Reflection on Technology

“Oh, Kitty! How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through–” She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist. In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

There’s something so appealing about that particular moment when Alice slips through the looking glass. While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland seem almost accidental–she follows a rabbit who seems curiously preoccupied with the time, and finds herself in a strange land where figures of speech are made literal–in Through the Looking Glass Alice’s adventures originate in her own determined make-believe. Each story provides a useful allegory for thinking about libraries and the work that we do in them, whether we follow one curiosity down a metaphorical rabbit-hole to find a world of answers we would never have known to look for, or whether we proceed with purpose to answer a single question. The two books provide models for two facets of research, serendipity and studious exploration. Yet Through the Looking Glass, the stranger and darker follow-up to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which presents a slightly more mature and self-directed Alice, also offers a way for us to consider the technological innovations that fuel the research process: Alice wonders what lies beyond the visible world of the Looking-glass room; she imagines the possibility of exploring to find the answer; the act of imagining conjures the solution into being. This act of crossing over into the unknown hinges on the limits of reflection. When I examine my own image in reverse, what worlds am I failing to imagine?

Technological innovators work at the porous boundary between the real and the imaginary, and they are often able to bring into being the stuff of science fiction (where would iPhones be without Star Trek, for example, or the Internet without William Gibson).  But the imaginary worlds that these innovations bring into being are, like Alice’s Looking-glass world, derived from a reflection. And no reflection affords a neutral viewpoint. It reveals a perspective that determines the contours of the world beyond the misty gauze that separates us from the future.

One of the core tenets of “critical librarianship,” according to Meredith Farkas, a faculty librarian at Portland Community College in Oregon, “is that neutrality is not only unachievable, it is harmful to oppressed groups in our society.” Seemingly neutral tools must be examined from diverse viewpoints if we are to resist furthering oppression within the library setting.

These questions are necessary, and they emerge in part from a growing sense that librarians and humanists need to do more than simply learn to use technology to communicate our ideas and interrogate our data. Instead, we must interrogate the digital tools themselves. While in 2005 Thomas L. Friedman warned that U.S. Americans, having under-invested in STEM education, risked being left behind in a global tech boom, by 2015 Bethany Nowviskie warned that on the contrary, “it’s time for more of us to get serious about interpretive, cultural information-processing, and about sharing capacity, and about the infrastructures that support the humanities alongside other fields. The United States plays catch-up in these areas, where we have fallen somewhat behind” other countries that have developed national programs for digital humanities collaborations.

Both Friedman and Nowviskie assert the importance of digital information literacy in the context of global development (and I will discuss the seemingly pervasive concern for globalization and nationalism shortly). But in the decade and disciplinary focus that separates these two publications, the emphasis has shifted from a concern that “our ability to constantly innovate new products” might be lagging, to a concern that these innovations might have been realized without adequate attention to an “ethics of care.”

So as we learn to use the technological and digital tools that have become necessary to the 21st-century library, we must join Chris Bourg in raising the questions that Black feminist thinkers taught us to ask: “Who is missing? Whose experience is being centered?” Or, I might qualify, what purpose does this tool serve, and for whom? Whose needs are met and whose are excluded from our care?

On a practical level, this means making sure that library tools are made with accessibility in mind. Can a site or tool be made legible to a screen-reader, for example, or does its function rely on visual tricks that cannot be conveyed to the visually impaired? Given that lower-income adults are more likely than other groups to rely on a smart phones rather to access the Internet, and especially given that a small but significant percentage of patrons will stand outside a closed library (presumably with a smart phone) to use the library’s WiFi, can our tools be made mobile-friendly, or have we embedded a preference for more expensive devices by including animations that are activated by a mouseover? As Sara Hendren has extensively documented, addressing questions of accessibility can lead to innovations that benefit everyone–demonstrating that an attention to Nowviskie’s “ethics of care” can activate the drive for technological development that Friedman has called for.

And on a more abstract, but no less important, level, we must ask what perspective “we” are embodying when talking about how “we” can use digital tools to make the library accessible. As Chris Bourg pointed out, “welcoming” people to a space assumes a relationship in which one group of people owns a space to which they generously allow another group of people access. It is an “inclusivity” premised on the assumption of exclusivity that might be reinstated at any time. Bourg lists some ways that libraries might be made more genuinely inclusive, and they largely involve creating a space that is accessible to and affirming of queer people, people of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.

Similarly, as we develop technological spaces associated with libraries, we must attend to how the digital architecture includes or excludes. And we must remember that the language that we use to frame digital spaces and conversations is an integral part of the environmental architecture of the digital space. So we must be mindful of the colonialist standpoint assumed by conversational frameworks that liken serendipity and somehow also globalization to Columbus’s 1492 campaign, or use the Lewis and Clark expedition to introduce the rise of new forms of instant communication. These rhetorical moves, like the nationalist competition so frequently invoked in calls for a particular kind of educational advancement, convey an ethical system that values conquest over communication, that acquires information and then disregards (or decimates) the marginalized source, that views all space (physical, emotional, mental, or digital) as unoccupied until it has been claimed by someone who looks like “us.”

Which brings us back to Alice, whose adventures provide a more apt metaphor for library work than would be comfortable, reflecting as they do the habit not only to search for answers in unexpected places, but to conceive of that search in terms of exploration. Yet she might also offer, from a more optimistic perspective, an alternative. After Alice passed through her own reflection, “she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible.” By changing her perspective, Alice is able to see–and value–a very “different” world, one that had been invisible when all she was looking for was her own reflection. To paraphrase the unicorn, I’ll believe in your experience if you’ll believe in mine.

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