The MMIWG Report, Genocide and Epistemic Injustice

BC unveils quilt honouring Indigenous women and girls

For many decades, Indigenous communities in both Canada and the United States have been reporting extraordinarily high rates of missing and murdered women and girls, reports which were generally greeted with indifference by police, the media or politicians. In late 2016, the federal government of Canada announced the creation of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which went on to hold 24 hearings across the country to listen to the stories of women and their families. The scale and severity of the crimes being committed were horrifically illustrated by the fact that, by the time the Inquiry’s report was completed nearly three years later, an additional 130 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were reported.

In the pages of the Commission’s Final Report, “Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” what is stressed over and over again is the importance of listening: that, after having had their stories and knowledge of events dismissed for so long, Indigenous women finally had someone’s attention, and their stories were being heard. We read,

I’ve had to continually go to the media and replay the events that happened in her story over and over and over for the last two years to get somebody to listen, to get somebody to hear that this is a bigger problem, that these issues are bigger. That this is not just another Indigenous woman, but this is a problem that is arising in Canada with our Indigenous women being – going missing and being murdered. And, it’s been traumatizing. It’s been very traumatizing to have to take my family through this over, and over, and over, and over (385).

Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people in Canada have been the
targets of violence for far too long. This truth is undeniable. The fact that this
National Inquiry is happening now doesn’t mean that Indigenous Peoples waited
this long to speak up; it means it took this long for Canada to listen (49).

The Inquiry has revealed to our shame that Canadian society has displayed “appalling apathy” towards missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2 Spirited people. The Report cut through and named the centuries of racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and entrenched institutional power, concluding that the crimes amounted to a “Canadian genocide.”

Almost immediately, politicians and pundits zeroed in on this conclusion, beginning an intense media debate around the meaning and use of the word genocide. The Globe and Mail opined that the claim of genocide “doesn’t add up”, that “the charge of a continuing genocide in Canada is absurd,” while Michael Enright at the CBC confidently concurred, that “[w]hat happened to those murdered and missing women is a tragedy of staggering horror. What it was not, is a genocide.”

Yet, the news media is hardly a disinterested observer. As Veldon Coburn writes at Policy Options

We should understand the media as a colonial institution. It is not merely a neutral channel for funneling information to the people. It is deeply implicated in colonialism by framing popular perceptions of Indigenous peoples as less deserving in life and ungrievable in death and violence. This is especially true in how the media treats Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, amplifying the precariousness of their lives, and desensitizing a public to the horrors of Indigenous genocide.

Following the release of the Report, polls showed that while a small majority of Canadians concurred with the findings, in general Canadians were confused about the meaning and causes of genocide in Canada. To help clarify matters, in a series of tweets, the indomitable Cindy Blackstock laid out exactly why the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada has always constituted genocide.

What seems apparent is that too many politicians and pundits are rejecting the term genocide when applied to MMIWG not only because they have a very narrow conception of genocide as explicit Nazi-like government directives for population eradication, but because they either consider the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to be only discrete crimes, or that the injustices perpetrated against Indigenous peoples are rooted in the past, and not as part of a larger, structurally racist historic and contemporary pattern in which all non-Indigenous Canadians are implicated and embedded. As a result, mainstream settler society can’t seem to find the words to describe the conditions that it created, nor to listen to the words of those who were actually affected by them and thereby gain the wisdom necessary to do so.

The structured phenomenon in which there is an inability to listen on the part of those in power, and the corresponding lack of shared understanding between the powerful and those who are structurally disadvantaged, is well-recognized in theories of knowledge – specifically in theories of epistemic injustice.

In her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, English philosopher Miranda Fricker describes it as a form of injustice perpetrated against a person who is “wronged specifically in her capacity as a knower” (20). It comes in two forms: testimonial injustice, in which a knower/teller is not believed by their audience owing to unwarranted prejudice against the social category to which the speaker belongs, and that diminishes the speaker’s credibility; and hermeneutical injustice, a structural injustice preceding testimonial injustice, in which, owing to a lack of shared social meanings, individuals or groups are not able to put into words and share their experience of the world. This is often (but not exclusively) as a result of what she calls “tracker prejudice” that follows a person through various aspects of their existence owing to that social category, e.g. race and gender (27).

For Fricker, epistemological injustice results from social and institutional forces favouring the powerful, who control social meanings and thus create a hermeneutical absence where minority groups can have significant aspects of their lived reality “obscured from collective understanding owing to a structural identity prejudice” (155). The result is often another kind of silencing, “a form of testimonial injustice in which some groups [are] simply not…asked for information in the first place” (130).

Jose Medina in his work, “Varieties of Hermeneutical Injustice,” adds, “non-dominantly- situated people often find their meanings and communicative contributions not taken seriously, improperly heard, deemed deficient, reinterpreted, distorted and too quickly dismissed, and in these ways they are hermeneutically disrespected and wronged” (44).

Gaile Pohlhaus in describing Varieties of Epistemic Injustice, writes that, in our epistemic system, white European-descended men are regarded as “generic” prototypical knowers, and all others as sub-knowers. The result is structural ignorance of all others’ knowledge, and “[t]argeted ignorances are only sustainable when they are collective and supported by the kind of social power dominant institutions offer” (18). Nancy Tuana, author of “Feminist Epistemology: The Subject of Knowledge”, concurs, arguing that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of the powerful, to maintain “willful ignorance” so as to maintain their own privilege. Charles Mills, in his work on White Ignorance, discusses the difficulties nonwhite speakers have in reasoning with whites “in the grip of white ignorance:”

The objective evidence is on the side of people of color, but whites are unable to appreciate the force of this evidence, or perhaps even to recognize it as evidence, because of the distortion of their cognitive processes by white ignorance.

In this light, it is clear that non-Indigenous settler Canadian society and its institutions (including the mainstream media) have too much invested in maintaining its willful ignorance about genocide, so manipulate our shared “hermeneutical resources” (meanings) accordingly. As a result, Indigenous knowers are not listened to, their words discounted as evidence, their truth obscured from collective understanding.

 

Image: Province of British Columbia [Flickr]

Sources

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice : Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2017). Varieties of hermeneutical injustice. In The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice (pp. 41-52). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315212043

Mills, C.W. (2013). White ignorance and hermeneutical injustice: A comment on Medina and Fricker. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 1 (pp. 38-43).

Pohlhaus, G. (2017). Varieties of Epistemic Injustice. In Ian James Kidd, Gaile Pohlhaus & José Médina Médina (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. New York : Routledge.

Tuana, N. A. (2017). Feminist epistemology: The subject of knowledge. In The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice (pp. 125-138). Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315212043

Writing Subjugated Knowledges: A Research Narrative, 2012-2019

(After 7 years of kind of non-stop research and writing I decided that it would be a useful exercise to prepare a narrative of my research journey to draw together the threads of my various projects. I share it here not only for its insights into how research interests can inform and build upon one another, but in the hope of illustrating for other librarians considering developing their own research agendas the unexpected and serendipitous but exciting ways in which they can progress and evolve, as well as the opportunities they can afford! — MD).

  1. Overview of Research Agenda

As the librarian for Indigenous Studies, Urban and Inner City Studies as well as history and political science – and more recently Women’s and Gender Studies and Disability Studies – I believe that these subject specialties necessitate a critical, theoretically-informed praxis premised on a recognition of structures of power and the mechanisms of knowledge production and subjugation in the academy in particular and society generally. I have therefore taken a specific interest in exploring the ways in which the dominant colonial, Eurocentric society has sought to marginalize other knowledges and worldviews, with an emphasis on the role of libraries in these practices. As such, my writing and publishing has from the start focused on identifying and critiquing these structures, with reference to postcolonial theory, Critical Race theory, Indigenous world views, feminism and queer theory, etc.

Among the subjugated bodies of knowledge considered in my work has been the Shakespeare Authorship Question, which I consider to be emblematic and prototypical of these processes, and in devoting several papers to it I furnished myself with the necessary theories and methods for developing my research agenda, which I shall explain below.

The opportunity to contribute to scholarship — to become a part of the scholarly conversation — is of course an exciting one; yet my research and writing are also animated by some personal and professional philosophies. One is that I find I am better able to learn and integrate ideas and theories if I write about them, more so than merely reading about them. Therefore, on obtaining my present position I felt it was essential to engage actively in the relevant literatures and theories in order to perform my work thoughtfully and successfully, which was a primary motivator for starting this blog.

The second is the simple fact that engaging in scholarship opens doors to other opportunities: quite apart from the multiple conferences at which I’ve presented (OLA, CAPAL, MLA), my writing has led to further engagements with the University and the community which otherwise would not have been afforded to me (see Research Outcomes, below). The more I do in this regard, I find that the more I am able to do.

Finally, given the constituencies with whom I work – not only the student groups but the scholarly disciplines I support – I feel a professional obligation to engage critically in the scholarly conversation regarding knowledge production, representation, marginalization and subjugation.

  1. Peer Reviewed Articles

Soon after being hired in 2012 I set about developing a research agenda into decolonizing libraries, into deconstructing Eurocentric assumptions about what constitutes valid knowledge and how it should be organized. When I began reading the literature of postcolonial theory I was struck by how the language that has been traditionally used to describe “The West” is remarkably similar to the way we are taught to understand Shakespeare. Civilization and modernity we read, are the result of the “Natural Genius” of the West that came to dominate the world, just as Shakespeare was “blessed by Nature Herself with natural genius.”

I explored this theme in my first paper, “By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question” which was published in the Shakespeare authorship journal Brief Chronicles in 2014. I concluded that this quasi-religious grace of “natural genius” effectively removes both Shakespeare and the white colonizer from historical consciousness, making Shakespeare’s “natural genius” foundational to notions of Western exceptionalism. Among the critical sources I discovered in researching this paper to discuss the marginalization of non-Western knowledge was Sami scholar Rauna Kuokkanen’s book, Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift (2008), which argues that, instead of being viewed as inferior to Western epistemes, Indigenous worldviews should be received by the academy as a “gift,” a theme I’ve carried through in other writings and in information literacy sessions for Indigenous Studies.

Having explored this mythic, chauvinistic idea of Shakespeare at the cultural level, I wanted to understand how it is institutionalized, both in the academy and in the academic library. In “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries” published in the 2015 edition of The Oxfordian, I examined the potential for academic libraries to marginalize knowledge through biased collection development and knowledge organization systems (KOS). For this paper I developed a literature review focusing on Foucauldian understandings of subjugated knowledge in the academy as well as the work of LIS scholars including Gary Radford and Birger Hjorland, before examining holdings of Shakespeare-related titles in Canadian university libraries published since 2000. By analyzing the availability of the sample titles in WorldCat and shelf locations and Library of Congress Subject Headings, I was able to demonstrate a marked disparity in holdings between conventional biographies and those skeptical of the traditional attribution, as well as pejorative access points in the catalogue regarding the latter.

While the theories and methods in this paper were almost entirely derived from library science, I opted to publish it in a Shakespeare authorship journal rather than in an LIS journal because I wanted to explore theories of knowledge subjugation in the academy, rather than having to explain in detail what the Authorship Question involved, which would have been necessary in the case of the latter. I did however – with permission of the journal’s editor — adapt the literature review regarding the nature and sources of biases in academic library collection development for the Decolonized Librarian essays, “Subjugating Knowledge in Academic Libraries (parts 1 & 2).”

The theories and methods used in this publication significantly informed my next paper, which explored how KOS marginalize the history of Indigenous genocides, and how these correspond to the scholarship of genocide studies. The article, “A Library Matter of Genocide: The Library of Congress and the Historiography of the Native American Holocaust” was published by The International Indigenous Policy Journal in late 2017 as part of their 2-volume special issues on “Reconciling Research: Perspectives on Research Involving Indigenous Peoples.” In this paper, I examined a sample of books featuring variations of “genocide” or “holocaust” in the title and recorded the subject headings and call numbers assigned to them, discovering that the majority (60%) included no subject access points related to the concept of genocide, arguing that this ambivalent stance towards the historical reality of genocide in the Americas was reflected in the scholarship of genocide studies itself. Again, given the theoretical focus of the paper on genocide studies and historiography rather than LIS scholarship, I decided that a journal of Indigenous Studies would be a better home for this paper rather than an LIS journal.

Following my enrolment in a Library Juice Academy course on cultural competence in the spring of 2018, I reflected on and began researching the limits of the concept, finding much more resonance with cultural safety as practiced by Indigenous nurses, both here and in New Zealand. Around the same time, the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship issued a call for papers for a special issue on diversity, so I began work on what would become “Multidimensional Cultural Safety in Academic Libraries,” which has now been published. The paper argues that the discourse of cultural competence, being limited to a focus on the skills of the practitioner within a context of presumed cultural neutrality and equality, forecloses the ability of the librarian to address structural inequalities in their own institutions and in society. I proposed a hybrid model of Multi-Dimensional Cultural Safety borrowing elements from Indigenous nursing and psychology, and which helped me to articulate the approach to which I’ve aspired in my work with the University’s microcommunities.

Having now connected two marginalized scholarly discourses (the authorship of Shakespeare and Indigenous genocide) to their treatment in library knowledge organization systems (KOS), I speculated that the approaches and methods taken in my papers may be novel in LIS and therefore merited being situated theoretically and methodologically. Again, a call for papers from Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianshipthis time for a special issue on research in LIS — seemed to present an ideal opportunity to pursue this line of inquiry. The resulting paper, “Liberating Knowledge at the Margins: Towards a Discursive-Transactional Research Paradigm in LIS,” connects biases in KOS to external discourses related to matters of race and gender and seeks to articulate a means by which to theorize about the discursive origins as well as the discursive and non-discursive effects these biased taxonomies and structures may have on users, scholars and scholarship across disciplines and time. The paper proposes considering index terms and classifications as Foucauldian “statements” unto themselves to aid in mapping their origins. This article has also been accepted by CJAL and is now in the copyediting process.

  1. Other Scholarship

In 2017, I undertook a qualitative analysis of the lived experience – or phenomenology – of transcending knowledge-subjugating processes. In “Becoming an Oxfordian: The Phenomenology of the Paradigm Shift in Shakespearean Biography,” I analyzed 50 personal essays published by the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship as part of their series, “How I Became an Oxfordian.” What made this study particularly significant for me personally was that I utilized a framework developed by my mother, Dr. Nancy Dudley in her doctoral work on the phenomenology of paradigm shifts, which greatly enhanced my ability to analyze the essays and draw out meaningful themes. I submitted this article for to two different peer-reviewed journals in the humanities, and received valuable comments on it, but ended up publishing it in an abbreviated form in the De Vere Society Newsletter (a UK-based authorship organization, available to members only), with the full version published on WinnSpace.

Additional scholarship emerged from book reviewing: that is, what started as book reviews became far more substantial review essays, such as my review of the book Shakespeare and the Digital World, which ended up integrating theories of the philosophy of technology to argue that the editors and contributors were pursuing questions without any kind of theoretical foundation, and this lack seriously impaired the success of their project. Similarly, I found that Hal Niedzvewcki’s book Trees on Mars,  while not concerning library science, had great resonance with LIS literature concerning future libraries and this analysis became the basis of a CAPAL conference presentation. My blog The Decolonized Librarian has also been a venue for more reflective writing that has also been extremely useful for contributing to or extending my scholarship. For example, “A Library Matter of Genocide” saw its origin in two blog posts.

  1. Research Outcomes

My first two Shakespeare-related papers became the basis for conference presentations at CAPAL, one of which was awarded a travel grant in 2015 from the University Research Office. “A Library Matter of Genocide” was also awarded a grant for travel to the Ontario Library Association conference in 2016. It has now been cited twice in scholarly articles published in 2018. As well, I presented this paper at the OLA Superconference in January 2016; the Concordia University Library Research Forum, April 2016; the Manitoba Libraries Conference, May 2016; and the Pathways to Reconciliation Conference (University of Winnipeg) in June 2016. It was also featured as additional guest lectures for the History and Political Science departments. Findings from this paper were integrated into my library subject guide for  Massacres and Genocides in World History.

Other opportunities to connect with the University of Winnipeg and broader community have emerged from my research agenda. Writing a review of the special issue of The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies (co-edited by Angela Failler, Peter Ives and Heather Milne) for the journal’s launch on November 4th 2015 (the review was later posted to my blog) led to my invitation become a member of the University’s Cultural Studies Research Group, to which I spoke twice in 2019. I also now sit Policy Working Group of the Centre for Research in Cultural Studies (CRiCS).

A 2015 blog post on LGBTQ issues and biases in the Library of Congress subject headings and classification led to my involvement in the University’s Pride Committee, and a presentation as part of Pride Week’s speakers’ series that I later delivered to the Manitoba Association of Library Technicians, and integrated into a Queer Studies library research guide.

My Shakespeare-related research has been a popular choice for the University’s +55 Skywalk lectures and Speaker’s Series (featured at both the Winnipeg Public Library and at the three seniors’ residences), the Collegiate and the Theatre and Film Department, and for the University of Winnipeg Retirees Association. A video of my “Becoming an Oxfordian” talk was mounted to the YouTube channel of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship in April 2018, where it has been viewed over 3,200 times. Another video, “Academic Libraries and the Shakespeare Authorship Debate” has been watched 5,700 times. Most significantly, I am confirmed as a speaker for the University of Winnipeg’s 2019 TEDx talks related to “Freedom,” where I will present a talk called “Liberating Shakespeare,” which also offers a narrative of my research.

Looking ahead to 2019 I will be presenting my recent CJAL paper at two conferences, and an upcoming paper at yet another.

  1. Conclusion and Future Research Directions

With foundations established in matters of knowledge subjugation, my recent and current research has turned to transcending such limitations and uncovering, rediscovering and reclaiming knowledge. The “Becoming an Oxfordian” project was a rewarding investigation into the phenomenology of such transcendence. My experience working with the Indigenous Summer Scholar Project program in 2018 is the subject of a book chapter which I am co-writing with April Blackbird (forthcoming from ACRL), and this reflective process will be instrumental in informing the Library’s recently-approved ISSP project for 2019 investigating the presence of Indigenous Language content in the Library’s collections. Given the significance of this project being carried out in the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, I’ll be keeping my eye on potential publication venues to explore the process and outcomes of this project as well.

Since 2012 I have been engaged in examining processes of knowledge production and marginalization in the academy, and the place of the academic library in these processes. The discourses in question represent examples of what Michel Foucault called “subjugated knowledge” or “historical contents that have been buried or disguised” by mainstream Western scholarship and institutions. While it might seem at first that the debate over the authorship of Shakespeare has no bearing on matters of race, colonialism and power, I see it as not only intimately tied to notions of Western exceptionalism and supremacy, but its very invisibility in the academy serves to disguise these foundations. Furthermore, the theories and methods I developed to establish and elaborate upon my ideas in this regard then allowed me to apply them to the historiography of Indigenous genocide, and upon reflection, to further theorize upon the place of the academic library in broader scholarly discourses. 

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to carry out and report on these various research projects, for I believe they have greatly enriched my professional praxis.

 

More Problematic on the Outside: On the “Neutrality” of Technology in Doctor Who.

The iconic British science fiction series Doctor Who has always told stories warning of the potentially dehumanizing effects of technology, most famously in the form of the Daleks and the armies of Cybermen. The series 11 episode “Kerblam!”, however, offers an especially unsatisfying conclusion about technological systems, one that would have greatly benefitted from some reading into the philosophy of technology – and a dose of critical librarianship.

In the episode, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions receive a call for help hidden in a package sent to her from the massive galactic retailer Kerblam, (clearly the far-future equivalent of Amazon). When they arrive at the massive warehouse on the moon of the planet Kandoka, they learn that the company employs 10,000 human personnel (“organics”) representing a mere 10% of the workforce, which is otherwise mostly robotic. Employees tasked with the repetitive tasks of retrieving, packing and shipping are mysteriously disappearing, and it seems as if the robots are to blame, as they are the ones cheerfully (if creepily) enforcing the company’s rigid performance quotas, and discouraging conversation.

As an Amazon analogue, the Kerblam company hits a bit too close to home: robots and planetary scale aside, there’s little to distinguish fiction from reality. As Jessica Bruder describes in her 2017 book Nomadland, Amazon’s operations depend on the exploitation of vulnerable, aging employees who must work 10-hour days of unforgiving and numbing work pushing carts around cavernous warehouses, often risking injury. Here we see Yaz (Mandip Gill) scouring the aisles with Dan, a father working to support a daughter he hasn’t seen for months, and whom he hopes never has to work at a job like his.

Even so, the episode disappoints in its effort to identify villains. After we learn that a disgruntled low-level employee is planning a massive act of terrorism in order to destroy consumer confidence in Kerblam’s automation, and thus bring down the entire system, we’re reassured that the company isn’t at fault, nor are the managers, the robots or the massive computer system running it all: they just need to add more humans to the mix, and all will be well. The Doctor concludes, “systems aren’t good or bad. It’s how we use them.”

This is highly problematic, even without the context of the soulless corporate globalization (or, rather, galacticization) on display. The Doctor would seem to be advocating an “instrumental” conception of technology, which argues that the merits of a given technology are to be weighed based on its use or ends. Technologies are seen as value-free, and at the service of other dominant values in society. But this is countered by most contemporary philosophers of technology, who argue that, because technologies are goal-oriented – that is, they are designed only (or mainly) for certain purposes and not others (e.g., a lawn mower can’t be used to vacuum a carpet) — therefore the assumptions and goals underlying their development are value-laden. Embedded within and emerging from particular cultural contexts, technologies can’t be separated from those contexts. Because of this, technological systems tend to reinforce and reproduce the values of the society that produce them.

As Simon Barron and Andrew Preater write in their chapter “Critical Systems Librarianship” in the 2018 book The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, library technologies are inherently non-neutral and power-laden. Developed, built and sold by large corporations, they have the potential to compromise the privacy of users or facilitate their surveillance (we see both used to control the Kandokan workers and deliver products). Library systems also employ algorithms that may be structured to prioritize results from certain corporate databases over others, while preventing researchers from discovering content related to marginalized communities, such as Muslims or LGBTQ+ individuals. For all these reasons and more, the development and use of technology is not purely an instrumental matter of solving a particular practical problem but must be theorized about in terms of diverse human needs, ethics, ideology and power.

This factor of corporate control makes the notion of neutrality even more specious: technologies always advance particular interests over others, as they are quickly controlled by powerful economic and political actors who use them to their advantage, and who seek to lock other systems into continuing to use these technologies into the future. This tendency led deep ecologist and activist Jerry Mander (author of one of my favourite books, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television) to observe,

the idea that technology is neutral is itself not neutral – it directly serves the interests of the people who benefit from our inability to see where the juggernaut is headed…[C]omputers…in theory, can empower individuals and small groups and produce a new information democracy. In fact, the issue of who benefits most from computers was already settled when they were invented. Computers, like television, are far more valuable and helpful to the military, to multinational corporations, to international banking, to governments, and to institutions of surveillance and control – all of whom use this technology on a scale and with a speed that are beyond our imaginings – than they ever will be to you and me. Computers have made it possible to instantaneously move staggering amounts of capital, information, and equipment throughout the world, giving unprecedented power to the largest institutions on the earth.

Applying Mander’s observations to this episode of Doctor Who, we see a single corporation operating on a galactic scale, with the ability to deliver packages instantaneously (i.e., far faster than light) to wherever their customers happen to be, suggesting real-time, galactic-scale universal surveillance of everyone. It would also entail a monolithic technological “lock-in” on an equal scale to coordinate logistics, credit, transactions, suppliers and human resources that would put an end to all privacy. The corporation would be so powerful and omnipresent that it would likely devastate independent technological innovation – to say nothing of small businesses — across the galaxy. Merely increasing the staffing levels of humans from 10% to 50% — the episode’s “happy ending” – would only ensure more humans would be subject to the company’s all-consuming homogenization and control.

Obviously, thinking this scenario through to its logical conclusion gets a bit ridiculous, but it shows just how monumentally inadequate The Doctor’s moralizing really is. The goals to which all these technologies would necessarily be oriented – universal surveillance and corporate obeisance – is the use to which they would be put; they could never be made benign. By asserting the neutrality of these arrangements, The Doctor affirms their legitimacy. As Barron and Preater put it, “adopting a position of neutrality reflects a deliberate choice to side with the status quo” (p. 91).

Diversity and Cultural Competence in Collections Work

[I recently took a course on Cultural Competence through the Library Juice Academy which I found very thought-provoking, especially because of the extensive reading and essaying with which we were tasked. This post is an adaptation of one of these essays.]

Readings being discussed:

Bolduc, A. P. (2010). “Collaborative collection development: a Canadian-Indonesian initiative.” Collection Building, 29(4), 124-130. doi:10.1108/01604951011088844.

Maloney, M. M. (2012). “Cultivating community, promoting inclusivity: collections as fulcrum for targeted outreach.” New Library World, 113(5/6), 281-289. doi:10.1108/03074801211226364.

I chose these readings because I was interested in both the role of collections in diversity programming, and how they can contribute to outreach to a university’s communities. What I also find appealing about the juxtaposition of these two articles is that, while their respective outreach efforts are at such vastly different scales – one on-campus and the other across the entire planet – the principles of cultural competence are no less important for each.

The Maloney article concerns what is often a fairly conventional (and in the words of the author, “passive”) feature of library programming – book displays – but demonstrates how, when combined with outreach efforts and partnerships can have significant benefits for both the library and the campus community. The author has a background in Social Diversity and Social Justice studies, and was hired by the University of the Pacific in Stockton California as their Outreach Librarian – which is commendable given that, of its nearly 5,200 students, 58.7% of whom identify as a racial minority. As well, the U of P boasts a Multicultural Affairs Office, and the author recognized that this would make a natural partner to regularly promote library collections related to diversity.

As a first step in the partnership, the library requested and received from the Office a schedule of diversity-related themed weeks and months (e.g., Native American Heritage Month, Black History Month, Women’s History Month etc.). A high-profile location was chosen for the displays, each of which was accompanied by signage to contextualize the items from the library’s collection chosen for their social justice- and empowerment- related content.

Yet, Maloney didn’t just assume that the displays would be viewed through foot traffic alone; instead she used Library Thing as a means for students and faculty to browse the selected titles or discover them through tagging, and thus be referred to related readings. This permitted the library to more easily track the circulation of the displayed books, by comparing their Library Thing shelf list to circulation records. The library also reached out to faculty through listservs to promote displays and to gather feedback.

As well, the partnership with the Multicultural Affairs Office yielded significant results in terms of the visibility of the Outreach Librarian role, and she has been regularly sought out by students and student groups – one of which was a local chapter of a national organization dedicated to Chicano education, culture, political activism and history — and by the Office itself, which proactively ensures that the Library is part of their own efforts.

Maloney demonstrates in this article how her efforts as Outreach Librarian are consistent with the ACRL Diversity Standard #4, in that it promoted library collections, programs and services that were inclusive of the needs of a very diverse campus community. As well, in working with the Multicultural Affairs Office and using social media effectively, Maloney exhibited knowledge and skill in the provision of information in the library and the broader society, and enabled users to discover and be referred to additional sources information, thereby meeting the requirements of Standard #5. Significantly, Maloney was highly proactive in seeking out this partnership and carrying out the project’s goals.

In the Bolduc article, the initiative is globe-spanning in scope: a collaborative collection development project between McGill University Library in Montreal and two State Islamic Universities (formerly known as the State Institutes of Islamic Studies) located in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Yogyakarta as a part of the Indonesia Social Equity Project. As these institutions (known by their Indonesian-language acronym UIN) were once purely devoted to Islamic studies, the goal of the project (supported by the Indonesian Ministry of National Education) was to augment existing collections with secular interdisciplinary content to support the Social Work program at UIN Yogyakarta and the Humanities and Social Sciences program at UIN Jakarta.

The author’s role was to coordinate collection development efforts in collaboration with Indonesian graduate students who, after completing their degrees at McGill would go back to become teaching faculty at these UINs, alongside faculty from McGill who would also teach as guest lecturers. Funding for the collections – which would focus on English language monographs in sociology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, education and comparative law – came from the Canadian International Development Agency. The newly-minted teaching faculty provided Bolduc with the necessary subject knowledge in these disciplines.

Key to the success of the project was the ability of the author to become culturally competent – to gain knowledge of Indonesian culture and engage in effective cross-cultural communication. In particular, the author realized he needed to account for two aspects of Indonesian culture: Bapakisme (the primacy of respect for status and hierarchy) and Harmoni Kelompok (conflict avoidance) both of which contributed to his Indonesian counterparts’ reluctance to offer their honest opinions for fear of being seen as disrespectful or complaining. For Bolduc, this meant he needed to regularly and actively encourage the graduate students to offer their honest feedback, and to deal with potential conflict within the team with understanding and empathy.

These cultural contexts meant that a great deal more attention would need to be given to effective communication and relationship-building than is generally needed to address the standard challenges of collaborative collection development between librarians and faculty at the same institution. The author met early and regularly with the graduate students in face-to-face meetings and ensured that lines of communication were always open. An awareness of the value Indonesians place on harmony made Bolduc strive to create a friendly, family-like atmosphere and to actively listen to his teammates. This was especially important when selecting materials to address topics otherwise considered taboo in these former Islamic institutions, such as reproductive rights and homosexuality.

The author’s positive experiences in this collaborative international project highlight the importance of developing skills in effective cross-cultural communication. In taking the time to learn about the different cultural context in which he was working and in engaging collaboratively and respectfully in a team environment, Bolduc was able to develop collections that were inclusive of the needs of a diverse community of users – consistent with ACRL Diversity Standard #4 – and demonstrated considerable knowledge and skill in the provision of information within an institutional context and in the broader society, key to the goals of Diversity Standard #5.

(As the initiative was initiated by a Canadian federal agency and involved both the author’s employer McGill University and the State Institutes of Islamic Studies in order to fulfill objectives set by the Indonesian government, Bolduc was but one of many players; it is difficult to tell from the article the extent to which McGill University was proactive or reactive in initiating the collection development aspect of the project).

Both articles offer valuable lessons for any library professional wanting to enhance their services to culturally diverse communities. The efforts of Maloney and Bolduc each required collaboration with institutional partners, albeit at very different scales and extents. They also involved varying degrees of cross-cultural communication: Maloney worked with a variety of constituencies representing different cultures (Native Americans and Latinos), while Bolduc was immersed in a wholly foreign social, cultural and linguistic environment with which he needed to become familiar. However, by gaining knowledge of this culture, and creating a social environment built around mutual respect, dialogue and listening – very much adhering to the notion of planning with, not for, communities (as described in the Allard, Mehra and Qayyum reading in week 3) – he was able to meet the objectives of a very complex project involving many powerful stakeholders.

What is abundantly evident in these articles is that the conventional “meat and potatoes” of librarianship – collections, programs and service delivery – become in the context of ACRL Diversity Standards 4 and 5 the means of addressing a huge range of social needs and inequities affecting multiple user communities — provided that the practitioner is culturally competent, practices effective cross-cultural communication and is deeply collaborative and genuine in their engagements.

Cultural Competence: Situating the Self

[I recently took a course on Cultural Competence through the Library Juice Academy which I found very thought-provoking, especially because of the extensive reading and essaying with which we were tasked. In subsequent posts I will adapt selections from these essays.]

In the early 1990s I took some diversity training (but under another name I can’t recall) and was surprised to learn that my Irish ancestors in pre-Civil War America were once despised and subjected to racist stereotypes. At the same time, I also learned thanks to an aunt’s genealogical research, that one of my Dutch-American ancestors was a slave owner. While I’d always been concerned with racial justice, for the first time in my life I experienced myself as racially-situated and implicated in racism. 

I am aware that in almost every way I have benefited enormously from intersecting privileges and good fortune. As a white male generally — and in particular as a white male in a female-dominated and overwhelmingly white profession — I have had a very rewarding career. My university has been supportive of my research into what is generally a marginalized topic (the identity of Shakespeare), but here again most people engaged in this issue are, like myself, white, male and older. My parents were emotionally and financially supportive, which gave me the freedom to pursue my career goals and prevented me from incurring excessive debt. I married young and happily so have been in a stable, rewarding relationship for more than 30 years. We own (well, pay a mortgage on) a home. At the same time, we’re not wealthy – as a single-income household we can’t afford a car or to take the kind of vacations my colleagues seem to take on a yearly basis. But I have tenure in a unionized employer so have long-term job security.

My professional interests in librarianship are largely concerned with intersectionality and power relations, but I am keenly aware of my highly privileged position in carrying out that work.

What really resonated for me in the first week’s reading, “Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship” was the notion that academic libraries are an “epistemological project,” and that curating knowledge and making it accessible are political acts. As such, integrating persons of diverse backgrounds to these processes does more than introduce a brown (or disabled or queer) body to an institutional space, but brings with it diverse knowledge systems – which can only serve to strengthen and enrich those political acts. At the same time however, I also agree that simply hiring a more diverse workforce is not enough, if we are not at the same time challenging and replacing the unjust structures our institutions are built upon or are a part of. 

Book Review: 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act.

Scan the online comments section of any major media outlet following an article about Indigenous issues and you will inevitably encounter some variation of “Why don’t they just get over it?”

Bob Joseph has the definitive response to that racially charged rhetorical question — and, more importantly, to the ignorance behind it — that the Indian Act has made “getting over” colonialism impossible.

In his slim but powerful new book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, Joseph documents the harsh discrimination, controls, humiliations, political dysfunctions and “catch-22s” successive Canadian governments have imposed on Indigenous peoples for the purpose of subjugating and assimilating them.

Joseph is a member of the Gwawaenuk Nation in the Queen Charlotte Strait region of British Columbia. A certified trainer, Joseph is the CEO and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., which he founded in 2002. His father is Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, who is the Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council.

Yet like his father and many others in the Gwawaenuk Nation, “Bob Joseph” owes his legal name to the assimilationist requirements of the Act and an unknown Indian agent who travelled through Joseph’s ancestral region decades ago, imposing Christian names on the band and thereby erasing their traditional hereditary and clan names.

Joseph shows how this was just one of the many ways the Indian Act controlled and harmed the lives of generations of Indigenous people. Since its passage in 1876, the act (with its various amendments) was responsible for creating the reserve system and residential schools, stripping women of their Indian status if they married a non-status man and denying Indigenous people the vote — or granting them the vote at the cost of their status.

The Indian Act imposed European-style farming practices on reserves, but made it impossible for bands to sell their produce to non-Indian customers. Even if these sales had been permitted, it would have required leaving the reserve by obtaining written permission of the Indian agent, which was rarely granted.

Joseph makes this difficult history quite accessible, methodically describing these and other human rights violations in a highly readable prose over a brief 160 pages. Following the main text is a glossary of terms, a chronology of the history of residential schools and the text of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book also includes discussion questions and suggested further reading, making it ideal for book club or classroom use.

In the book’s closing pages, Joseph offers a selection of damning quotes from former prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald and Duncan Campbell Scott (who oversaw the cruelties of the residential school system between 1913 and 1932 and made attendance compulsory), including the latter’s fervent wish that “Indians… finally disappear as a separate and distinct people” through their assimilation.

The book’s final chapter sets out what Canada must do next: dismantle the act and instead work with Indigenous people on forms of self-government and self-determination, allowing First Nations to generate their own revenues through development royalties and taxes and thereby become self-reliant.

We may not as Canadians ever be able to “get over” our colonial past — nor should we — but in the future, Joseph prescribes, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians will be able to transcend it and build true nation-to-nations relationships in the spirit of reconciliation.

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act.
By Bob Joseph.
Indigenous Relations Press. $19.95, 194 pp.

Original review published in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 14th, 2018.  

 

Book Review: Generation Robot

In Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 short story The Murderer, a man driven beyond distraction by ubiquitous wrist phones, gadgets constantly blaring advertisements and home appliances that talk back to him, decides to smash every device he comes across, leading to his commitment to a psychiatric facility.

Now, 65 years on, this once-imagined future is being rapidly realized with smartphones, smartwatches, virtual assistants (Alexa, Siri, Google Home, etc.), domestic robots and the so-called “Internet of Things,” which will allow all these devices and our home appliances to “speak” to each other.

Terri Favro’s Generation Robot recounts the history of these technologies and explores their potential for reshaping our lives — depending on the extent to which we will accept them.

Acting as a sort of a personal guide to this world, from the anticipations of the 1950s to those of the 2050s, Canadian novelist and lifestyle journalist Favro has assembled an informative, if not entirely satisfying, mix of fact, fiction and popular culture, all of which is mapped onto her actual — and imagined — life story.

Favro is known primarily for her novels, short fiction and graphic novels published by small Canadian presses; her 2017 novel Sputnik’s Children was well-received.

She is, by her own admission, a non-specialist, which likely contributed to her use of an autobiographical conceit: each chapter begins with episodes from her own life as a launching point for discussing the ever-growing ­presence of technology in our lives.

This approach allows her to share her unique association with robots: in 1968, her engineer father was put in charge of overseeing the world’s first assembly-line robot. However, once her narrative reaches the introduction of desktop computers in the 1980s, her experiences will be familiar to many middle-aged readers.

The fifth chapter and beyond become exercises in science fiction, as she imagines her life with autonomous cars, artificial intelligence (AI) in her appliances and a sex robot joining her family by marriage.

Favro is at her best in the journalistic portions, where we learn from her research and consultations with experts about the tremendous progress underway towards AI and robotic assistants, but which will depend on consumer willingness to use them.

Key to the acceptance of robots is their staying to this side of the so-called “uncanny valley,” beyond which point humanlike features become creepy and off-putting.

Autonomous vehicles promise to drastically reduce traffic fatalities, yet Americans are reluctant to turn over the wheel to them. Meanwhile, a host of robots and other technologies threaten to replace entire classes of professions.

The greatest potential, Favro explains, appears to lie in robot helpers, especially in an era overpopulated by aging baby boomers.

Favro includes numerous sidebars highlighting robots and AI in popular culture; naturally, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics looms large throughout. Unfortunately, some of these references are either unnecessarily flippant (the revered 1956 film Forbidden Planet is unfairly dismissed as a “campy intergalactic soap opera”) or clumsily inaccurate.

For example, she states that the disfigured crash survivor in Star Trek’s classic pilot episode The Cage is able to maintain the illusion of her beauty by using “advanced alien technology” (it was actually the result of powerfully telepathic aliens), and that the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars prequels are robots (they’re clones, although they do battle a robot army).

Her biggest missed opportunity comes in her chapter on sex robots, when she mentions mechanic Kaylee’s affection for machines in the cult series Firefly; she would have been much better off discussing the sequel film Serenity, in which one of the crew’s allies marries a sex robot.

Generation Robot follows upon a recent surge of books critically examining the social, cultural and political ramifications of digital technologies, AI and algorithms, including Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, and Who Can You Trust? by Rachel Botsman (both recently reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press).

Unlike Foer and Botsman, however, Favro doesn’t offer any particular argument about these technologies, admitting in her introduction that she has more questions than answers.

As a result, readers of Generation Robot can expect to be informed and entertained, but not necessarily enlightened.

 

Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation 
By Terri Favro 
Skyhorse Press. $32.00, 256 pp. 

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, March 10th 2018.

The Perilous Cataloguing of Christopher Frayling’s “The Yellow Peril.”

Christopher Frayling’s new book The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia recently arrived in our library, and it caught my eye for a number of reasons.

The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia by [Frayling, Christopher]

The first is that, like much of Frayling’s other work, it focuses on popular culture and film (an interest of mine), in particular media that fed upon and promoted vile stereotypes and outright racism concerning Chinese people. The book originated in the author’s conversations with Edward Said in 1995 regarding postcolonialism and film. In his landmark book OrientalismSaid had approached the topic of exoticizing and “othering” the East from the top-down perspective of influential scholarship and elite opinion and their effects upon society, whereas Frayling believed that an examination of popular culture would be equally provocative. Frayling argues that, through such pop culture figures as Dr. Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Dr. No and countless “yellowface” and “inscrutable” portrayals by white actors, Americans were enculturated to think of Chinese people as alien and threatening, mostly through decades when China itself was divided, weakened and posed no threat to other nations.

According to Linda Kim, writing in Multicultural America the term “Yellow Peril” consisted of “images and discourses [that] cast Asians as exotic perils to white society, often described as inassimilable and cunning” with racist and discriminatory consequences, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese in camps during World War II. The latter-day ripples Frayling discusses include the  “coming war with China” discourse in the mass media.

The second reason I was drawn to this book is that the title refers to a concept that — as I have long been pointing out to students — still exists in our library’s catalogue in the form of the wretchedly racist Library of Congress Subject Heading “Yellow Peril” which is attached to older library materials:

yp

Of this subject heading, Sanford Berman says in his groundbreaking 1971 book Prejudices and Antipathies, “[i]t is not only an affront to the people so labeled, but it also demeans the user. How it has remained with us this long perhaps only the Sphinx can explain. Or a pathologist” (30). In the intervening 40 years the term itself has been deleted by the Library of Congress so could not have been applied to this particular book.

Nonetheless it is rather discouraging to see how Frayling’s book was actually catalogued:

Yellow Peril lcsh

The first heading refers to the author of the Dr. Fu Manchu novels, which typify the stereotypes Frayling examines. What I find so striking and troubling about the remaining terms is that they lack any conceptual approach to the actual topic of the book, which is to say the negative stereotypes and racism in Western popular culture, as well as the book’s subtitle, “Chinaphobia”. Instead, we get three generic headings describing the presence of Chinese peoples in various forms of media without acknowledging that what is being discussed in the book are extremely racist depictions of Chinese people in media, not just their presence. Indeed, the penultimate heading would appear to accept the offensive stereotypes Frayling critiques as objective reality — that they are, in fact, the “National characteristics” of the Chinese. It would have been far more appropriate and accurate to include the heading variants of Stereotypes (Social psychology) in [Literature, motion pictures, art etc.].

Which is exactly the route we’ve taken at the University of Winnipeg:

 

stereotypes

The original subject assignments can probably be chocked up more to inattention than any actual intent on the part of the original cataloguer to validate negative stereotypes. Yet, given the terrible history of the real-world impacts inflicted on uncounted millions of people over more than a century and on both sides of the Pacific as a result these stereotypes — so say nothing of the participation of the Library of Congress in reifying them — I believe much more care was warranted in describing this book.

(Thanks to Metadata and Discovery Librarian Dee Wallace and Metadata Supervisor Susan Ronquillo in responding so quickly to this issue and correcting it in the UW catalogue!) 

 

Sources

Berman, S. (1993). Prejudices and antipathies : A tract on the lC subject heads concerning people(1993 ed. ed.). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Frayling, C. (2014). The yellow peril : Dr. fu manchu & the rise of chinaphobia. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kim, L. (2013). Yellow peril. In C. E. Cortés (Ed.), Multicultural America: A multimedia encyclopedia (Vol. 1, pp. 2209-2210). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781452276274.n907

 

Book Review: Who Can You Trust?

Two recent news stories perfectly illustrate economist Rachel Botsman’s argument in her new book, Who Can You Trust?: in late October, Amazon announced its “Amazon Key” service, which would see its drivers gain access to customers’ houses – in their absence – to drop off purchases. Barely a week later, Facebook suggested that, in order to prevent the spread of “revenge porn”, users should pre-emptively submit nude photos of themselves to the tech giant, the unique digital fingerprints of which would detect and prevent attempts by others to distribute them.  

Botsman guides the reader on an enjoyably accessible but cautiously skeptical tour through this hugely transformative but barely-recognized shift in our sometimes irrational approach to trust. Among other things, this shift has unleashed the sharing economy (e.g., Uber negating the need to own a car) and the increasing – and for some, unnerving – reliance on computers and robots to make decisions for us, (e.g., autonomous vehicles negating the need for human drivers altogether).  

An instructor at the University Oxford, Botsman is a widely-recognized expert on the economics of trust who previously explored some of these themes in popular TED talks (available on YouTube), and in the 2010 book What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (co-authored with American entrepreneur Roo Rogers).  

She begins by distinguishing between trust (which she defines as a “confident relationship with the unknown”) and trustworthiness, and how our trust has often been abused or misplaced, most notoriously in the case of Bernie Madoff and investment banks prior to the 2008 financial meltdown. As a result, instead of depending upon traditional institutions such as governments, banks and newspapers, we are now using social media platforms to distribute trust to complete strangers.  

Botsman explains how we have, in the process, become products in a global economy of “likes” and starred ratings denoting our trustworthiness, be it as social agents whose personal preferences are sold to advertisers (Facebook), buyers and sellers (eBay), guests and hosts (Airbnb), or drivers and passengers (Uber). She points out that not only can these regimes be gamed, but our fear of being ranked poorly ourselves can curtail our honesty regarding others in the system. Worse, they risk creating a society of mutual surveillance, in which everyone is continually ranking each other to boost their own trustworthiness rankings.  

Botsman shows how this dystopian outcome is already unfolding in China, where the government is well on its way to a 2020 launch of its disturbingly Orwellian “Social Credit System,” a massive trust ranking scheme which will grade all its citizens according their credit history, behaviour and preferences and personal relationships, with the resulting “trust score” then becoming the basis of all privileges and opportunities, including one’s education and career. 

Not that there will be many career choices open to many of us: Botsman cites a 2013 report by two Oxford economists which estimates that, as early as 2030, 47 percent of American jobs could be lost to computerization and automation via artificial intelligence (AI) or actual robots, whom we are trusting with more and more decision-making tasks.   

The ultimate outsourcing of our trust appears to be emerging in the form of blockchains – tamper-proof, distributed (i.e., ownerless) digital ledgers that are capable of proving the provenance of everything from bitcoin transactions to baby formula production to diamonds. Once they gain mainstream acceptance, warns Botsman, they have the potential to make obsolete almost every current intermediating profession and institution including banks, lawyers, and real estate agents. 

With our local networks of interdependence long since gone, expertise forsaken for filtered social media bubbles built around our preconceptions, and traditional institutions exposed as corrupt or rendered obsolete, we may find ourselves instead trusting our daily lives, commerce, livelihoods and governance to algorithms, AI and the immutable perfection of the blockchain.  

Who Can You Trust is an excellent – and apparently trustworthy – primer to this fundamentally upturned society in which we may be spending the rest of our lives.

Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart. 
By Rachel Botsman 
PublicAffairs. $31.93, 336 pp.  
 

(Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press January 27th 2018)..

Book Review: World Without Mind

Franklin Foer believes that our infatuation with the countless ways the ubiquitous tech giants Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have made our lives more convenient has blinded us to their toxic impacts on our economy, culture and politics. In his timely and passionate new book World Without Mind, Foer persuasively lays out the case against the unrestrained dominance of these four corporations, as well as the practical steps we can all take to rein them in. 

Best-known as the former editor of the venerable liberal magazine The New Republic, Foer is also a sports fan who authored How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (2010), and edited the New Republic’s 2014 centenary anthology, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America. 

World Without Mindtoo, is an act of insurrection: where other cautionary books released over the past decade have focused on the harmful effects of the Internet age on our brains (Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows [2011]) and interpersonal relationships (Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together [2012]), Foer’s concerns are  as the title suggests  more global, a call for action against the monopolistic political and economic power of the Silicon Valley companies. 

Almost without realizing it, we have seen them extend their reach in ways few of us would have anticipated even a few years ago: Amazon is producing a television series based on The Lord of the Rings, while Apple is dropping $1 billion to produce its own content to challenge Netflix; Google is determined to perfect neural networks to create true artificial intelligence through its Google Brain project; and, in what may literally be the biggest coup of all, Facebook appears to have been instrumental in derailing the 2016 U.S. federal election by facilitating the spread of Russian propaganda in support of Donald Trump. 

To set out why all this should be resisted, Foer divides the book into three parts. The first comprises something like the corporate biographies of big tech’s leaders, including  Silicon Valley’s ideological father Stuart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog; Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, who is steering his company towards boundless dominance in multiple technological fields; Mark Zuckerberg, whose social network Facebook routinely conducts psychological experiments on its users in its quest to package them for advertisers; and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who, by ruthlessly undercutting publishers fundamentally changed the book trade and global retail generally. 

Part two is the most literary and personal portion of the book, recalling Foer’s tenure as editor of The New Republic. Under the ownership of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, the journal – for more than a century devoted to American politics and literary culture – mutated into a “technology company,” prompting Foer’s resignation along with most of the editorial staff. Foer then laments the state of contemporary letters, specifically how the brutal economic logic of free online content is eroding the financial viability of authorship as a profession, threatening a return to the days when full-time writing was largely the hobby of the idle rich. 

In part three, Foer lays out his strategy for reclaiming our literary and political culture: utilizing the trust-busting power of the U.S. federal government to break up the ever-widening reach of these companies (Google, for example, offers more than 200 services, while its parent company Alphabet, Inc. is developing autonomous cars); accepting our own responsibility to pay for the online content we consume; and a return to reading paper books, a personal act of insurrection which generates no metadata that might be digitally trackeor sold to third party advertisers. 

Foer argues that the tech giants’ outsized presence in the political economy represents a powerful form of gatekeeping that controls, manipulates and diminishes our access to information, and with it, bypasses our free will. The unintended consequences of our embrace of these tools are unspooling before us daily as newspapers fold, professional journalism is dismissed as “fake news” while outright propaganda generated by troll farms is accepted by millions as genuine, with the outcome of elections in the balance.   

World Without Mind is a powerful manifesto for reclaiming our culture, journalism and literature — indeed, democracy itself — from the all-consuming ambitions of Silicon Valley. 

 

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. 
By Franklin Foer. 
Penguin. $36.00, 257 pp. 

(Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, January 13th, 2018).