So, after the UK election, it looks like Brexit will be happening, barring a truly wild turn of events.
It hasn’t mattered to the electorate that politicians have lied to them; they haven’t been put off by misleading videos, the rebranding of a party’s social media account as a “fact checking” service, or the failure of politicians to submit to debates, interviews, and media scrutiny.
In fact, perhaps voters wanted to be misled – to be told that one can simply “get Brexit done”, after years of wrangling.
For information professionals, this moment returns us to the idea that policing facts will not solve the various issues of trust in information which have been bundled as “fake news”. People might accept being misled if they believe the political system is stacked against them; it seems people will also accept being misled if they are tired and frustrated by politicians’ failure to thread the needle of Brexit’s self-inflicted crisis.
Brits voted to leave the European Union in 2016 without a clear definition of what that meant, or what future relationship with Europe was being mandated. Politicians struggled to parse the meaning of that vote and, when Theresa May returned to the polls in 2017, the renewed “will of the people” was clearly and legitimately expressed in the form of a divided parliament. Nobody had a clear sense of how to deal with the outcome of that referendum.
Now, it seems the voters of the United Kingdom have chosen to slice the Gordian knot, irrespective of whether or not Alexander has lied to them, or what other cherished ties might be undone in that stroke.
What does all this mean for information professionals?
A future beyond truth and lies?
The British media have been unable to fully hold politicians to account, and British librarians’ attempt to chastise politicians for playing fast and loose with the truth has accomplished little. If “fact policing” doesn’t work, the real challenge might involve rebuilding an ecosystem where people can have discussions with integrity.
As an example of initiatives in this vein, I previously pointed to Nesta’s Future News Fund, which seeks proposals to “reimagine the engagement of people and communities in the generation and dissemination of public interest news”, including new roles for users, people, and communities.
This new ecosystem might not be about “truth versus lies” at all. In his useful and thought-provoking essay about “bull—-” – a rhetorical substance that is neither truth nor lies, because the speaker no longer cares whether they are lying or not – the philosopher Harry Frankfurt says:
Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. […] In any event, it cannot serve the purposes of sustenance, any more than hot air can serve those of communication.
It returns us to a question which came up at City University’s Library & Information School a few years back: given what Frankfurt says, what would a nourishing information experience look like?
Knowing that art, literature, brainstorms, flights of fancy, conversations which are not purely factual, can all be nourishing and beneficial, what new forms of discussion beyond pursuit of the truth or critical literacy might be needed now?
There’s an old saw, often attributed to John Dewey, that “the solution to the ills of Democracy is more Democracy.” I take this not to mean endless votes and referendums, but richer and more authentic forms of public debate and participation.
That might include creating deeply local spaces where it is acceptable to acknowledge one’s ignorance as well as one’s authority: another of Frankfurt’s comments on bull—-, less comforting to those of us who would like to blame politicians for our current ills, is that:
Bull— is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bull—- is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.
Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.
If we’re looking for spaces where we can have richer and more nourishing discussions, ones which might lie beyond truth and lies, and where it is entirely acceptable to admit one’s ignorance, then there’s no better place to start than the future.
Everyone has the right to express and interrogate what they think the future might hold, after all. It hasn’t happened yet, no evidence or data can be gathered from it, and it is a place of speculation as well as certainty: somewhere we can all talk about what we want and don’t want, what we expect and don’t expect, what we can bring ourselves to believe in and what we can’t.
The future is also the place where our political decisions are going to be made, and their consequences played out. Finding new ways for people to talk about the future is vital. As Adam Kahane suggests in his book Collaborating With The Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, the future is the common ground which even warring parties can come together on: we all know that it is coming, and we all agree that it matters.
Rather than chasing untruths in the media like a dog chasing a passing car, could information professionals be seeking to tend and moderate deeply local conversations about where communities choose to go next? Libraries are an obvious place to host such discussions – that’s why earlier this year I proposed the public library as the setting for community-centred foresight work, putting sophisticated strategic tools in the hands of local people.
Doing this would require a public library to make special efforts to be welcoming to all people in the community it serves, excluding no-one. The notion of “neutrality” which was embedded in librarianship and the information profession has been evolving, as we come to understand that the concept hides complicity in a range of political values and actions, tending to favour the status quo. Chris Bourg of MIT spoke brilliantly about this at the American Library Association’s 2018 Midwinter conference.
The challenge for the public library is whether, in moving beyond neutrality, that institution can become one which is welcoming to all and seeks to include the broadest possible constituency – including parties who fundamentally disagree. If this happens, the library could serve as a forum for debate, discussion, and reconciliation in riven countries like the UK. Although I’ve advocated here for a futures-oriented approach using tools like scenario planning, this doesn’t need to be the case: could libraries also host formats and gatherings such as the Citizen’s Assembly which helped with the repeal of the abortion laws in Ireland?
It’s been clear for some time now that, in almost all spheres of life, we are still really bad at having conversations with one another. Never mind national politics, you can see this to be the case at any conference, where we’re still locked into the tired old phenomena of keynote-preacher-from-the-stage, panel-discussion-in-front-of-a-passive-audience, member-of-the-crowd-with-more-a-comment-than-a-question. These are structural failings, and new structures must be invented to overcome them.
In our own small way, we’ve been trying to challenge some of these old structures at the events which I attend – whether through the science educator David Robertson’s Beyond Panels initiative, or presenterless workshops, “anti-panel” formats, and even wordless keynotes where the audience participate en masse. Innovation is desperately needed at every level of conversation, discussion, and debate, in every sector.
Changing the way we have these discussions isn’t a wild hope, it’s highly plausible. It can be achieved at the scale of a professional conference, and it can be achieved nationwide, too. Adam Kahane’s experiences in places like Colombia, Guatemala, and Thailand remind us that even in situations of grave conflict, common ground can be found, at least as the basis for contact and conversation between apparently irreconcilable parties:
One Communist Party city councillor [at a peacemaking event in Colombia], spotting a paramilitary warlord across the room, asked [politician and host Juan Manuel] Santos, ‘Do you really expect me to sit down with this man, who has tried to have me killed five times?’
Santos replied, ‘It is precisely so that he does not do so a sixth time that I am inviting you to sit down.’
Lessons beyond the damp island
I started out with Brexit, but this isn’t just a British crisis. For all that the UK faces a nasty political tangle entirely of its own doing, similar challenges of trust and legitimacy, of credible information and serious discussion, are coming for other nations too.
At workshops in Europe, I’ve heard information professionals discuss how they address the rise of far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats; in Australia, Pauline Hanson may have had to walk back her anti-vaccination statements, but the current Prime Minister has been experimenting with outright denial of statements on record and rhetorical deflection from the climate change debate during a pressing and palpable bushfire crisis.
The most optimistic reading for the UK is that it is going through a crisis that will eventually hit all nations which have prospered on the 20th century model – and, by being an early sufferer, triggered by the Brexit referendum, the UK may end up reconfiguring itself into a healthier position before other nations which have not yet caught the inevitable disease. But that’s not a reading I find easy to sustain.
Still, when it comes to exploring the future, it can be useful to examine other places where a particular factor which may affect you is already playing out. Wherever you are in the world, there are lessons for information professionals to heed from the British experience.