21 July 2009

objectivity vs. transparency

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 4:34 pm by Andromeda

The always fascinating David Weinberger blogs on transparency vs. objectivity. Worth reading the whole thing — the argument gets deeper as it goes along. But here’s the part where I really started thinking:

Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

Hence — to move the opening sentences from that paragraph to the close:

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works.

Of course just about anyone nerdy enough to chase footnotes knows that appeal to authority is a fallacy, but he’s got a point there: when it’s hard to do, you’re more likely to rely on the authority of the source, to seek out authorities who are trustworthy (or who have a cultural aura of trustworthiness clinging to them, like his newspaper example — at least for certain newspapers), and to have an intellectual edifice that depends on your ability to, well, trust without verifying. Blogs let wacky opinionated perspectives proliferate, but linking and searching substantially lower the cost of verifying, so objectivity’s role and importance decrease.

(The searching is key, though — link ecologies can, I expect, be navelgazing, and they often do a poor job of getting beyond our love of confirmation bias…)

So where’s the library connection? Libraries have historically been, I think, edifices built on objectivity. We’re the neutral observer. We’re the place you can trust, full of the sources you can trust. Authoritative knowledge! Come and get some.

I come across a lot of articles in my class readings written by librarians who are clearly getting the thrashing heebie-jeebies from this transition away from objectivity (and also, as it happens, comprehensiveness). Tagging, from faceless wild-west Internet crazies, versus sober and structured subject headings, assigned by trained experts? Wikipedia…(same argument)? And I admit, when I was teaching, it was frustrating to see my students head straight for Google when we went to our beautiful library with its excellent collection…

…but it wasn’t because they were going to Google over books; it was because they were going to Google without having developed the sophisticated cognitive apparatus you need when you can’t just trust a source. They didn’t have tools for evaluating the reliability of sites, nor even for situating their content within a broader body of knowledge they could have used to do that evaluation. Appeal to authority is lame, logically speaking, but it’s a good starting place while you work on appeals to your own intuition.

Anyway, that’s a digression. The point is, libraries have, I think, bought heavily into this culture of objectivity — historically, culturally, even architecturally. Many librarians relish their roles as gatekeepers, want the catalog and metadata that give you brilliantly precise searching if only you will master idiosyncratic syntax — and then bemoan users’ tendency to flock to an unadorned search box and keyword-search without a delimiter in sight — something they can do by themselves and, increasingly, anywhere.

I don’t think a lot of librarians, or libraries, know how to position themselves in this shift. So, ideas? What’s the role of a cultural institution, a neoclassical edifice, a, dare I say, neutral authority in a world of omnipresent always-on kudzu-like explosions of transparent information? Can the question even be answered with that set of adjectives and nouns? If not, how do they change?

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  1. Thanks for this. And, fwiw, I think your “digression” is really important. The appeal to authority is a problem when the authority needs to be questioned, but there are lots of instances where authorities provide what we need. The system of authority and credentials that we’ve used for hundreds of years works pretty well, and it was necessary to enable knowledge to scale: Since no one person can know everything, and we can’t go back to first principles in every investigation, we need to be able to rely on authorities as stopping points of inquiry. The trick, obviously, is trusting authorities appropriately and just enough.

    But I digress :)

    What I actually wanted to comment on is your assertion that libraries have been about objectivity. I think I disagree slightly, although I think your point is right. But it isn’t quite objectivity. Neutrality? A desire to provide materials beyond their own interests?

    And, I think it’s quite different with librarians. In my experience as a reader, librarians haven’t helped by being objective but by being intellectually empathetic: They quickly “get” what type of thing I’m looking for and steer me toward it, and toward related areas I didn’t know I was looking for. (Now that the Sotomayor is going to be approved, maybe we can argue for empathy again :)

    Anyway, I enjoyed and appreciated your post.

    • Andromeda said,

      (Thanks for replying! Glad you liked it.)

      “Neutrality” is a good word. (“Cultural authority” may have also been kicking around in my head.) Of course, “neutrality” is such a fraught word and so often a smokescreen for majoritarian biases, but it’s a nice thing to aspire to.

      Librarians! Heh, funny thing: most of the librarians I encounter these days are in my readings for my library classes, or on blogs, talking about the culture and philosophy of librarianship — so I’m riffing off of that — but of course that’s a very particular (vocal, high-status, often academic) subset of librarians, not necessarily a front-line, public-facing view. But “intellectually empathic” is certainly a much more appealing vision of librarians than “shushing lady with a bun” :).

      It’s interesting, then, that there’s this tension between the way you find librarians helpful (engaged, human, empathetic) and the way that libraries as institutions can be viewed/view themselves (above the fray, measured, neutral)…Hm.

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