Categories
books/readings tech anguish

Book Report: The Charisma Machine

What kind of blog will this be? Idk yet; right now it’s just a thing I occasionally remember exists and I dump text into it now and again. One of my goals with this when I started it was to collect what I’m reading in a more tangible way somehow, and I don’t want to review books and I don’t want to deal with Goodreads or whatever, so I’m gonna do this instead: a book report. I will definitely evince an opinion about whether or not I like something, but no star ratings or any of that.

So, anyway, onto the book at hand: The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child by Morgan Ames. This was an incredible work that I think should be required reading for just about anyone in engineering, computer science, entrepreneurship, or any of the various allied disciplines and the overlapping stuff in between. It’s an in-depth exploration, articulated through hefty research, field work, and understanding of tech rhetoric and educational theory, of technological imperialism. It exposes the lies and gaps that the snake oil sages on stages never want to spend a minute of their TED talks on, revealing both the victims of their false promises and the hidden labor of the people who believe enough to try to make them come true.

One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, still exists in some difficult-to-understand form today, but for folks unfamiliar, it was an MIT Media Lab spinoff project run by a group of…wait for it, privileged white American men with the intention of deploying millions of cheap laptops to young children in developing nations around the world. It was co-directed by Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder and guy who has seriously said things like the following: “We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back a year later and see if the kids can read.” Now, the Media Lab has been on an accelerated fall from grace in the back half of 2019, so it’s probably not especially surprising that Jeffrey Epstein pals like Marvin Minsky were in on some of the foundational thinking that led to this, but there’s still many lessons to be learned here.

The project was rife with problems from its start around 2005 with manufacturing costs being much higher than expected and the leaders’ fixation with what Ames calls “nostalgic design,” an obsession that resulted in machines with far less computing power and storage space than equivalent laptops of the time. Key features, like the hand crank that was initially dreamed up in hopes of powering computers in areas where there was no electricity available, proved impossible to build and never came to fruition. Even with a rugged exterior that Negroponte notoriously threw across the stage at some circle-jerk presentation or other, the machines still broke in large numbers, especially their screens and trackpads. It also was immediately clear to participating nations that the tablet-dropping helicopter wasn’t really a viable solution. In countries like Paraguay where Ames situated her fieldwork, massive infrastructural upgrades and assistance, including NGOs to do enormous amounts of work on integrating the laptops in school curricula, were necessary to do anything at all with these machines.

Ames describes what she is tactful enough to not call a total clusterfuck. In one class she visits, a teacher asks students to pull out their laptops and open a program so they can complete an assignment with the computer. A handful of students don’t have their laptops at all (they’ve broken irreparably or been lost), and at least half of the remaining group doesn’t have the program installed. Because the developers wanted children to “hack” their laptops and have the complete ownership over them they thought was part and parcel to their tech-utopian ideal, the kids often deleted boring programs like the one in question so they could make room for downloaded music and videos. The teachers, already overworked and underpaid with minimal resources, generally didn’t take to this new pedagogical model. As a result, the NGO supporting this rollout recruited trainers to support the use of the laptops in class and develop the pedagogy. But unless teachers had a natural proclivity for the machines or a special interest in them, this didn’t stick. Same went for the children, though for them the interest level definitely cleaved along class and gender divides, as well as the type of environments they had at home:

“[F]ully two-thirds of children hardly ever used their laptops. Some nonuse was due to breakage, which occurred along gendered and socioeconomic lines, complicating some of the benefits the project was supposed to provide… [Each] student [that used their laptops in the way OLPC intended] had a constellation of resources that encouraged them along this path: families that steered them toward creative and critical thinking, a focus on the importance of education, and in many cases another computer at home.”

I think what amazed me most about this story was the number of people who wanted it to be true and who put a ton of work into filling in the gaps and figuring out the Ames calls the “messy world” parts. It’s not surprising that Negroponte and his Media Lab bros would buy into their own rhetoric, but it bothers me deeply that their colleagues at MIT and the folks at the NGOs created to support OLPC seemed to eat it up, too. Maybe it was a product of its time; shortly before the dawn of social media/”Web 2.0,” there was an explosion of educational technology books, research, and prosthelytizing. Maybe the directors of the project were in such an echo chamber of other tech utopians and mystified journalists that they were never in a position of being called on the pretty boldfaced “imperialist notion that technology simply flows from the Global North to passive and graceful recipients in the Global South. Or maybe it was the power of charisma and the “social imaginaries” Ames teases apart in the book: the experiences, opinions, and ideas of OLPC’s developers became the only vision they could see, the glorious triumph of the “technically precocious boy” over his machine, leading to his discovery of identity, sense of belonging, and success in society. In other words, just because the Media Lab bros were empowered by their mastery of technology, little boys the world over could be, too.

“[C]harisma is ultimately a conservative social force. Even when charismatic technologies promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, they appeal precisely because they echo existing stereotypes, confirm the value of existing power relations, and reinforce existing ideologies. Meanwhile, they may divert attention and resources from more complicated, expensive, or politically charged reforms that do not promise a quick fix and are thus less charismatic.”

So, right now as we’re sitting here living through history, we need to stay on the lookout for the charismatic “solutions” that will surface in the hopes of quickly and painlessly getting us back to “normal.” They’re already coming in the form of health monitoring snake oil and educational disruption from everyone’s favorite surveillance capitalist, and there will be plenty more to come. The Charisma Machine shows what happens when folks that benefit from existing power relations try to impose their ideologies on people who don’t. There’s no innovation there, just a tool allegedly built for liberation that, once exposed to the messy world, instantly falls apart.

Categories
librev navel gazing

The view from the ivory tower

The first time anyone ever accused me of being “Ivory Tower” happened in the last 24 hours, and I was leaving MPOW when I saw this statement for the first time. I had just stopped by to check on our book drop because I knew a lot of seniors were coming back to town to move their stuff out of the dorms and I had reminded them about dropping their library items off while they were around for that. I also got some measurements and mental models in my head for the sake of coming up with a concrete plan for social distancing, and practiced running between my office and the downstairs workroom, knowing it may well be part of my job to be vigilant on two floors very soon. Thing is, I have only two staff members, may have no student workers in the fall, and the library is one of the most well-loved and well-used places on our little campus.

I initially only got through the first few paragraphs of this post, a rebuttal to my LibraryJournal piece from earlier this week, and as I biked back to Boston, this is the part that stuck with me:

“The Ivory Tower mentality of privilege is blowing my mind. The emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being’ will come back to haunt us…No one else is in government work is exempt from doing that.”

There are two reasons why it stuck: one is that positioning a nationwide campaign to advocate for library workers’ safety in this moment as an “emotional argument of ‘librarian as sacred being'” is misleading, unfair, and wrong. As Donna Lanclos said more eloquently than I can right now, “#VocationalAwe is not a “double edged sword,” it is a description of the constructs used to oppress library workers when they attempt to assert that they have rights. ‘Don’t you care for your community??’ when library workers shelter at home is straight-up [vocational awe].” This accusatory language of “librarian (notice not ‘library worker’) as sacred being” is more of the same construct. And lest you think think this is a quote taken out of context, or that I didn’t read the rest of it when I got home, the post goes on to say, “There is a heavy and heartbreaking dose of privilege that comes with librarians expressing they are too precious to roll up their sleeves and get to work.” Is this what we are saying, or are we saying that library workers deserve basic dignity, rights, and safety before they roll up said sleeves? Is it fair to say that in advocating for ourselves, we’re ignoring every other type of worker out there? Or is this another fence drawn around cutting us off from broader labor solidarity?

The other sticking point is that to accuse me of being Ivory Tower is just absurd. I’m a fucking millennial daughter of the Rust Belt with crooked teeth and tattoos, not some pant-suited dean who hasn’t been on the front lines in 20 years. I empty the book drop, open the mail, and help my students with every single thing they come to me with, whether or not it’s “library-related.” Did I mention I have two staff members? I’ve used my position, privilege in being a director and at an institution where we’re expected to stay home, and connections to the Massachusetts library community to try to affect some kind of meaningful protection for my colleagues for the last two months. It’s defined many of my weeks, I’ve given it every brain cell I didn’t allocate for my day-to-day job, and it still seems like it’s been a drop in the bucket against the rapid pressure to reopen right this second. This image of me kicking up my (sneaker) heels and saying “nah, I’m too precious for this shit” is offensive, so belittling and dismissive of how I approach my work, and the path I’ve taken to get to this current job (though my LinkedIn profile is, intriguingly, linked to in the post).

But I wonder if there’s something more to this, something that even goes beyond the fixation of me as an academic library director up in my ivory tower, when we get to this part:

And why should people listen to “people who are no longer working making declarations about how we should direct our energy in the first place?” Because we just may have a clarity of vision about what it is really like, on the other side, to use the services libraries are providing their communities.

To me this sounds at best like, “We have decided who has privilege and voice in this current system and it is not you, o young academic library director who is putting uncomfortable pressure on those of us already in power,” and at worst like, “Oh honey, someday you’ll understand.” I have been in this game long enough to see this pattern of certain female-identifying directors worshiping the ground walked on by young male-identifying directors, but treating young female-identifying directors as if they are problematic trash that should be disposed of forthwith. I know this when I see it, just as I know the public vs. academic crap when I see it.

I was on the other side of the public vs. academic line not long ago, and I will readily confess that my perception of academic library life was way off base. Maybe I also believed in this ivory tower, but didn’t call it as such; I thought academic librarians had a work experience at a distance from their patrons and didn’t form relationships like we did with them at the public library I worked for at the time. I thought that there was a privilege and stability in academia that blanketed over all of the myriad realities of staff and students. I was wrong. I have developed deep relationships with my patrons now that go far and beyond what I experienced in the public world. And I am out on the floor in sensible shoes, not only emptying the book drop and opening the mail but reshelving the books, weeding, ordering, cataloging, working with student groups both in “traditional” instructional services and in the role of a community organizer, of sorts–we read books about systemic oppression’s influence on technology, and have long meandering conversations about the better world we dream of. I challenge students to fight their way through the anodyne trappings of engineering education and embrace activism. And you know what? I had no idea this kind of work was possible as an academic library director until I saw the need and found myself doing it.

My point here is, I get the divisiveness between public/academic, but SHUT. UP. Have you seen the common refrain on library Twitter that we need a national union like, a thousand times over by yesterday? While I’m not going to be the person to provide that, I can say that if we’re going to be pitting publics vs. academics, we’re getting nowhere fast – certainly not to the “disrupted, innovative” future. This past week, everyone’s favorite grievance bot had some juicy posts about the notion of vocational awe being a mechanism for academic librarians to oppress and criticize their public counterparts from positions of relative safety. Guess what? No matter what your thoughts are about the application of that term, you’re fundamentally undermining the future of your field by making unsubstantiated, intentionally polarizing claims like it’s an academics vs publics thing. And similarly, to claim that you are interested in innovation for libraries right now but do not want to produce this in alignment with worker needs, you are not acting in the best interest of your field! Like, I’m sorry that you’ve worked with people who have been “resistant to change,” but as a wise librarian once said on Twitter,

“I resist changes that are done to me, for me, in spite of me. I am usually a reliable booster of change done with me, alongside me.”

I’ve had employees who’ve refused to meet baseline expectations, too, but no matter how much they pissed me off on a day-to-day, I would NEVER want them on the frontlines with no protection and no cohesive guidelines for safe operation. The argument I can’t help but hear in this post isn’t so very different from the GOP ghouls who think it’s okay to sacrifice COVID-prone folks for the good of the economy. Wouldn’t it be convenient for some directors to get rid of the workers “who want to do a job that doesn’t exist any more, if it ever really did?” And the thought that haunts me through all of this is one Ruha Benjamin quotes in Race After Technology:

“[To] take the place of progress, ‘innovation,’ a smaller, and morally neutral, concept arose. Innovation provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age without expecting…too much in the way of moral & social improvement.”

We’re in the same boat if we keep lionizing these stories of perseverance with no context about the jobs, health, and emotional and financial stability lost. But do go on about me being up here in the ivory tower. If we can’t band together behind the acknowledgment that 6,000-10,000 layoffs and furloughs is a professional crisis, all of our realities are about to get a whoooooooole lot more miserable.

Categories
navel gazing

A graduation speech no one will ever ask me to give and that’s ok

Hey Class of 2020,

Shit is rough, but you are wonderful. And the wonderfulness of you will endure, in the exact way that the rain pouring in my backyard right now will not. Uncertainty defines everything, yes, but I know this because I’ve seen who you are and what you can do.

I had a conversation with some of you today about how you come to trust people and the expectations you have for the relationships you’ve got and the ones you’ll build, and the courage that’s taught you how to understand and embrace criticism, and to speak truth to power. People might laugh this off as “wokeness,” or your would-be employers might avoid you because your school has a reputation for producing graduates that say what’s on their minds. That’s because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of embracing a new mindset, a new way of framing things that may require them making concessions or redistributing their power, a recompense for their own conservative actions and shortsightedness, especially in your chosen realm of STEM.

Though it may not happen immediately, and though you will no doubt find yourself at the unforgiving whims of a tanked economy, you will one day find workplaces that do not see your brave curiosity as a liability, but rather as a benefit, a key part in their strategy. Whether your work fulfills you or you yearn for something more, you can become an activist. You can engage with your community in so many ways that are sorely needed – you can volunteer, teach, discuss, mentor, build. The skills you have brought with you to your learning and have honed throughout your education will keep you going in this work, in ways that many folks (including me) have had to develop through studying and peer guidance much later in life.

If you struggle to find your feet beneath you as you move on to this next stage, fear not; this is the natural course of things. Maybe the most important things millennials like me can bestow upon Gen Z is that 1) the “insert college degree, expect economic prosperity” model has been proven a myth for some time now, 2) your life is going to feel like a series of fits and starts, “forever delayed,” 3) it’s really alright if you don’t go straight from point A to points B and C, etc., and 4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you. You are living through history, as are we all–and what’s more, subject to a timeline that is not human.

I want to spend a little more time on point 4 because this is where I stumbled the most when I graduated in 2009. Shit was rough then, too, but there at least was no global pandemic to contend with. I moved just outside Boston a few weeks after I received my degree on a frigid day in upstate New York. I tagged along with a group of people I hardly knew but, I thought, had the right idea in bouncing out of town. That summer was cruel, and our painstaking spring this year brings it back; it rained 27 of 30 days in June. I had nothing much to do, though, no job and no prospects, so I walked the streets of Waltham until I knew them like the hilly, curving roads of my hometown.

Eventually my money ran out and I took a job at the CVS in Wellesley that’s closest to campus. I was the photo lab manager, but I still felt a shame that I carried around like an unshakeable aura; I felt like I’d failed myself, my parents, my brother who was currently working on a PhD in computer science, my boyfriend at the time, a chemistry major who had snagged a job downtown. We didn’t have a proper darkroom at the store so I used to have to go down to the basement with the lights all turned off, stumbling over the off-season merchandise, to change the photo printer paper cartridges. I got told to smile more about 40 times a day. My shift leader, Elio, was from Peru and had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering but he was stuck working at this stupid photo lab-less CVS along with John, another 2009 grad who was trying to get on the fast track to store management. They tried to entice me down that road, too; at the time, the chain was targeting an expansion in Hawaii, and I remember being told I could wind up there if I wanted to stick with it. “They’ll need all kinds of managers in Honolulu, Cal!”

I quit a couple weeks into the new year, 2010. I had decided to go back to school at this point, to get my Masters of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons then-College-now-University. I still needed money–needed it more, with that first tuition bill in my hands–but a phone call with a customer on Christmas Eve, amidst all the last-minute purchases of tape and candy canes, so many candy canes, had put me over the edge.

“CVS Wellesley Central, this is Callan speaking, how can I help you?”

“I’m calling to see if you have any Snuggies1. They’re the last thing on my list and I know you have them.”

“Let me go double-check – I haven’t seen any in the store, but I’ll look around. One moment while I put you on a quick hold. … Ma’am, are you still there? We don’t have any Snuggies on the shelf or in storage, unfortunately.”

“(scoffs) Are you lying to me?”

“… What?”

“I said, Are. You. Lying. To. Me?”

“No, ma’am. I just checked our stock and -“

“I know you’re lying. I’m going to come down there and I’m going to get you in so much trouble when I prove that you lied.”

“Um -“

“Don’t try to explain yourself, liar. I’m coming down there right now.” *click*

For the record, she never came down, but after a few months of this kind of nonsense and men throwing newspapers at me when I asked them to walk five feet over to an open checkout station, I was all set. I left CVS and took a job north of Boston at a hair salon software company and built websites for stylists and spas in New England for a few months, and it was also terrible and unpleasant for a different set of reasons, and then started my program at Simmons almost exactly a year to the day after I arrived in Massachusetts. I lived in a different apartment with different people by then. I’d lost some friends and made some new ones. I got my cats.

So, happily ever after, right? Lol, no. It took me years, including a cross-country move, a stint in a mildly successful electronic goth band, a failed marriage, and the death of my grandmother and near-death of my brother to get me even close to “on track.” I went from point A to point Q to some point not even identifiable in this alphabetic system before I got to point B. When I thought I’d gotten all of the deliberate fucking up out of my system, I got involved with a person and almost ruined my career, or ran myself out of it, in the aftermath. The day the sense got knocked into me wasn’t even when I woke up in the hospital after a hit-and-run, but probably the night two months after that when a set of stairs collapsed under me in Allston while I was carrying my bike out of the house of a giant asshole who was not only two-timing me with someone half his age but also constantly texting her while I was around (thanks loads, Tinder). And even after that, I have continued to fuck up. I have fucked up prodigiously in these last ten years and I’ll probably fuck up routinely forever, but you know what? That’s the deal. We’re all on board for it. There’s nothing you can do to stop the majority of your own fuckups, but you can do one thing to help you through it. You can remember point 4.

4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you

I have gotten to know some of you better than others, but all of you are impressive to me. The things I’ve seen you build, the teams I’ve seen you working with, the speeches you gave before we all scattered to the four winds. Your tolerance for ambiguity, your willingness to speak up, your honesty and your knowledge of the importance of consensus, something folks my age and older struggle with, sometimes indefinitely. I didn’t have much time with you, but the 5-6 months I had was enough to make me a little weepy as I sit here and imagine not seeing you on campus anymore. “Man, your shoes are hard to replace.” But that’s part of the deal, too–you must go on, and you must fuck up outside the bounds of our campus, and that may well mean that for fuck’s sake, you must be the change you want to see, even if people might think that makes you a know-it-all fuck, because we’ve never fucking needed it more.

I’ve been sitting here staring out at the rainy dark for a while without many ideas for a good closing paragraph, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words. They are a more eloquent way of stating the first sentence of this speech: “Shit is rough, but you are wonderful.” You were, after all, challenged to “do something” when you came to us, and I share this in the spirit of challenging you to keep at it after you go, even if your life is a mess because you’re stuck at point Q trying to placate the Snuggie lady.

“Nature teaches persistence and perseverance, because in the end nothing stops nature. If a rose can grow out of the concrete, so can we.”

Micah Hobbes Frazier, kind of quoting Tupac Shakur, quoted in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy
  1. I’m pretty freaked out about how quickly culture shifts nowadays, so in case you don’t know, a Snuggie is an “As Seen on TV” sleeved blanket that became something of a cult during my CVS days.
Categories
librev

We’re Here Because We’re Here

Protesters outside Hennepin County Library branches where staff were asked to do curbside delivery after being laid off and encouraged to reapply for jobs at temporary shelters. Photo credit: Brad Sigal

There’s been a trend of articles coming out in major publications that are all about how excited people are to get back to their libraries, how resilient libraries are, all kinds of happy-go-lucky “we’re doing just fine!” stuff. It’s all well and good except for the fact that these narratives do nothing to a) tell the truth about the miserable realities that library workers are actually experiencing, and b) incite any kind of action to be taken in our defense.

Let’s start with the American Library Association, who have seemingly been going out of their way to come across as tone-deaf in this moment. On May 1, amidst thousands of layoffs and furloughs of library workers happening all around the country, ALA President Wanda Brown wrote a piece congratulating the resilience and stick-to-it-iveness of “librarians and library workers” in American Libraries magazine. There was no mention of lost jobs, slashed budgets, unsafe working conditions, managers censoring and punishing employees for speaking up for themselves, or threats of placement in riskier positions–in other words, none of what has defined this crisis for many of our colleagues.

Next up, we have a piece in PBS News Hour. The reporter did reach out to me to talk about the less savory parts of the story, but the narrative here is very much about the extra miles library workers feel like they’re expected to go because there’s no other options for their patrons. There’s a celebration of curbside pickup and enhanced social media use–and a more understandable and laudable effort to make the internet more accessible–but not much in the way of questioning why it is that libraries are the only shred of social safety left for citizens, and not much exploration of how austerity/disaster politics are currently decimating our field. Same went for this April 22 piece about Australia’s libraries in The Guardian, which quotes a public official who said, “The longer we keep our library branches closed, the deeper and more entrenched that digital divide will become.” Blaming library closures for the digital divide is like blaming our immune systems for succumbing to the virus.

A few days ago, an opinion piece written by a retired library worker ran in The Washington Post, titled “Local libraries will look a lot different when they reopen.” The author does mention furloughs, but says “some jurisdictions” have decided to do them and links to one system (this despite the over 5,600 layoffs and furloughs estimated via data collected in a tracking document, a number that is likely much higher but difficult to accurately count because of ambiguous reporting and fear of retaliation). What’s remarkable about this piece is that the writer is focused on the changes public libraries will need to contend with as they reopen, but doesn’t mention how a skeleton staff and the health risks to employees will impact those changes (I guess this is where our “librarians and library workers” resilience comes in). There’s also theorizing about print collections being supplanted by electronic ones, but no discussion of how impossible that feat is likely to be.

I’m sure there are other examples out there; feel free to share them with me and I’ll swipe at them, too. 😉 But I want to turn this to what I actually see happening right now, which is this:

  • Libraries are reopening to the public in states that are rushing forward to “get back to normal.” Workers at these libraries are scared for their health and safety, not only because of the covid-19 transmission risk but also because patrons are unpredictable, may not comply with rules, and may become violent and unruly, as has already been seen at public places and restaurants that are trying to operate “normally.”
  • The impacts I’ve seen on people who’ve contacted me or are posting about their experiences on Twitter are anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, thinking of leaving the field, contemplating quitting even during a tanked economy for the sake of their own safety and sanity, low morale, fear for family members, feelings that nothing they do will be enough to prevent furloughs or layoffs, and general malaise and purposelessness. Folks who have not yet been directly impacted (including me) are feeling a collective survivor’s guilt, and/or a sensation that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment.
  • In many states, libraries or their towns are acting in opposition to stay-at-home orders. The local offenders I’ve heard of that are engaging in this are the public libraries in Dedham, Watertown, and Cambridge; in Massachusetts, we are awaiting updates and a reopening plan from Governor Charlie Baker. These places are jumping the gun, and it leads one to wonder what’s motivating this: Furloughs and layoffs in nearby towns? Political or public pressure? (Or, at least in the case of Dedham, an embarrassing history of mismanagement and corruption?) In any case, we need to ask why both municipal managers and leaders of our professional organizations seem to think that putting our colleagues at risk is the most politically expedient thing to do.
  • Library workers are concerned about using PPE and cleaning supplies when there are still nationwide shortages of these items that should be prioritized for essential workers and people in vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residences where there are sick or immunocompromised household members. They are also concerned about encouraging their community members to leave home and run errands before a determination of whether or not it’s safe to do that.
  • During the beginning and height of the #closethelibraries campaign, which started when many academic and public libraries were continuing to either operate as usual, refusing to provide telework options, or operating with scaled-down in-person services, it quickly became clear that many workers were being punished or threatened by library or municipal/institutional leadership if they attempted to speak about their unsafe conditions and stand up for their personal safety. As I was working with journalists trying to cover the movement, it was challenging to find people who were comfortable speaking on the record about their experiences for fear of retaliation. Leaders were exploiting the uncertainty and scariness of the job market to control these library workers and thus control the narrative of what was going on. And what was going on was not good, and continues to be very bad.

I’m only scratching the surface with what’s going on here based on the stories people are sharing with me and on social media (mostly with fear of retaliation or anxiety about how helpless they feel) and things I’m coming across in my home state. But the flipside of all of these digital storytimes and boosted WiFi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for, scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being, and the reality of slashed budgets they’re staring down from now until…who knows? What guarantee do we have of bouncing back?

Long before our lives began to be redefined by this global pandemic, library workers had plenty to worry about, specifically with their proclivity for self-sacrifice, overwork, and low morale. Our leaders are cashing in on our instincts for martyrdom and hesitance to make a fuss about our own needs, and you know what? It’s time to say not anymore. Ignoring our very real plight and slapping happy stories on top of it isn’t going to save us.

It’s not an end-all, be-all, but to at least throw something out there that you can do, consider signing this petition demanding safe reopening conditions for library workers. And push back on these stories of unmitigated success and unqualified resilience. Anyone who wants libraries to survive this needs to fight hard for library workers to survive it, too.

Categories
books/readings tech anguish

The Age of Coronavirus Surveillance Capitalism

Naomi Klein and Shoshana Zuboff had an interesting conversation last year at The Intercept’s The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism event, and the differences they evinced that night recently made themselves very clear in the form of two pieces about big tech and the pandemic both published on May 8. Klein, activist and author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, wrote “Screen New Deal” in The Intercept as a part of a “series about the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism in the age of COVID-19.” Meanwhile, Zuboff, scholar and author of last year’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, was interviewed by Joshua Keating in Slate.

While they’re not saying wholly separate things, just as it was during their conversation last March, Zuboff shows an optimism that capitalism is not ultimately a zero-sum game and democracy is already acting as a bulwark against the potential overstepping of tech during the current crisis. Klein, meanwhile, steels us for a more dire road ahead, one where men like Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates will continue to try to “[demonstrate] the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix,” failing to acknowledge or address the issues neatly swept under the rug of “the digital divide.”

It’s hard for me to not agree more with Klein’s take on this, just as I did when she was holding capitalism responsible as the fundamental flaw of the surveillance machine (something that Zuboff is much more reluctant to do; she seems to come down on the side of other tech critics like Jaron Lanier who propose a different financial model with users being compensated for the data they provide). It’s weird having read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and having seen the measured and disturbing arguments of how human experience is now rendered into money for a select few in much the same way as human labor has for millennia before, that Zuboff still defends the democratic potential of this economic system. But having met Zuboff and talked with her in person, and now reading this interview with her, I understand where her optimism is coming from. That’s not to say I necessarily share it, but it’s important to try to; the alternative is the learned helplessness and adherence to the Borg complex that surveillance capitalists want us to feel.

In the interview with Slate, Zuboff says we live in different times than we did in the aftermath of 9/11, that people won’t be so easily sucked in by the promise of a shiny technical solution to an unutterably complex problem. She says, “In the last two years there has been a sea change in public attitudes that hasn’t yet overwhelmed the system, but it could.” And there is some truth to this, as Klein notes: “Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google’s own workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.”

I think what’s missing in Zuboff’s perspective is an indictment of the structural rot that makes tools of surveillance as dangerous and devastating as they are, and why that makes the prospects of a world overtaken by them so terrifying for all of us. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is aimed pretty squarely at (white) upper middle class academics and it deals most substantially with problems they’re likely to connect with and experience, rather than the systemic analyses of inequality presented in, for instance, Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology and Virginia Eubanks’s work. Zuboff imagines a future where those of us with the ability and time rabble-rouse for the right thing to be done; Klein warns us straightforwardly that “the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures” and “there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.”

When I spoke to Zuboff at a campus visit she made right before the U.S. started to noticeably react to the pandemic, I asked her how we might bridge “the division of learning” she comes back to again and again in her book. The division of learning is the gulf intentionally kept between the architects of the new technocratic order and the people exploited by it. She said that it would be possible to reinvest capital freed up from surveillance giants into education and public infrastructure. I don’t disagree that it’s possible, but reading about Eric Schmidt’s lobbying exploits as of late in Klein’s article has me feeling not so confident in this would-be reality.

That all being said, I’m not advocating for us to just throw the towel in and give up on making a better future possible; quite the opposite, in fact. The urgency is missing from Zuboff’s piece, and I found her suggestions similarly somewhat hollow when I asked her about the division of learning. We need to be realistic about the scale of the powers that need to be checked, and as Klein makes clear, the fact that the attempts to rebuke the surveillance giants in recent months has only made them angrier, greedier, and more determined to get what they want: “[T]he pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that [people in Silicon Valley] feel has been unjustly denied.”

Zuboff, meanwhile, compares this past turn of the century with the turn that came before it. She says we didn’t get trapped in a Gilded Age because “[the 1930s] ended up being a period of intensely fruitful institutional development, where all kinds of new institutions were finally invented along with the legislative and regulatory frameworks to support them, to make industrialization flip to democracy,” but, as you’ve no doubt noticed, we do not have a Roosevelt democrat in office right now. Instead of the establishment of something like a modern-day WPA, we have an administration that is urging states to reopen, bolstered by protesters who think this whole thing is a hoax.

It is remarkable to me that we see the technological imperialism espoused by Schmidt and his kind sprout up again and again, no matter how many times it fails. The lessons don’t seem to be learned by our political leaders, but maybe they don’t want to learn them; many are looking for a silver bullet just as desperately as the tech giants are trying to sell one to them. Many politicians either ignore or don’t care that the end game of these companies is to get more users until they’re not needed anymore, until Amazon doesn’t have to worry about striking humans and Uber can deploy its driverless cars (with or without them needing to stop killing people first). And, remind me, what economic system requires never-ending growth at the sacrifice of individual rights and dignity?

“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers said in response to the latest Gates Foundation partnership announced with the state. Andrew Cuomo and his big tech bedfellows are united in not wanting to deal with addressing those needs, those human edges that they can’t optimize out, those consequences of decades of austerity and chipping away at the social safety net. None of these people wants to admit fault or defeat–in fact, they want us to believe we owe them a debt. As Schmidt says, “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” What indeed. How dare we, for example, criticize them for firing Black employees who are trying to take collective action against dangerous and unfair practices in warehouses during the pandemic?

We’re already forked over our time and attention to these companies, and a not insignificant amount of our free will. We need to decide if we want to fork over what’s left of democracy to them, too. There’s a reason why they want their feet in the doors of education and public health, and it’s not because they want to make the world a better place. They still need healthy humans for much of what they’re calling “artificial intelligence” – we’re not obsolete yet – and why not start as early and pervasively as they can to train us to think more like the computers they want to swap us out for one day? The machine overlords aren’t machines; they’re people who want to turn us into them.

“The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what changes should look like and whom they should benefit,” Klein writes. We must force that public debate. The subtitle of Zuboff’s book is “the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power.” We’re in that fight, but the free market and political nostalgia won’t help us win it.

Categories
librev

#LIBREV opening speech

Posting this here mostly for my own posterity, but this is the opening speech I delivered at Monday’s #LIBREV(olution) conference.


Welcome to #LIBREV(olution). Hello to everyone on the live broadcast, and also hello to those of you watching the recordings. My name is Callan Bignoli, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I am the director of the library at Olin College of Engineering. I’m about ten miles away from there at my home in Boston, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us today. I’m going to say a few words before we get things underway with our first presentation starting at 10 AM Eastern.

Back in mid-March, which feels like it was years ago now, I had an idea to pull this together as I saw conference after conference getting canceled. I asked for volunteers to pull some kind of online gathering together and immediately found help. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge all of the people who have assisted with the idea and execution of the conference.

Specifically, they include: Jennifer Wertkin, Sarah Braun, Myrna Morales, April Mazza, Anna Popp, Kelly Jo Woodside, Patrick Sweeney, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, Megan Schadlich, Stacie Williams, Matt Amory, Anaya Jones, Trisha Previtt, and Jennie Rose Halperin. These folks are acting as moderators and presenters today. Our phenomenal slate of speakers answered our call for proposals right away. They created the presentations you’re going to see today under duress and anxiety from the unforeseen challenges and pressures we’re confronting during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The conference organizers and I are both amazed by and very grateful for that. So here we are today: 2,242 people RSVPed for an event, not put together by an existing organization, but instead by a ragtag bunch of library misfits.

I set the maximum attendance to 500 when I first created the Eventbrite page, thinking it’d be great if we got even halfway there. 2,242 doesn’t feel possible, but if there is one thing we’ve learned in the time of this crisis–as we’ve seen our support structures bend and break; as we’re watching unimaginable numbers of our colleagues laid off or furloughed–it’s that our definition of what is possible, and what is “normal,” has got to change.

And that’s why we’ve recast this webinar as #LIBREV(olution), a deliberate choice to push away from, or beyond, the original name which was LIBRESILIENCE. RESILIENCE assumes response to and survival after ongoing stress; it doesn’t imply any change.

REVOLUTION, though–REVOLUTION is “a sudden, radical, or complete change.” What do you think we need right now? A continued response to the same old stress, or a sudden, radical, and complete change?

Right now, a group of library advocates are keeping track of layoffs and furloughs at libraries in the U.S. and Canada. That list has grown to about 200 institutions and may well be much longer. On Wednesday, we added my former employer, the Public Library of Brookline, to the list. 50 part-time workers, over half of the library’s staff, were furloughed. I worked with the majority of these people for two and a half years. We built a new library together; we mourned the unexpected loss of a colleague together; we had a lot of fun and put a lot of hard work into making our library and community a better place. And despite the efforts of the library director–the town, among the wealthiest in Massachusetts, decided to go forward with the furlough and all of them lost their jobs indefinitely.

This came after a month and a half of horror stories that weren’t as close to home for me, from Houston, Texas, where staff were told to fashion masks out of rubber bands and paper towels, to Hennepin County, Minnesota, where library workers were effectively forced to staff emergency shelters if they wanted to continue getting paid – regardless of their own health concerns – to countless libraries refusing to stop curbside pickup services and directors and mayors ignoring, or retaliating against, the concerns of their staff.

Libraries have been forced into a no-win situation. If they operate physically, they jeopardize the health and safety of their staff and communities. If they don’t, they risk furloughs or layoffs because county administrators and mayors say “workers can’t get paid taxpayer dollars to do nothing.” Either way, with tax revenue plummeting, county and municipal systems are looking at a long, dark road ahead, with threats of privatization or permanent closure looming larger than ever. We need to get ready to help each other. We must reject doing more with less, and that means we cannot go it alone.

Considering the reactions we’ve seen to the pandemic, and the impacts we’re feeling now and the ones still ahead, I say it’s time for a sudden, radical, and complete change. We need a system that advocates for libraries-as-workers, not just libraries-as-institutions. We need to start thinking together about what that looks like. A new professional organization? A national library workers’ union? A broad coalition of public support from beyond the field? I don’t have the answer, but we need to figure these things out. #LIBREV(olution) is an invitation and an invocation and a hope for continuing this work together.

A #LIBREV(olution) is possible – 2,242 people, including you, signed up for this event. The talks you’ll hear today are all a reach towards a revolutionary future from honest discussions of morale in the workplace with Kaetrena to transformative librarianship with Stacie and Myrna, from understanding the undercommons with Jennie to finding resources for healing with Megan. We’ll hear about wrapping your head around political systems with Patrick, alleviating the crush of student debt with Matt, and adapting to online teaching and learning with Trisha and Anaya. Our presenters today are offering you a set of new approaches to work and self-care, providing tools and techniques to prepare for today and what’s to come. 

We’ll make it down that long, dark road, but we need to help each other as we make the trip; we can’t just take marching orders from the top and stumble along without the resources and support we need. But we’re just getting started, and we need you to help us keep this mindset in motion, and help us, and help each other, shape the change you want to see.

Categories
navel gazing

Wtaf

What am I doing here? Idk, man. I’m a day late and a dollar short with this, but the WordPress block thing is pretty cool. Honestly, it’s kind of inspirational for getting the words flowing. I always like when a company doesn’t just talk about design thinking but seems to have actually created something with users in mind, y’know?

Well, okay, I have some real answers. On the one hand, my co-author and I are about to submit a final draft of the book we’ve been working on for the past year, and I don’t like the thought of not having something to write when I was able to make the time for, and enjoyed the time spent on, writing. In November, participated in NaNoWriMo in solidarity with a class at the college I work for, and I realized the void left in my life when I’m not writing regularly, which is a long story for another time (or never, who knows!). The last few months of rewriting, tweaking, and editing have been great, but we’re about ready to put a bow on this thing, so here I am.

The other thing is what I stuck in the “about” page for this blog: “This is largely an endeavor to stay off social media as much as possible.” I’ve been on Twitter a ton, and involved with a ton of different groups via email, and the whole “see the notifications, read the messages, respond to them, get pissed at the content firehose” cycle is just… not good for me. It’s not helping me hear my own voice, and I’m not saying that in some kind of weird self-aggrandizing way. Maybe it’s self-aggrandizing no matter what if you have a blog, but I’m okay with that, I guess. I like having an audience, or rather, the potential for one. It helps me write.

But what I mean by not hearing my own voice is, I’m tired of participating in the way that a company like Twitter wants me to, tired of sharing thoughts (especially in the current moment, with life being so very online) or thinking things that are all shaped and trapped by the structure and biases of the platform. And yes, I am writing this on a WordPress site, so I’m not saying this is beyond its own problematic paved paths. It’s just something else, somewhere else–a place where I can drop out a little, but not the whole way.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last month and a half thinking about how my profession needs to radically change in response to the ongoing crisis and writing about it in forms that generally haven’t taken a blog shape, and I don’t intend to just hang up my hat about that when it’s “done” or whatever, in part because it’s never going to be done but also because I want to help make that radical change possible, and I want to have a way of explaining thoughts and ideas I have that in a public forum because I don’t want this work to transpire in the vacuum of my own mind. I want to have critical conversations and hear constructive pushback and feedback; I want this to be a place for generating ideas as well. I’m going to do what I can to build this space to honor that, and I might mess up, and probably already have, but if you’re cool with bearing with me, let’s do it.

Just to give myself some kind of roadmap for what will be happening here, and to help anyone who shows up with figuring out if they want to stick around, this is what I expect I’ll be writing about:

  • a worker-oriented future for libraries
  • my experiences as the library director at a small, weird engineering college and a participant in library stuff at the local & national level
  • books and other things I’ve been reading & thinking about
  • music, inevitably
  • the unique anxieties of the present moment, both personal and professional

So there you have it. I hope I can hold myself to keeping this thing going because I’m excited to see where it goes. For now, I’m off to keep re-reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, the book that helped me wrap my head around how to exit the attention economy in part but not fully, and still be present to do the work that needs to be done. Goodnight!