Boomers in thrall to a Wiki Universe

November 16, 2007

Beware the digi-swingers who deem librarians redundant and confuse information with knowledge, says Tara Brabazon. As a Generation Xer, I have spent much of my life working for baby- boomer men. Mostly, there has been an affable truce, with disagreements surfacing over skirt length and musical tastes. But there have been the occasional shockers.

In my deck of boomer horrors, one joker of the pack always trumps the rest. He wandered around menswear stores asking shop assistants: "What are the young people wearing?" In the early 1990s, our swinger was clothed in see-through mesh tops, cargo pants, boat shoes, platinum hair gelled into a vertical state of electric shock and a stud through his left eyebrow. He thought he looked great. He didn't. He looked like he thought the young people looked. He didn't.

I recently met the new breed of swingers. This latest boomer species has emerged from the safest - but strangest - of settings: library conferences. Librarians are the Jedi knights of the modern age, committed to reading, interpretation and thinking in a world of ignorance, managerialism and tabloidisation. Like the Jedi, librarians have also been under threat from an evil empire - in this case, capitalism, as schools and universities reduce the budgets for books and staff. The justification for this downsizing is that Google is as good as a catalogue and the web is almost a library.

The library profession has suffered these profound challenges to credibility and expertise from managers who administer long meetings with short agendas. It is a predictable irony that this attack has emerged against one of the few professions dominated by women. Productive ethnographic field trips should be organised to library conferences to witness power relations at their most patriarchal and pompous. I have seen auditoriums filled with intelligent women being harangued and ridiculed by "consultants" prophesising doom, decay and medieval-style upheaval.

These men have discovered a new mantra with which to batter the library profession: Web 2.0. We are meant to look impressed when a manager or consultant utters this phrase. We are meant to nod in appreciation that this baby-boomer is modern. He knows what the young people are wearing. As we all (yawn) know, this phrase aligns (yawn) Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and blogs as (supposedly) part of an end-user democracy where the readers of websites become the writers of websites. Actually, the digi- swingers use Web 2.0 to ridicule librarians, rendering redundant expertise in catalogues and information literacy skills because - you've guessed it - "the young people" are doing it.

Two crucial steps in logic are missed by such "consultants". Simply because more people are involved in the construction of a set of facts or a document - the premise of Wikipedia - does not make it true. The reason scholarly articles are trusted is because they have been refereed and checked by experts. But Google has flattened expertise, creating confusion between finding information and possessing the literacy to evaluate and judge information.

We have spent so much of the past ten years focused on words such as "access" and "content management" that we have neglected other ideas such as "motivation" and "context management". There is plenty of information on the web. What is lacking is the appropriate information in the correct time and place.

There has also been the assumption that information created by end-users initiates and develops democracy. Supposedly, bloggers build citizenship through their posts. In other words, there has been a damaging confluence between affirmations of democracy and the promotion of right-wing populism. With much of the world's population lacking a stable system of telephony - let alone the provision of broadband - the democracy affirmed through Web 2.0 replicates many colonial structures of the 19th century. The empowered speak on behalf of the disempowered. Instead of noting this ventriloquism, the loud affirmations of digital democracy drown out critique and deny the silences in this pseudo-utopic discourse.

When scratching below the cyber-skin of wiki-swingers, the inconsistencies and inequalities start to bleed. In Wiki world, "anyone" can create a page or change anything on that page. What this has meant is that global businesses and universities have used Wikipedia as another site of branding and marketing. This phenomenon is not too serious. What is important is that the collaboration and freedom has its limits.

In a time where such digitised social dysfunction is masked by the label of democracy, there has never been a more opportune moment to value the expertise of librarians. The e-library - if and when it does appear - will not be created by dumping books, sacking librarians and plugging in rows of keyboards. The electronic library will be built through information literacy classes and courses, considered document delivery on stable platforms, effective and accessible databases and a thoughtful transition between the analogue and digital collections.

My fear is not of wiki or Google. My concern is that in the confusion between finding information and building knowledge, we lose not only analogue objects and artefacts, but analogue ways of thinking. Our minds have been marinated by digitisation. We know that every moment in our lives is infinitely reproducible, forwardable, compressible and transferable. We have lost the capacity to value the particular, the unique, the ephemeral and the transitory.

This digital way of thinking has a cost. Through digital mediation we have been sucked into emotional and intellectual neutrality, medicated against excess, loss and pain. We do not have to fight for anything or feel anything deeply at the time, because we know the file can be reopened at our convenience so that we can relive the micro-emotion at a safe distance.

The best of learning - the best of life - is transitory, irreplaceable and analogue. Losing analogue objects is a tragedy. Losing analogue ways of thinking will present a bill that even the most robust private equity firms cannot manage.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media at Brighton University. Her latest book, The University of Google: Education in the (Post) Information Age , has just been published by Ashgate.

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