Categories of surrender

INN533 – Information Organisation

WEEK SIX: Reflections on cataloguing and vanishing ethics.

Looking at AACR2 and ISBD rules for cataloguing information made me wonder earnestly about the purpose behind such maddeningly bureaucratic prescriptions.  Zaana Howard’s (2013) reminder that prescriptive standards can help us avoid crashing spacecraft into Mars is well taken; there should be some standards underpinning the cataloguing of information items, particularly in public collections.  However, the object here is not as complex as spaceflight, and it is the object that deserves greater attention.  What is the purpose of AARC2 and ISBD?  Coming to that question as a lay observer, it becomes quickly apparent that these rule-sets are about stratifying a professional skill-set by obfuscating rather than simplifying language and descriptions.  This, in turn, leads to the conclusion that neither standard has lay users of information resources in mind, instead actively working to alienate non-expert users from what is described according to those standards.  Hider & Harvey, in quoting Michael Gorman, make it quite plain that a significant number of librarians see themselves as a necessary intermediary between library users and information resources (2008, p.6), with AACR2 interposed as the deliberately fabricated mechanism for making such intermediation necessary.  In Australia an adherence to standards avoiding natural language and hiding information in a fetish of abbreviations and punctuation almost certainly makes information access more difficult for even educated users, let alone the 40 per cent of people the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates have difficulty with functional literacy (2008).

For that reason the development of the Resource Description and Access (RDA) standard, along with its complementary guide on Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR), and a stated focus on information users rather than information professionals, appears to be a positive step.  That might be particularly the case if such new rules are implemented with the same elegant simplicity and clarity used by former Library of Congress chief of the Cataloging Policy and Support Office, Dr Barbara Tillett, in describing FRBR (2005) and RDA (2011).

It appears that the adoption of RDA by the National Library of Australia will cause State libraries to follow, and eventually also influence local libraries, so the standard might be seen as the inevitable new de facto standard, but Zabel & Miller have pointed out that there is a substantial cost associated with accessing the rules (2011, p. 220), not to speak of re-training or upskilling.  The direct cost seems like a shameless piece of double-dipping for intellectual property developed principally by publicly funded institutions staffed by public servants; RDA and FRBR rules should now be regarded as public property, not a commercial undertaking.  Moreover, there is not yet any clear sign that the old standards will be systematically replaced by RDA, meaning that for the foreseeable future we might expect a mixture of AACR2 and RDA records (and more besides), making catalogues less easy to use.  In that regard it is hard to see how the introduction of RDA will serve anyone but librarians and other cataloguing professionals.

As a constrast, access to the Dublin Core standard is free for anyone with an internet connection (http://wiki.dublincore.org/index.php/User_Guide), brief and non-prescriptive, suggesting a fit-for-purpose approach rather than a rigid adherence to a fully prescribed rule-set, and written in accessible language.  In considering the applicability of AACR2, ISBD, RDA, and FRBR to private organisations, particularly smaller ones, it appears much less labour intensive and therefore more cost effective to use open, simple standards like Dublin Core, mentioned by Park & Tosaka as already in wide use (2010, p. 114). That of course depends entirely on the purpose: if the aim is to create a very large data-set for wide distribution, it might be appropriate to incur the labour and expense of starting with RDA and FRBR from the outset.

Beyond these apparently entirely technical considerations, however, there are some unsettling conclusions that might be reached about the political and economic implications of both the cataloguing approaches discussed and my personal learning outcomes in INN533.

At first instance, these misgivings are focused on an apparently uncritical adoption of Silicon Valley propaganda terminology, such as ‘semantic web’, ‘web 2.0’, ‘social media’, and many others as being worthy goals to strive for (Berners-Lee may have coined the term semantic web, but it has by now acquired meanings beyond his intentions).  What do these terms actually mean, and who is served by the effort to attain the implied goals? In separate essays, Colin McGinn (2013), George Packer (2013) and Evgeny Morozov (2013) painted a not very flattering picture of an astonishing ignorant, ethically void Silicon Valley elite that uses glib terminology to disguise what is no more than rapacious, Randian capitalist extraction of profit, at times from stolen public assets.

How does this affect my learning outcomes? QUT has already made it a matter of no choice that all the data relating to my contacts with the university now belongs to Microsoft. In my units of study it is expected, if not quite demanded, that the intellectual property of my efforts and personal data, and that of other students, be handed over to Facebook and Twitter. I am confronted with earnest advice that ‘social media’ must be used to build a ‘personal brand’ without the faintest reflection that this advice appears to promote self-alienation and self-objectification, reducing me to no more than the properties of a can of Coke or a pair of Nike sneakers. In short, the university and many of its students appear to have uncritically, credulously embraced concepts which are immensely profitable for so-called social media companies. Companies that extract surplus value from what Maurizio Lazzarato termed ‘immaterial labour’, which is, in this context, unpaid labour that nevertheless creates value (Lazzarato, 2005; Toscano, 2007, pp. 72-75).  In this light the term ‘social media’ is revealed as a euphemism for data solicitation, appropriation, and exploitation.  Should I, and my fellow students, remain ignorant about this perspective?

There appears to be little focus in on thinking about how the work of organising information can affect others.  Yapp talked about the capacity of pattern-matching software to ‘out’ people as homosexuals (2011, p. 18).  If that’s possible, why not also ‘out’ people as potential insurance risks, drug addicts, or subversives? Who will care whether such algorithmic categorisations are accurate? Will I care whether some of my work at some future time in examining the corporate information usage patterns of employees could be used to identify some employees as less than optimally productive and candidates for sacking or redundancy?

What becomes strongly apparent to me is that an absence from the syllabus of IT43 more generally of any study of political economy or ethical principles makes it likely that some of the professionals trained here will remain entirely unaware of the ethical and political consequences their work might have, and unable to develop such an awareness for lack of the intellectual tools.

That’s not to say I’m opposed to knowledge, training, or the collective wisdom about cataloguing.  Nor do I deny that my current studies will culminate in my third degree embarked on as a career enhancement, and I have certainly enjoyed the benefits of my own stratified career so far. I am not aiming at a nihilistic perspective, arguing prohibition and censure.  Nevertheless, it seems desirous to me that there is a more balanced perspective in which information professionals are not expected to be, or regarded as, willfully ignorant about their societies and their personal or professional impact on them.  I am leaning towards the view that being educated isn’t possible without some regard to the liberal arts and social sciences, which are the only route to banish ignorance and inculcate some sense of place, time, ethics, and responsibility beyond the affected cretinism so earnestly pursued in Silicon Valley and its imitators globally.

It is not enough to propose that such considerations are not appropriate, or not to be countenanced in organisational settings.  We are the people who make that so … or not.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). 4228.0 – Adult literacy and life skills survey, summary results, Australia, 2006 (Reissue). Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/4228.0Main%20Features22006%20(Reissue)?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4228.0&issue=2006%20(Reissue)&num=&view=

Hider, P. & Harvey, R. (2008). Organising Knowledge in a Global Society. Wagga Wagga, NSW: Charles Sturt University Press.

Howard, Z. (2013, July 21). Week 6: Resource description mini lecture [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=nFOV6TLqw-g

Lazzarato, M. (2005, November 1). ‘Towards an Inquiry into Immaterial Labour’ (trans.  trans E. Emery). libcom.org. Retrieved from http://libcom.org/library/general-intellect-common-sense

McGinn, C. (2013). Homunculism. The New York Review of Books 60(5). Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/mar/21/homunculism/?pagination=false

Morozov, E. (2013). The meme hustler: Tim O’Reilly’s crazy talk. The Baffler (22). Retrieved from https://www.thebaffler.com/

Packer, G. (2013). Change the world. The New Yorker 89(15).  Retrieved from http://gateway.library.qut.edu.au/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/docview/1364531660?accountid=13380

Park, J., & Tosaka, Y. (2010). Metadata creation practices in digital repositories and collections: Schemata, selection criteria, and interoperability. Information Technology and Librarians, 29(3), 104-116. doi: 10.6017/ital.v29i3.3136

Tillett, B.B. (2005). What is FRBR? A conceptual model for the bibliographic universe. Australian Library Journal 54(1), 24-30.

Tillett, B.B. (2011). Keeping libraries relevant in the semantic web with resource description and access (RDA). The Journal for the Serials Community, 24(3), 266-272. doi: 10.1629/24266

Toscano, A. (2007). Vital strategies: Maurizio Lazzarato and the metaphysics of contemporary capitalism. Theory, Culture & Society, 24(6), 71-91.

Zabel, D., & Miller, L. (2011). Resource Description and Access (RDA). Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(3). doi: 10.5860/rusq.50n3

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