therefore, need to use it in a fairly restricted, less than open manner. Openness does present difficulties and those fully able to embrace such openness should respect the desire for some to retain a degree of protection whilst also making use of new communication networks.  Indeed, this post was prompted by hearing of someone with a locked account being hassled on why they chose to utilise the medium in a restricted way, rather than to embrace openness and reap the benefits of doing so.

For some, the full advantages of Twitter need to be balanced with their own personal safety. They see a medium that will be beneficial to them personally or professionally, but are conscious of the fact that, actually, engaging with the medium fully and openly might leave them open to risk. Take, for example, women who have been (or continue to be) harassed by stalkers. Fully embracing social media presents a number of risks and serious considerations. Embrace the public and open approach to the use of social media others encourage and they risk making themselves vulnerable to further harassment. On the other hand, avoiding the medium altogether means that they entirely cut themselves off from fellow professionals and access to a useful information medium because of the fear of further harassment, and why should anyone be prevented from engaging in a medium because of fear?

For others, it is about job security. An increasing number of people have to be cautious about what they share and how they share it. One person’s innocuous comment is another’s cause for disciplinary action. We will see the need to tread carefully become ever more important as we move towards increased privatisation of public services.  Whilst it is also true that the public sector is hardly a liberal social media zone, with controls and restrictions often placed on public sector workers keen to embrace social media, the private sector can be even more restrictive. The corporate brand is primary. Perceptions that the brand is damaged, even through activities in personal time, can lead to serious consequences. For example, a higher education institution may be more tolerant towards employees actively (and legally) expressing political viewpoints, whilst a private company may be less than tolerant. (I am intending on writing a separate post about the privatisation of HE and its possible consequences – this being one of the areas I plan on exploring.)

Ultimately, for some, a locked Twitter account is the only rational solution. It enables engagement (albeit restricted) but it also ensures that there is an element of control. It seems curious, therefore, that some would question the rationale of being on Twitter with a locked account. It suggests a lack of awareness or understanding of the reasons why others might feel the need to have some form of protection. That it is usually men who question the value of locked Twitter accounts (certainly in the experience of those with locked accounts who have talked to me about their experiences), speaks volumes. Not least because of their failure to understand that there might well be specific reasons why individuals choose to engage in the medium in this way.

There is also an element to this that is somewhat egocentric (perhaps unsurprising for social media, a medium that is predominantly ego-driven). For some, using mediums such as Twitter ‘properly’ means ensuring as many people as possible can see what they have to say. The medium becomes all about what they have to say to others, rather than what they can learn from others. I think this is where, sometimes, social media can become problematic, particularly tools such as Twitter. Generate a certain following and you run the risk of believing that everything you have to say is important and must reach an audience. But surely tools such as Twitter are about more than that? Surely it is as much about learning from other people as it is about sharing your ideas and perceptions? In which case, why is a locked account perceived by some as a handicap?

If one is to view social media as a forum by which people learn from others, surely the restrictions a user places on themselves are immaterial? They are getting value from the medium, just in a different way from those who choose to adopt an open approach. Who are we to determine whether an individual is getting a satisfactory level of value from their use of a medium? Isn’t this somewhat arrogant? Doesn’t it also suggest a degree of ignorance of the society in which we live? That for some the only way they can engage in such forums is in a highly restrictive form? It is for this reason that anonymity on the internet also needs to be protected and efforts to curb anonymity must be resisted. Yes, anonymity can be used as a cover for unpleasant actions, but it can also be used by the vulnerable to protect themselves from oppression (anonymity did, after all, play a role in some of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings).

Twitter isn’t all about building an audience for yourself. There is a place for that and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it as a platform to attempt to spread your beliefs or to campaign or raise awareness of issues you are passionate about. But we must also remember that Twitter and social media are as much about what we receive as what we broadcast. And, so long as we continue to live in a society that enables harassment of women, or restricts individual freedom, we should not judge those who engage in the medium in such a way others may perceive to be limited and contrary to their belief that social media demands openness to be an effective tool.

With anonymity and locked accounts we should not be challenging those who use such methods to engage with social media. We should be asking what is it about our society that means that people adopt these tactics for their own personal safety and security?  What is it about our society that prevents some people from embracing an open, public approach to social media? What is it about our society that means people have to put up barriers to protect themselves? Locked accounts and anonymity should not concern us; a society that makes these the only logical means by which individuals can engage in public forums most definitely should.

The income divide and its impact on digital exclusion

The internet has massively changed the information landscape.  It’s development has led to an explosion in the availability of information.  There is more information available to the average citizen now than there has ever been.  However, whilst it is accessible for many, there is still a significant proportion of people who either do not have the equipment or the skills required to take advantage of this development.

Take, for example, the most recent Internet Access Quarterly Update for Q4 published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  These quarterly reports produce a wealth of information about the state of the digital divide in the UK and if you are interested in understanding the extent of this divide, they make essential reading.  Included amongst this report are internet access statistics in relation to age, gender, disability and earnings.  If you believe that everyone has access to the internet, these statistics provide a welcome reminder that this is far from the case.

The statistics in relation to earnings particularly demonstrate the extent of the divide between those that can be defined as ‘information rich’ and ‘information poor’.  As you can see from the graph below, there is a stark difference between higher and lower wage earners.  As you move up the scale from low to high earners, the proportion of those who have never used the internet (not just do not have access at home, but have never even used the internet) drops dramatically.  So much so that the proportion of people earning over £800 per week who have never accessed the internet dramatically drops to virtually 0% in each subsequent pay scale.

%age of those who have never used the internet by gross weekly wage.

Now, 8% of low earners may not seem a significant figure, but it is still a sizeable proportion considering this represents a section of society that has never accessed the internet. And when it is compared to the proportion of higher earners it is clear that there is a very substantial divide.  But, of course, the higher you go up the payscale the more likely you are to have the funds to be able to afford the equipment.  It is particularly easy for higher earners to assume that everyone has access to the internet or has at least used it.  After all, if everyone around you is connected, why should you believe that there are people out there who are not?  Which perhaps explains why it is always middle-class commentators who argue that libraries are irrelevant in the age of the internet.  Their friends all have a connection so of course that meanseveryone has.

The nature of this divide raises a number of concerns.  For example, given that 8% of very low earners have never utilised the internet, what is the likely impact of transferring the benefits process online?  In these times of increasing unemployment, this is likely to be a very real issue for many.  Whilst assurances are made that a “minority” of claimants will be dealt with face-to-face, can we be sure that those without access will not be severely disadvantaged due to both a lack of access and skills?  As I mentioned in a previous post, literacy and numeracy levels are such that, even if access was provided there are still barriers to overcome.

This also raises questions about the programme of library closures that are taking place across the country.  For those earning less than £200 per week there are a multitude of concerns that take priority over the ownership of a computer and an internet connection, not least putting food on the table.  As long as their gross income remains so low, it is highly unlikely that they are going to invest in the technology required to connect to the internet.  Furthermore, given their restrictive budgets, it is highly unlikely that they would be prepared to spend any of their money on making use of high street internet facilities if doing so requires payment, no matter how seemingly insignificant the fee.  Which is where libraries come in.

Admittedly, public libraries probably haven’t been as successful as they might be in attracting users from the lower end of the income scale.  However, they do provide free internet access (in most cases) and trained staff to support them.  For people on such a restrictive budget, the local public library is their best and most feasible means of connecting to the internet.  Take that away and there is nothing left for them.  Yes they can pay for access via another service provider (as the free market would expect them to), but when you have a choice between paying the bills and putting food on the table or connecting to the internet, it is not hard to see which side they would come down on (despite the economic benefits of access to the internet – which I’ll come to in a later post no doubt!).

The question for public libraries and library authorities is how to address this problem and how to ensure that they do not further exclude entire communities (and yes, it is depressing that this question is still being posed).  Closing libraries certainly isn’t the answer and will not only lead to entrenching the digital divide, but will also kick the ladder away for many making it harder for the currently disconnected to join the ranks of the “information rich”.  Furthermore, there is a risk of this being entrenched across the generations.  As has been demonstrated, children with internet access at home are at a significant advantage to those without, achieving better grades and, therefore, enhancing their prospects.  For those on low incomes then, the impact of the divide will also be felt by the next generation, destined to remain excluded from the connected majority, harming their future prospects and consolidating their isolation.

Clearly, if as many as 8% of low earners have never used the internet, public libraries have been unsuccessful in getting this particular section of the community connected.  But the failure to attract the socially excluded is something that libraries have particularly struggled with for many years (sub required).  Despite the intentions of the People’s Network to connect the socially and digitally excluded, it is clear that many remain excluded.  But if libraries are closed, how will this problem be addressed?  Will it just result in permanent isolation of the unconnected? Condemning generations to digital exclusion.  Shouldn’t more effort be put into public libraries getting the “information poor” connected?  And, if so, how?  Sophisticated social networking marketing will clearly not have any impact on this section of society.  So what strategies can and should be employed?  Public libraries are in the ideal position to connect the unconnected.  Closing them suggests we have given up and are prepared to accept there will always be the connected and the excluded.