Is two tier information access inevitable? Image c/o Julian Sebastian on Flickr
If there is one thing you can rely on when reading an online article about libraries, it is that someone will suggest that the internet has made libraries and, by extension, librarians, irrelevant. It is not just amateur commentators though even representatives from established think tanks perpetuate this belief. The fact that 9 million people have never even accessed the internet is a minor inconvenience. But still this belief persists. Ironically (given that librarians are considered ‘past it’) it is those that utilise these arguments who are behind the curve and refuse to recognise the very nature of the internet.
The argument used by the ‘internet trumps libraries’ brigade relies on something that we know full well is not representative of the internet we have all grown to love (and hate?). Since the mid-90s, the internet has frequently changed. The internet of today is quite different from that preceding the dotcom crash. It is not a static medium. Who would have thought just 5 years ago that a large proportion of the population would be happy to share their personal details freely and openly?
…the internet is not static and is subject to change.
The assumption made by many when discussing library closures is that the internet will remain static, forever acting as a source of free and open information. But, of course, the internet is not static and is subject to change. And who is the biggest driver of this change? Corporations. Unfortunately for the corporate world the level of competition on the internet is inhibiting their ability to make profit. However, moves are afoot to change this, shifting the balance of power from the individual to corporations.
Take the issue of net neutrality for example. Ed Vaizey has been less than enthusiastic in his support of net neutrality. In a speech delivered towards the end of last year, Vaizey stated that:
“Content and service providers should have the ability to innovate and, most importantly, to reach end users … This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”
The implication being that the government envisages a two-tier internet, with all the inequality that goes with it (he later claimed that this wasn’t the case). The implications for the digital divide could not be more stark. As Tim Berners-Lee has warned:
“Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for commercial reasons. (In China, control is by the government for political reasons.) There is a very strong short-term incentive for a company to grab control of TV distribution over the internet even though it is against the long-term interests of the industry.”
Abandoning net neutrality could lead to a shift in the control of information. At present the flow of information is neither controlled by the state or by corporate interests – it moves freely enabling equal access for all. The removal of ‘net neutrality’ would change this, leading to corporations controlling access to information.
“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet.”
However, it is not just net neutrality that should concern us. The Guardian recently reported that the growth of smartphones also poses a danger to the freely accessible internet that we know today. In an article subtitled ‘The proliferation of powerful mobile phones could see control of the internet pass into the hands of corporations’, John Naughton comments that:
“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet. If these trends continue, then it won’t be all that long before a significant proportion of the world’s internet users will access the network, not via freely programmable PCs connected via landline networks, but through tethered, non-programmable information appliances (smartphones) hooked up to tightly controlled and regulated mobile networks.”
The root cause of this problem is the established belief that information is a commodity that can be bought and sold, a vital cog in the economic machine. The growth of the internet has provided business with a wealth of opportunities, many of which remain untapped. For the libertarians, commodities are best placed in the hands of corporations who can utilise them to their advantage and grow the economy, turning a blind eye to its potential impact on society. As Anne Goulding noted ten years ago (£):
“The danger is that governments, supported by business and industry, will place a higher priority on the development of ICTs to support economic productivity than on assisting social cohesion and progress.”
This leaves us in a perilous state if our public libraries are destroyed. Libraries do not discriminate when providing access to information. You do not have to be rich to take advantage of the wealth of information that the library provides. Likewise, you do not have to be wealthy to consult a librarian and ensure you gain access to the very best information available. This is the danger in believing the internet will remain static and unchanging forever. The internet is a mechanism for corporations to make money, whereas for libraries it is a tool to enhance the social, political and cultural life of society.
In 1998, Noam Chomsky, in an interview for CorpWatch on Microsoft and corporate control of the internet, argued:
“If you really know exactly what you want to find, and have enough information and energy, you may be able to find what you want. But they want to make that as difficult as possible. And that’s perfectly natural. If you were on the board of directors of Microsoft, sure, that’s what you’d try to do.”
Libraries and librarians are here to make that process as easy as possible. When we suddenly find ourselves in a world of paywalls and divided access, will we look back in shame at what we cast aside because of a failure to understand the nature of technology?