February 12, 2009

The Other Crisis of Trust (and a question about what it means for Info Lit)

Since the second half of last year I’ve been reading a lot of financial news, where the major theme of the financial crisis is the “crisis of trust” – banks not wanting to take the risk of extending credit to counterparties. But we’ve been living through a worsening crisis of trust in another sense for decades now.

Simply put, we live in a media environment that constantly surrounds us with messages that are dishonest at their root, and it has a corrosive effect on the glue that holds society together, teaching us that it is prudent to assume that most of what we hear is bullshit. In such an environment of eroded trust, straightforward communication is a challenge.

It would be easy to say that capitalism is the fundamental problem, since the bulk of the lies come to us through advertising and public relations messages, which in turn shape the character of individuals’ own habits of daily spin. But I would not to claim that socialism as an economic system has a tremendous advantage in cultivating honesty.

In our own capitalist society, though, the crisis of trust has been accelerating as our mode of life has grown progressively more submerged in the media sphere. Corporate logos, targeted sensual stimuli, slogans, and vague, untestable claims clustered together in brands form the background against which we live our lives, far more than do rocks, trees, wood, earth, sky, or plants (or text, for that matter). These clusters of stimulation are engineered to bypass our rational faculties, our natural tools for knowing what is true. They are in fact engineered to make us believe things that are NOT true (that product X will make me happy, that company Y is my friend or part of my family, etc.).

We’re half-surprised and half-outraged to learn about new examples of financial or accounting fraud, or Bush Administration or corporate lies, but we also understand them as a natural consequence of a society whose substrate of togetherness has grown sour and untrustworthy.

What are the causes of this crisis? Reagan-Thatcherism clearly had a lot to do with it. Thatcher, after all, made the notorious pronouncement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. I would resist simplifying things to that degree, however. Altamont was already a symbol of a new distrust and growing bitterness in society in the years that led to the Reagan revolution.

There is another factor that’s unrelated to any transition in social policy. It is the simple fact of media technology producing the potential for a world made up of recycled bits and pieces of the past and present. If you go to a furniture store to buy a chair, you choose from among examples of styles that each represent the “what is” of another time and place. There are no chairs that are simply what they are, only chairs that lie, saying they are “Pompeii Chairs,” when in fact they are not from Pompeii but were manufactured in Shunde (Guangdong province) and designed in Anaheim. To understand the state of present day society it is necessary to understand that in former ages we didn’t make selections from a list of styles representing the feeling we get about another time and place, because design wasn’t a technological process using recorded information. There wasn’t an authenticity gap; there was simply what was here and now. Products, furniture, buildings, and graphics – the stuff that makes up our environment – today are composed of these recorded pretenses of embodiment that evoke values and feelings that we imagine belonged to other places and times, giving our world an emotional character that is manufactured rather than natural. Our present is manifested largely in terms of what it is not (reconstitutions of other times and places), and a whole generation has grown up taking this for granted.

This environment of counterfeited reality has implications for us as information literacy instructors, but in all honesty I’m not sure what they are. What does it mean to teach students who have grown up in this radical new context to be information literate, or to avoid plagiarism?

At another level, what does it imply for the way we talk about our services and libraries in general?

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  1. The meaning depends on whether you intend to perpetuate the current state of affairs or transform it into something else. But as of now it appears you can only perpetuate it: the way information is generally understood within your profession, coupled with the standard set of professional values with respect to it, keeps you constantly behind the transformative curve. Notice, for example, the way user interfaces are designed with a mind toward optimizing interactions based upon needs and competencies evolved within the very context you find problematic. Any attempt to position yourself at the front is looked down upon as a form of technocratic control, of the information professional thinking he knows better what clients need than the clients themselves, of forcing them to adjust to your overall scheme (which may or may not pan out in the end). Yours is not a risk-taking profession. Above all else, you’re defenders of the status quo. Thus whatever transformations do come about occur only non-reflexively as random outgrowths from the excess utility of technologies — that is, following the law of unintended consequences.

    Now consider what information literacy would look like when you’re trying to survive in the wilderness. Teaching students to be information literate within that context would mean teaching them to read the landscape for signs of wildlife, to read the sky for signs of the weather, and so forth. And it would mean something else in yet another context. So one way to effect transformation in the current state of affairs is to abandon your profession and promote information literacy in some other domain of human undertaking, a domain that’s less complicit in counterfeiting reality.

    Comment by Badda Being — February 14, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  2. What you’re saying is very interesting, although I’m not sure I follow you entirely. Is our profession a defender of the status quo? In terms of the situation I’m discussing, I think libraries are more a manifestation of the past situation that a defender of the status quo, since we are still fundamentally about literacy and written texts, which engage critical reason in a way that visual media don’t. I would say that we’re somewhat anachronistic to that extent, despite our efforts to be relevant in a more sensory order. In terms of information literacy, I think that it means we are not very effective at communicating what we are trying to communicate, because we’re assuming that the former order is still the primary order of things (when it has persisted in a secondary way). So… while I don’t agree that librarianship is a domain that is complicit in this counterfeiting of reality, I see us as less than effective in illuminating the underlying truth.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — February 14, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

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