Tag Archives: information society

The Enemies of Books: Why we need books, libraries and a free internet

“It is a great pity that there should be so many distinct enemies at work for the destruction of literature, and that they should so often be allowed to work out their sad end.”

So said William Blades, author of the 1880 work The Enemies of Books. Of course, this was written 130 years ago, around the time that the Royal Library of the Kings of Burma was looted and burned by my countrymen the British. We live in an age of information, where we treasure our ability to access knowledge and art at the click of a button. We respect the way in which learning can enhance our lives, bolster our economies. Books have always been symbolic of that.

And yet somewhere along the line, it became politically acceptable to throw all this on the fire. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m sure that, a few years ago, there would have been no major need for the Voices for the Library campaign, or for similar campaigns across the States. The destruction – twice now – of Occupy Wall Street’s ‘People’s Library’ (which I wrote about yesterday) is somehow symbolic of this, and while yesterday I was putting it down to a cack-handed clear-out of the protestors’ belongings, well… To destroy a library once may be an accident, to destroy it twice looks like malice.

And yet at the same time as this we’re trumpeting the availability of information digitally. This seems to be a paradox – celebrating access to information in one format while destroying it in others – but it’s not. Libraries are being closed to save money, but there doesn’t seem to be much thought given to those who can’t afford to buy books, or that several major towns don’t have much in the way of a decent bookshop. No, we live in a world where the internet is sexy and the local library isn’t, so the answer to all our prayers is online.

Never mind that the information literacy skills that we all need to navigate the foaming rapids and the dark corners of the internet are part of a good librarian’s skill set. Never mind that libraries help bridge the digital divide. Never mind that Google searches and online bookstores increasingly act as an echo chamber for our existing preconceptions rather than challenging them. No, everything’s online now, it’s a utopia on your smart phone.

But wait – we’re not allowed free access to information. That’s why yesterday was American Censorship Day, campaigning for internet freedom. That’s why, after the riots that swept the UK a couple of months ago, David Cameron suggested that Government have the power to temporarily shut down Twitter and Facebook (a spectacular case of treating the symptom rather the cause). That’s why, during the eviction of Occupy Wall Street a couple of days ago, the press were under a media blackout.

All this is starting to look like a conspiracy theory. I don’t think it is, not exactly; rather it’s a conspiracy that’s developed by mistake. Certainly no-one’s going to stand for office saying “I want to close all public libraries and sue little kids singing Lady Gaga songs on Youtube” without getting laughed at in derision. And yet this is what’s happening, because we’ve entered the Information Age via the grassroots and authority figures – politicains, police, media, business – prove again and again that they just aren’t evolving quick enough to keep up with that. On one side of the atlantic, leaders want to turn off social media as and when they deem it necessary; on the other, media blackouts are enacted but everyone in charge of them forgets that anyone with an iPhone and access to Twitter becomes a citizen journalist. Governments want to develop the skills of their workers in a more high-tech working environment, but parallel to this they make it more difficult to get the information that acts as a foundation for education.

The destruction of libraries becomes a totem for all this, particularly the People’s Library – a grassroots initiative stamped upon by the blundering feet of authority figures who don’t quite get what they’re dealing with. Everyone says they respect books – information, art – but put them in the wrong place, make them inconvenient or too ‘expensive’ and suddenly they’re moved out of the way. Next to that, we see a whole bunch of other manufactured ‘controversies’ that purport to be about information and knowledge but really aren’t – Obama’s birth certificate, immigration, climate change, vaccines causing autism. These are really about ideology, and that’s why we need the information literacy tools to respond effectively.

That’s why we need books.

That’s why we need librarians.

 

 

What’s Going On? Protests, Riots, the Internet and a Changing Civilisation

When the winners write their history books, the one thing they’ll agree on is that 2011 was a really weird year.

It’s been a whirlwind of revolutions and crumbling authority, and while it’s way too early to try and get some perspective on the events that started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and seem, somehow, to have resulted in the peaceful Occupation of Wall Street, Boston, LA and other US cities, that’s never stopped me before!

I can’t help thinking that all this isn’t (just) about rich verses poor; after all, if you can use an iPhone to Tweet about the protests then you’re not poor, at least not globally speaking, not when 1,345 million people in the developing world live on less than $1.25 a day. However, let’s not kid ourselves; the same corruption that forces the American middle class onto the streets to protest the potential loss of their homes also contributes towards poverty in the third world. And the developed, western nations aren’t exactly utopias – 80% of NHS hospitals face severe financial difficulties, rising food prices in Scotland are forcing Scotland’s poorest to miss meals, and youth unemployment has reached 21.3%. Similar issues affect America and Europe, and at times it feels like the giants have lost their golden goose and are waiting for the beanstalk to fall. Add to that issues like the closure of libraries and the bread and circuses of mainstream media and it’s starting to feel like one of those years, like 1914, 1939, 1968, 1989, years when everything shifted and changed.

I suspect a lot of this is about people being disenfranchised. The Arab Spring was largely about people rising up against corruption amongst their rulers; the Occupy movement sweeping the States is a reaction against corporate corruption. Heck, even the UK riots, which didn’t really have a criminal component, kicked off in areas where prospects are limited, to say the least. Keep denying people a voice, either deliberately or as the default outcome of political ideology, and things will start to happen.

It’s interesting that all this is happening in the age of social media; the beauty of the Internet is that everyone can contribute to it, and that’s why, when those historians are writing about 2011, they’ll need to dig out Twitter archives rather than film from the mainstream media (and why fears of a Digital Dark Age should be heightened during all this – these are historical records, not digital emphemera). It’s interesting that the mainstream media has been lagging behind when it comes to coverage of Occupy Wall Street and its sister movements, but perhaps not surprising. After all, it’s part of the same corporate culture that people are reacting to – the phone hacking scandal and the resulting can of worms showed that human diginity and privacy are expendable when it comes to profit.

And yet if this is about people needing a voice, the rise of social media and citizen journalism raises questions for its most enthusiastic proponents; there’s still a Digital Divide, both globally and within individual nations, and that’s only going to get worse with sweeping cuts to library services (and don’t forget, those and other public service cuts arose from a global recession caused by corporate malpractice). I love Twitter, but I bet my mom’s never heard of it, and if social media is going to be the new grassroots ‘mainstream’ then don’t forget that you’re not going to get a lot of political insight from the Top 100 Most Followed Tweeters.

That’s a key point in other ways – the battlelines have been drawn, but the opposition doesn’t understand what’s going on. David Cameron described the UK riots as “criminality, pure and simple”; Veterans for Peace were beaten by police describing them as “anarchists”; Libyan rebels were said to be on “hallucinogenic drugs”. The response from authority figures to the protests has ranged from disingenuous to deranged conspiracy theories; I guarantee none of them are avidly following the Occupy Together hashtag. And that’s a problem with the Internet as a source – search engine technology has progressed to the point where it can now pretty much tell you what you want to hear. Things are becoming more and more filtered in an age when what we really need is to be challenged, to hear opposing voices, to enter into rational and constructive dialogue. It’s difficult to do that if everything we read backs up our existing prejudices, and while the mainstream media do that anyway (hello Daily Mail! Hello Fox News!), the mosaic nature of the Net may well exacerbate things.

But in the end it does feel as though things are changing. People are more willing and more able to let their voices be heard, and the leaders that dismiss those voices are actually starting to look irrelevant. Heck, maybe the institutions we’ve relied on for so long are starting to crumble and/or evolve – the general assemblies of the Occupy movements would seem to be more truly democratic and representative than Cabinets made up of millionaires – and the onus is on us, all of us, not just those who are protesting on the streets, to make something good and positive as a result. Something good and positive that brings in the disenfranchised and treats them as friends, not enemies.

After all, wouldn’t it be nice if the 99% could one day become the 100%?

Happy Binary Day!

11/10/11

There are 10 kinds of people in this world. Those who understand binary and those who don’t

Happy Binary Day!

Welcome to the Occupation 3: What the protest movements might mean for *me*

I was going to make my ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ posts a trilogy, but sometimes people come along and say things better than I ever could. Here then are two great blog posts on how we respond to injustice:

Praying With St. Francis by Shane Claiborne

Yom Kippur and Sins of Silence by Deborah Bryan

Please check them out; they’re worth a read, and wise.

Welcome to the Occupation 2: Some more thoughts on what protest movements might mean for Christianity

A few days ago I blogged about how the recent waves of protest sweeping the Middle East, Europe and the States could have interesting implications for Christianity. However, that post made a pretty major assumption – that Christianity should be concerned with the protests in the first place. After all, while the Church has been involved in some of the major protest movements of the last few hundred years – the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movements – it hasn’t always been on the right side, with plenty of Christians at the time believing that slavery was an integral part of society, or that black people should sit at the back of buses. It’s not really news to point out that religion gets corrupted when it gets too close to politics, to the social status quo – it’s a form of blasphemy to suggest that Jesus would have been an ardent supporter of Jim Crow.

The fact is, protest against social injustice runs through the Bible. The prophets, men and women inspired by God to act as His mouthpiece, to interpret the signs of the times, to receive visions and proclaim the will of the divine, spoke not only of abstract religious matters but also of social justice – in many ways the two were inseperable. Take Isaiah, who insisted that true religion, true worship, should be a blessing to oppressed communities: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” We’re supposed to look out for each other.

Then you’ve got John the Baptist, who was arrested and executed for speaking out against the crimes of authority figures, not a million miles away from the story of Jesus, who really got himself on the political radar when he took pretty direct action against corrupt commercialism alienating people from the Temple and ultimately God. It’s unavoidable – anger at injustice, especially when that injustice hurts the poor and needy – is part of the Bible’s DNA. You’d think we’d be out protesting every day.

It’s not always that simple though. For at start, a lot of protests, even those with good and noble aims, end up degenerating into violence. Sure, this may often be down to those on the fringes of a movement, or agent provacoteurs, but the fact is that it happens more often than we’d like to admit. Now, the most famous Christian response to this is Martin Luther King championing non-violent resistance in the sixties; inspiring, yes, but not something I’d like to be in the middle of – not sure how much self-control I’d have in certain circumstances. How we react to something, especially when we’re under pressure, is a mark of our faith, not least because of the impact it has, not on our friends but on our enemies.

Because believe it or not, our enemies are people too, and in the gospels, justice is often restorative – it heals the perpetrator as well as providing justice for the victim. “Turn the other cheek” isn’t a command to passively accept everything that’s thrown at you, it’s a way of reasserting your own humanity while forcing our enemy to confront their own. A protest rooted in Christianity should always be interested in finding ways to make enemies into friends, looking at how best to communicate the grace of God to the opposition, or to those spectating from the sidelines.

Then there’s the danger of factionalism. Most protest movements in the West seem to be left vs right, but Christianity should be beyond this. The minute faith becomes so tied up with politics that they become indistinguishable is the minute something’s gone wrong – do we really think Jesus would be making a fuss about Obama’s birth certificate?

As I said in my last post, these are only a few ideas, and the heavy thinking has to be – probably is being – done by people way smarter than me. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – what can Christianity bring to these protests, what does a protesting faith look like, and when should Christians think about backing away?