Session 1: Surveillance Capitalism & Libraries
In her influential theory of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that human experience has been rendered as the new raw material for capitalist production and accumulation. In the early 2000s, Google discovered that its users produced “data exhaust” from their searches, a behavioral surplus that could be used to improve targeted advertising. The logic of Surveillance Capitalism has expanded from its roots in advertising, built upon imperatives of increasing data extraction and prediction to control the “means of behavioral modification.” Once it can be predicted what a person will do, both on- and offline, surveillance capitalists can nudge and coerce people towards optimal behavioral outcomes. Surveillance Capitalism operates on an asymmetrical power imbalance, in which companies know intimate details of peoples’ lives, but people know little about what is known about them or how the information they produce is analyzed.
Bohyun Kim writes about the encroachment of Surveillance Capitalism into the space of library user experience in a culture of convenience. Digital technologies and resources have brought positive changes to libraries in terms of expanding accessibility and usability, but that convenience has come at the cost of bringing users into close contact with third-party surveillance companies that create a tension with the library profession’s value of privacy. How can library and information professionals balance this value while meeting user expectations? Can librarians resist the logic of Surveillance Capitalism and the culture of convenience without succumbing to paternalism?
Session 2: Patron Privacy Debates
In the Library Bill of Rights, the American Library Association defines affirms all peoples’ right to privacy and confidentiality in the library, and states that libraries should protect privacy. It is important to note that privacy here does not mean that no information is collected in the library. Many people working in the library profession have called for greater privacy protections, with many varied perspectives emerging on what privacy should mean. Dorothea Salo introduces the paradigm of Physical-Equivalent Privacy, in which users of digital resources should be afforded the same privacy as those physically in the library or handling physical materials. Although this may not be possible to enact with how the Internet functions, it importantly challenges librarians to engage with how privacy is not afforded equally to all users. Laura Gariepy’s study is notable for highlighting the perspectives of undergraduate students on the use of library search data. The interviewed students expressed a keen understanding of the practice of data collection and identified areas of concern, such as marginalized students or those studying sensitive subjects being disproportionately targeted for intervention. Academic librarians should recognize students as stakeholders and include them in decisions regarding privacy and data ownership.
Session 3: Library Analytics & Privacy
Learning Analytics (LA) measure and collect data about learners, such as grades or time spent engaging with an assigned reading, for students, instructors, and administrators to analyze and improve student learning outcomes. In the wake of widespread budget cuts, academic libraries have been increasingly motivated to participate in the LA movement to demonstrate their value to their parent institution. By combining data such as attendance of library events or number of reference consultations sought with larger institutional learning data, libraries seek to draw a correlation between their student engagement and overall student success. Jones, et. al., have identified several ethical privacy issues related to library LA, including a lack of informed consent given by students whose information is being collected, lack of best practices or standards informing data selection and retention, and concern over patron reidentification as data sets become larger and aggregated.
In addition to these practical privacy concerns, Nicholson, et. al., explore the timescapes of library LA, arguing that their collection and use is motivated more in self-interest than their students’. When increasingly more information is collected just in case it can demonstrate some library value to administrative stakeholders, it becomes increasingly more difficult for individual libraries find alternative ways to demonstrate their value. The use of library LA, the authors argue, creates a “present-future” where an idealized learner is constructed through surveillance and intervention. LA draws on the logic of Surveillance Capitalism to render the future predictable and inevitable, but may in fact limit pedagogical possibilities and conceptions of success to those skills that can be easily measurable.
Session 4: Technological Determinism
Technological Determinism is a socioeconomic theory that identifies technology as the major driver of history and social change. Under this theory, specific technological innovation is linear and inevitable, and technological progress is often equated to societal progress. Determinist thinking can be seen in the way that algorithms are often characterized as autonomous, that code is shaping the world as if humans with biases did not write and implement them. Critics of Technological Determinism employ historical analysis to pick apart the idea of inevitability and demonstrate that certain social factors greatly influence what technologies are selected for development and adoption. Ruha Benjamin examines technology design through a Critical Race Theory lens to argue that technology produced by a racist society perpetuates a racist society. Where determinists see technology as neutral, its critics argue that social norms and ideologies are explicit inputs in technological design.
Both Benjamin and Greene take issue with the concept of the digital divide, a common political framing that lack of access to communication technology is a major source of inequality in society. The authors make the case that that framing erases structural barriers prohibiting access and incorrectly assumes that providing equal access will enable all to participate fully in society. Greene’s book discusses how the digital divide concept emerged with the decline of the welfare state, making access the central goal of social support programs. Institutions like public libraries and charter schools, Greene argues, have thus been put in the position to “bootstrap,” or reconfigure themselves in the image of tech startups for professional legitimization, providing access to an idealized user or learner without considering the needs or wants of the actual user. Popowich’s article uses a Marxist dialectical framing that sees technology as being embedded in social relationships, rather than as separate entity that happens to society. Focusing on the human and labor relationships around technology, shifts can be made in who is included in decision making and who gains power in the bootstrapping process.
Session 5: Library Value & Privacy
Can we consider alternative ways of demonstrating library value that uphold patron privacy? This week’s readings explore a variety of perspectives. Irwin and Silk make a case for outcomes-based evaluation that moves beyond skills-based assessment to demonstrate the library’s social contributions. Although data collection is still a part of this process, user-centric, rather than library-centric, evaluation includes patrons as stakeholders and can help communicate the role the library plays in the community. Fife and Naylor outline an executive research service they have implemented in their academic library, in which librarians assist high-level administrators in the research and creation of timely literature reviews. Through this service, the library demonstrates its value to the institution through the librarians’ research expertise, and as a bonus get their feet in the door of the decision-makers who influence their budget. Zvyagintseva’s article is the most radical, discussing refusal, such as work stoppages, as a means to demonstrate collective power. Refusal, if at all possible, can be a powerful display through absence of the service the library or other social services provides.