i dream of being possible

the democratization of 'information' and authority

I was thinking earlier this morning about the fascinating nexus of problems surrounding authority on the web and the nature of ‘publication’. I recently finished up an article wherein I basically used only one non-OA resource (a monograph). I read a bunch, but refused to cite or engage with formally published academic work that wasn’t openly available. This greatly restrained my ability to do comprehensive writing/research, mainly because I tried to also make sure that the open resources I used were, by and large, ones that would be recognized as being ‘authoritative’ by academics1.

It occurred to me this morning that early (and ongoing) rhetoric about the web often talks about the ways that the internet has facillitated this shift in the world whereby the creation of knowledge and information is no longer the sole purview of newspapers, academics, magazines, books, etc. Blogs were, perhaps, the first real example on the internet of what, exactly, it would mean for information/knowledge creation to be pulled outside of mainstream, institutional areas. And the relationship of blogs to journalism is still debated (and it is super fascinating to read articles from when blogging was still an emergent force on the web). As the latter linked article notes:

Easier than building a web site, these simple web publishing tools promised to democratise the web, allowing anyone with internet access to have a voice online. source

Of course, what strikes me as super fascinating is, as always, the inherent tension of perceived quality of the new medium vs the old:

If journalism is by definition the reporting of news in a fair, balanced and accurate way, then blogging is not journalism. But if the truth is that not all journalists and media outlets adhere to these principles, the distinction is less clear. source

All of this is super fascinating to me, in light of my time spent as a library student where questions of authority and reliability on the web are often presented as a key pedagogical concern, especially when talking about information literacy.

We’ve all heard the standard “use .edu sites, .gov, etc.” and “don’t use wikipedia” and so on and so forth. These varying strategies of how to ‘objectively’ determine whether or not a web resources is trustworthy and, thus, whether or not the information/knowledge contained within is likewise trustworthy.

Of course, there are several issues with these rubrics. Like privileging ‘form/style’ over the actual content (yes, it has happened more than once that people all but assert that the quality of the site design has some bearing on the quality of information…). This is, of course, both epistemologically and critically absurd. But this is still low-hanging fruit.

What about the consideration of the source? We are told to communicate to students that (and supposed to behave in our own research and writing) a journalist writing for the New York Times is more ‘reliable’ than a blogger writing under a pseudonym with now other indication about their background or credentials. Or that an academic article, peer reviewed, is more reliable than the same blogger. Or, to use a real example, that a professor of art history is more reliable that the moderator of MedievalPoC.

Except, that if we are to take Said’s (and other people’s) criticism about knowledge creation with the academy/empire seriously, then this rubric for determining ‘reliability’ ought to seem well and truly suspect. What reason do we have to believe that academics in service of the empire are better able to perceive and communicate truth than someone who is less beholden to the institution? This rubric should also be suspect for the subtle way it instatiates a classic fallacy of ‘appealing to authority’. Indeed, the entire system of academic citation and the ‘appropriateness’ of resources is a large scale appeal to authority. This professor of art history at Harvard clearly has privileged access to the truth over the moderator of MedievalPoC, who doesn’t even have a PhD. Isn’t it obvious?

You’ll notice that I’ve subtly have been moving towards discussing ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ over ‘information’. One of the insights I gained in the course of writing my recent article is the way that ‘information science’ defers its complicity in white supremacy by invoking a spurious and unclear distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’. We like to claim that we are neutral providers of neutral information when we are not neutral and neither is the ‘information’. Viewed from a lens of epistemology and knowledge, the way that information literacy is taught begins to become a very troubling thing, since we focus on anything but question of truth in the information provided by resources. And we constantly appeal to authority in how we (ourselves) access resources but also how we instruct students to access resources.

Without getting into a metaphysical debate about the nature of truth (and an ontological one about whether or not such a thing as ‘truth’ exists), not equipping students with a basic rubric of how to assess the truthiness of a site, rather thans it reliability, does them a large disservice. Is the claim, tweeted by a pseudonymous user with no biographical information, that ‘the sky is blue’ less true than a similar claim in a peer-reviewed article? No. But accoridng to our profession (and many others) the this claim is more reliable or trustworthy when sourced from the article than the tweet. But who cares about this when the claim is identical and true? Of course, the issues and claims students (and most people) usually grapple with tend to be much much much more complex than a statement like ‘the sky is blue’. But the basic pricinple holds.

This tension between the ‘democracy of information’ and authority become most visible in clashes between individuals whose authority is legitimized by the current system and those individuals with no legible claim to authority. The ongoing trigger warning debate is a great example of this. Trigger warnings, as they currently are instantiated, are a grassroots effort by disability (and other social justice type) activists usually for use within the respective community. But now these grassroots ‘technology’ have begun to creep into higher ed, giving rise to a big debate and many reactionary responses by ‘authorities’.

In many ways, it would seem as the early promise of the web begins to become truly realized, ie the democratizing of information/knowlege, that this process continually becomes a ‘bug’ rather than a feature. It becomes fairly clear that the desire was for ‘legitimate’ sources of information to become widely accessibly not for the control of information to be wrested from the institutions charged with producing the ‘real’ and ‘reliable’ knowledge (as in the knowledge necessary for the ongoing, smooth operations of the settler state/empire).2

  1. For good or ill, this is a decision I made. I probably shouldn’t have bothered but… I guess I was hoping to at least obtain some veneer of ‘respectability’ myself, so that the article wouldn’t be discredited on these grounds, since I’m already running a risk by not doing the academic thing of using all resources, regardless of their accessibility. 

  2. I actually think that this process is one reason why, by and large, many academics treat personal blogs of marginalized people as ‘subjects’ of research rather than resources of knowledge, beyond the capitalist necessity of treating marginalized people as commodities rather than human beings.