"More than machinery, we need humanity."

The Laboratory or The Library?

Using social media has always involved a vague recognition that the platform (and the company behind it) will be using the user right back. Usually this understanding has involved a notion of the way that user information is packaged and sold off to advertisers, but of late it seems that social media users are being put to a different sort of use. Indeed, social media users today get the chance to participate in exciting experiments in addition to being fodder for advertisements. Oh boy!

That many users do not realize what they have consented to by clicking “I agree” on a Terms of Service (ToS) page is somewhat beyond the point. For it increasingly seems that merely by going online we are consenting to all sorts of surveillance, nudging, and – yes – manipulation. Access to information can be wonderful – but the price the Internet places on this access grows grimmer (and grimier) by the day. The Internet is not a library, but thinking about libraries may provide a useful way of thinking about an Internet that might not be mired in surveillance, nudging, and – yes – manipulation (but more on that later).

Despite all of the optimism that surrounds the Internet it seems to be slowly turning into a space that is regarded with a certain sighing cynicism. Increased corporate control, rampant government surveillance, disregard for criticism, expansion of technological logic into all societal spheres, constantly changing ToS agreements, manipulation, the likely death of net neutrality – these things tend to provoke a momentary outburst of anger, followed by an obsequious shrug. It is as though people suspect that they will not be able to keep the parts of technology they like if they are not also willing to accept the parts they find creepy or dangerous. Thus the revelations about Facebook’s emotional manipulation study were met with outrage while news that OkCupid was playing similar manipulation games has been met with the deflated grumbles of an Internet already inured to such tales. While it is true that OkCupid is a platform with much less reach than Facebook the dating site’s co-founder Christian Rudder could hardly be accused of trying to ease Internet user worries with his comment that:

“if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.”

The above lines represent begging the question in the true logical meaning of the phrase (a form of circular argumentation where the conclusion is assumed in the premises). Rudder claims that “websites work” (note the lack of a qualifier like “some”) by experimenting on users, and therefore website users are “the subject of hundreds of experiments.” This is a lovely example of circular reasoning with a drop of hubris mixed in – and it conveniently creates a false equivalence between a website tweaking formatting elements and a website conducting a psychological experiment. Nevertheless, Rudder makes an important point to consider at this moment in the Internet’s development: by going on certain platforms (whether you realize it or not) you may be agreeing to participate in a psychological experiment run by a large for-profit enterprise.

Yet the aspect of Rudder’s comment that should give rise to particular pause is his calmly claiming “that’s how websites work.” It is a claim of hilariously broad generalization – while it is obviously true at this point that some websites may work that way, or that some websites might occasionally do such work – it involves a heck of transformation of the term “experiment” to make Rudder’s claim true. Granted, as was mentioned earlier, much of Rudder’s aim may simply be to muddle the definition of experiment so as to make OkCupid’s psychological experimentation seem more palatable. Though it is fair to ask: if you were in a relationship with somebody who admitted to conducting a psychological experiment on you – you would probably consider it a reason to end the relationship – this should probably go for a relationship with a dating website as much as it refers to a relationship with a human being one is dating.

The experimenting and subsequent reactions on the part of social media companies make clear that the technological means being used by these various firms are being deployed primarily in the service of financial ends. This is not to claim that all technological means only serve financial ends; however, when psychological experimentation is justified under the rubric of “to see if we can” – it should be abundantly clear that the motivations flow along with the cash flow. Thus when Rudder claims “that’s how websites work” his argument is tangled up in a notion of “how websites” interested in generating profit that therefore need users to spend a lot of time on a given website (or related app) work. That this is how some “website work” is not to say that this is how websites must work, or even to say that this is how websites should work. Experimenting on users is a coldly complacent extension of a sort of technological logic that arises when technology has become unmoored from a basis in humanity (and humanistic values). A technological value is one wherein the justification for an action is that it is technologically possible, whereas a humanistic value is not solely concerned with the possibility but with whether or not an action is desirable or ethically defensible. Clearly – many social networks have the capability to manipulate (technological value), but when people react with anger at such manipulation it comes from the clash between the technological value and humanistic ones.

In this context it is worthwhile to consider libraries in contrast to the Internet. At face the two seem very different: libraries are storied institutions that are nearly as old as civilization that are often represented by large physical structures, while the Internet is a much younger development that for most people is represented by a certain ethereal quality tapped into by a small device. Yet – at risk of being grossly simplistic – the Internet and libraries both involve providing access to information, whether this is the information held in books, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, social networks, old media, new media, and so on. Both of these are reliant upon a great deal of technological infrastructure for achieving their ends, but as the Internet has become ascendant a certain woeful air has often surrounded libraries that has cast them as obsolete in an era where “it’s all online.”

Far from being obsolete the current state of the Internet is a strong argument for the continued vitality and importance of libraries. After all, Mr. Rudder may claim that experimenting on users is how “websites work” but that is not the way that libraries work. Libraries – particularly in their present form – are a physical and institutional manifestation of a set of humanistic values that prioritize the needs of individuals and communities over the needs of for profit enterprises. The question that a library poses is not “how do we ensure profits for our stockholders” or “how can we use our technological capabilities to manipulate users” but “how do we best serve our community.” To mind, no examples come up of libraries that have responded to that last question by stating: “let us perform psychological experiments on them – we can always say they agreed to it if we get caught.”

Just as the Internet is not a single technology but a point at which many sets of technologies intersect, so too can a library be considered not as a single monolithic tool but as a space that encompasses a whole range of technologies. It is common to think of a library as a particular thing (a building filled with books and public access computers) but the fact that a library often contains these things does not mean that a library is those things – rather, a library is a tool that prioritizes access for the sake of the community. Jesse Shera (paraphrased by Andre Cossette) put it:

“Librarianship is the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audiovisual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community.” (33)

While the aspects involving “acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval” are important (particularly to those laboring in the library field) for most people the emphasis rests upon “the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community.” It is within this notion of “assuring a maximum of information access” that the continuing vitality and validity of the library ethos can be seen – as it is built upon a foundation of connecting people (“the human community”) with “maximum” access to the rich, vibrant, difficult, confounding, and enlightening fruits of human knowledge. Regardless of the particular technological tools being used at a given moment by a library, the library itself functions as a tool that emphasizes service (and thus responsibility) to “the human community.” Therefore – to give an example – it matters little that Amazon’s “Kindle Unlimited” seems to be similar to a library (insofar as it lends books) – for Kindle Unlimited is linked to a company that engages in surveillance, bullying of publishers, and centralizing corporate control. The fact that a given company or social media platform may fulfill some functions that are traditionally associated with libraries is meaningless for the value of libraries is not that they provide access to information but that this access is born out of an ethos that prioritizes the person over the profit.

What would it mean to think of the Internet in terms of librarianship instead of corporate values? Arguably the Internet is rooted in a library like aura that has been hijacked over time – after all, the Internet is the result of massive public investment (like a library) not investment by a venture capitalist. Arguably an Internet that looks like a library would be one that parallels Shera’s definition cited above – a space where the emphasis is on “assuring a maximum of information access” while not losing site of “the human community.” At current the Internet of Facebook and OkCupid (not to mention Google and Amazon) is a web that is working hard on “assuring a maximum of information access” but which has lost touch with any notion of “the human community” except insofar as that community is fodder to be manipulated and advertised to. The “information access” has become less about providing access for people than it has become about providing corporations with access to people. At a point where corporations are given carte blanche it should come as no surprise that corporations feel no compunctions about experimenting on customers.

The present predicament with the Internet is a result of it steadily drifting ever more distant from values rooted in a humanistic ethos. The solution is not just to express outrage at the firms attempting to widen this gap, but to look to the examples of tools that achieve access to information without losing their link to ethical values.

The relationship between human societies and libraries is a longstanding one – and though there have been some difficult moments libraries have endured. Perhaps this is because libraries have proved to be good stewards of the trust invested in them. Some may claim that experimentation and emotional manipulation is the way “websites work” – but it is not the way that libraries work.

Which is a point worth pondering the next time you find yourself subjected to surveillance, nudged, and – yes – manipulated whilst online.

Works Cited

Andre Cossettte Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2009

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on July 31, 2014 by in Access, Capitalism, Ethics, Librarianship, Libraries, Social Networking, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , .

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