19 April 2009

Trouble on the i-land.

"Connecting People, Information, and Technology in More Useful Ways"- motto of the University of Michigan School of Information

You know, there's a lot of tension right now at SI (and in the information field at large) between the library/archives sides of the field and the Human Computer Interaction/Social Computing sides (i.e., those going from people to technology, and those going from technology to people). More precisely, the tension is a product of differing philosophies in heretofore discrete fields of study.

It's a pretty exciting time to be in the field-- we're really at the cutting edge of the nascent discipline, defining what Information Science is, isn't, and could be. So it's natural that tensions run high: trailblazing is a high-stakes game precisely because not everybody makes it. At least, that's the paradigm Americans have to view it in. And I think that this drive for competition can make people feel defensive and insecure about their positions in both SI (micro) and the field (macro). Which is totally counterproductive! We're supposed to be learning from each other, not unzipping to measure every thirty seconds. And I am addressing both sides of the field right now.

However, I cannot overemphasize that we are not on an equal playing field. By overwhelming majorities, the P->T people are coming from women-dominated fields like librarianship and teaching. By overwhelming majorities, the T->P people are coming are coming from men-dominated fields like computer science and economics. This means that the balance of power is not equal, because of the social histories of these fields. The academy is by no means exempt from social systems privilege and oppression that permeate every aspect of life in these United States.

1. First and foremost, there's a vast difference in the amount of money coming into the fields. To be entirely reductionist and permit a false dichotomy for the sake of a good punchline, it's that computer scientists can get Uncle Sam to buy them supercomputers; librarians can get Uncle Pat and Aunt Barbara to chip in at the library bake sale.

Okay, but why is there a money differential? This is actually two answers-- why the dude-side has a lot of money, and why the lady-side has little money. It's a total fallacy to set it up as though each side has ever been vying for the same pot of money (except at the very highest levels of socio-economic decision making).

A. So, first, the fellas have such a ridiculous amount of money because of World War II and the Cold War. You know the story: "gotta get that Enigma code cracked (mo' money)! Gotta defend liberty and Anglo Saxon global hegemon(e)y (mo' money)! Oh no-- Sputnik (mo' money)??! Gotta beat those dirty Ruskis (mo' money)! Gotta intervene in Asian and Latin American countries to defend capitalism and American global hegemon(e)y (mo' money)! blah blah blah". You know the rest.

Does this mean that all science researchers, engineers, and computer scientists, are individually responsible for the perpetuation of an organized system of global neoimperialist neoliberal war and destruction? NO.

Does this invalidate the decades of hard work by dedicated people in these fields? NO.

And have these fields benefited from such a system? YES.

And second, the lady fields have so much less money because service work is socially devalued as flim-flam feminine fluff. That is, it's the same old circular logic that service work is women's work and women's work can't possibly have social utility outside the domestic sphere because, well, women do it and they belong at home! So in a culture and nation steered by (hegemonically straight, white, rich, able-bodied, capitalist, American) men, the productivity of non-material work remains under-recognized and underestimated, and its efforts remain under-funded.

[To be sure, there have always been leading men in the lady-fields as well (i.e., Melvil Dewey, Francis Bellamy) but this raises another issue that I really don't have time to go into here.]

2. Jump down a few granular steps of analysis, to the interpersonal level. (Hegemonic) male privilege means that dudes get to talk more, talk louder, talk over other people, and their voices are validated by default (intelligent until proven otherwise). On the flip side, ladies are expected to go along ("be agreeable"), talk more quietly (lest she be accused of bitchery), yield the floor (lest she be pushy), and make every argument twice as convincing (unintelligent until proven otherwise). This is Oppression Theory 101, people. And this is going on in classrooms, faculty meetings, budget decisions, tenure/hiring decisions, et cetera, every day.

So this is why the gendered difference matters in the context of the criticial conversations about the field.

As for their content, and this is what really burns up my biscuits, it's the pervasive perspective that I get from a lot of T->P folks: that they're magically discovering the driving engine that can change the world, and

  • a. it's because they've finally realized that delivering a service as opposed to strictly a product means you have to understand a particular set of needs among your target user group, and that
  • b. your user group is defined by a specific set of demographics, which influence their particular needs, uses, and behaviors, and
  • c. matching your service to a user group's needs will make a win/win situation and you will still make money, as long as the user group has some to give.

And pardon me, but FLIM-FLAM FEMININE FLUFFY THINKERS HAVE BEEN DOING THIS PROFESSIONALLY FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS. In the fields you were ignoring! So you didn't just make all this stuff up all by your lonesome self! You're not being post-modern, you're just getting some lady-balance in your dude-brain!

Now, I am quite sure that the folks on the other side who resent the library side of the field see it quite differently (and I'm also sure that many people in the LIS side will disagree strongly with me).

One impression I get is that resentment stems from an adolescent rebellion—the developing T->P side trying to make its own place out of reach of Librarianship's maternal apron strings. But this is speculation based on only one conversation with one person (and I know Freud is so out of style). So, clearly, I need more information. I want to know why there's so much library denigration at the individual level!

So, at long last, we have come to the point of this bit of writing: I am calling for comprehensive open dialogue amongst everybody underneath the Information umbrella! And intentional opportunities for information/perspective sharing! And an open, judgment- and risk-free forum in which to collectively define the scope and future of the field we all care s much about! Theoretically, this is what is happening in JASIST, First Monday, etc. But that's not enough! That doesn't make the conversation widely shareable, especially outside of universities!

So how can we continue to blaze a trail without anybody getting tossed off wagon train?

Some preliminary recommendations:

  1. Macro: A standing conference that rotates locations at different schools/other sites, and which has major emphases in theoretical, pedagogical, and practical applications.

  2. Mid: In i-Schools (and L-Schools!), a structured convocation and integration of people on all sides of the field. This is what they try to do in 501, but we don't have a solid theoretical orientation in our fields yet; we need a follow-up. This could be another required class, for example (but, y'know, another good one).

  3. Mid: In i-Schools, L-Schools, and non-academic information workplaces: privilege-awareness/oppression theory as a focus and underpinning of methodology (academic or otherwise)

  4. Micro: In i-Schools, sit next to someone you don't have classes with at lunch! Strike up a conversation with all those other weirdos—that's actually about what we're learning and practicing, not just personal/non-professional topics of conversation.

That would be a start!

What do you think? Tell me—I want to know.

[disclaimer: I'm focusing particularly on gender right now, but there are clearly equally important avenues along axes of class, ability, and race that need to be addressed.]

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

o hai, u reformatted. kewl.