The last movie I went to before the onslaught of finals was Luc Besson’s Lucy. A lot of critics thought it was awful. A lot of critics felt they were too smart for its widely-debunked pseudoscience. A lot of critics argued about whether Scarlett Johansson is turning out to be secretly feminist. I just thought I was getting a decent action movie. And, the week before graduation, that was about what I needed.
Yes, that means I graduated! And that means this is my last post as a contributing writer at Hack Library School. But, <spoiler> much like the synthetic superdrugs coursing through Lucy’s system, </spoiler> you can’t get rid of me that easily. I am delighted to announce that I am sticking around as an alumni Consulting Editor, where I’ll help the senior and managing editors with some of the strategic planning, infrastructure, and vision that we frequently just don’t have time for as writers. We have some great stuff in the wings, and I’m excited to stay a part of it.
But back to that action movie.
The film does have its serious flaws – casual, James-Bond-esque racism, for one – but I’d argue that, while everyone else was looking over there at its one-dimensional characters, scientifically impossible premise, and hackneyed deployment of Morgan Freeman, Lucy was busy over here being a think-piece on human nature and information science.
Bear with me here a moment. Luc Besson is a smart and creative person, and he knows perfectly well that the theory that human beings only use 10% of their brain capacity is bogus. He knows that we know it too. So why does he choose to employ it? Like any good myth, the 10% theory remains appealing because it allows humans to believe that we have it within us to be more, to be better, to get a grip on modern society, if only we could tap into some previously inaccessible reserve of human goodness and intelligence. It allows us the fantasy that there’s a trap door out of the bad play in which we find ourselves, and that trap door is hidden in our brains just waiting to be opened. As Lucy begins to exploit her brain’s reserved capacity, she follows a recognizable (if not exactly moral) progression. She at first exacts basic blood revenge on those who have hurt her; as her intellect expands, she is increasingly able to manipulate big data, devices, and even human behavior in pursuit of bad guys, and she ends in a spectacular act of self-sacrifice in the interest of making all of human knowledge available.
With her ability to access, manipulate, and derive meaning from information that is invisible, overwhelming, and/or meaningless to the average human, and with her driving mission to rise above baser impulses and harness her capacity to ensure the survival of human culture, it’s not a huge leap to characterize Lucy as an information pro.
In Lucy, the transmission of data/information/knowledge/wisdom is a form of explicitly reproductive labor that requires the mortification of the flesh. It’s too complicated to fully develop here, but this reading resonates with the work that Roxanne Shirazi, and others, have done on the gendered dynamics of service in librarianship and on information work as reproductive labor. I’d suggest that it is also tied to the complex duality of the librarian stereotype as a spinsterish figure who must be literally and figuratively barren in her personal life in order to sustain the delivery of knowledge, while still often being seen as sexually available. Similarly, Lucy is a bombshell automaton in a dominatrix-y dress and Louboutins whose early sexual vulnerability is the direct catalyst for her transformation into a bearer of information who is unable to experience pleasure (or pain, for that matter). Indeed, Lucy’s only on-screen kiss is so devoid of passion that it’s clear her desperate grasp at human sensation has been a monumental failure; it has been such a failure that she must explain her motivation for kissing Del Rio in an unconvincing robotic monotone.
Because, the nearer she comes to achieving her brain’s full capacity, the nearer Lucy comes to being a bot. Before long, Lucy is hacking into Morgan Freeman’s TV, visualizing cell phone transmissions, and feeding data to police computers. It would seem that, in Lucy, to reach the pinnacle of human achievement is to be a super-hacker. Now, I’m a complete sucker for the girl genius as superhero (Joss Whedon’s River Tam comes to mind) and I might kinda enjoy imagining an elite team of LIS Avengers saving the universe from evil metadata schemes. But, as convenient as being a super-hacker-hero is in achieving her objectives, hacker-Lucy is clearly violating the basic principles of human nature. She is transforming inexorably into something that is non-human (whether that something is sub-human or super-human remains unclear) and, in the process of mastering the information, she becomes of the information. The full-screen numbers that flash Lucy’s increasing brain capacity metrics are the flashings of a bomb timer that’s about to go off.
So, if Lucy is an allegory in which the pure embodiment of the information scientist/hacker cannot be sustained in a human body, where does that leave us?
There now seems to be some kind of consensus in library and archival education that we should teach students how to “think like a librarian” or “think like an archivist” (perhaps “think like a data curator” too?), yet there remains no significant agreement about how to do so. Instead, educators have developed the MLIS into a trade certificate that attempts (and, it would seem, fails) to produce readymade workers to the specifications of all-powerful employers. I firmly believe that, unless we are to become of the information instead of masters of it, we must ardently re-locate the LIS discipline(s) as a humanities discipline. Technologies will come and go, together with immense power to shape our universe; thinking about what it means to be human is what enables us to use that capacity to be more, to be better, to get a grip. We spend so much time asking the “how?” questions that we have too little time left for asking the “why?” questions that we should be living for. Information science without humanism can solve a lot of important problems and get us out of some messes, but it transforms us in ways we can’t always harness for the better.
From what I heard at the Archival Education panel at SAA last week, at least, educators pay lip service to the idea that LIS education should foster critical thinking, passion, and a mindset that allows us to be proactive and adaptable. Educators don’t seem to want us to be robots. But from what I have heard from scores of LIS students and recent grads, this is not the reality translating into LIS classrooms across the country.* Real education happens when we learn to view our skills through a humane critical lens, and too many LIS students have to turn elsewhere to get that education. There are countless library and information science professionals on the ground doing amazing work to give us a more constructive, responsible, and just information culture – and they inspire me. The professional development and mentorship they provide inspires me. But LIS education needs to change.
There are many factors at play here, but I think that a few of the ideas below, if implemented in more LIS programs, would go a long way toward bridging the gap between what educators and employers say they want and what students are actually getting.
- Move “practical” training out of the classroom. Give students credit for hands-on field experience, by all means. But let us learn by actually doing, not by listening to someone lecture about doing. Make it clear to employers that they have a responsibility for on-the-job training and that they cannot expect new professionals to arrive with a toolbox full of everything they could possibly dream of.
- Move humanities questions into the classroom. My excellent Preserving Digital Culture class, which worked key technical skills into a deep dive into the cultural context of information, could be a model. This class asked us to read and discuss the ways in which people have thought about computing over the last 75 years, and explicitly asked us to describe what it means to be human in a way that can be differentiated from being a computer and what it might be like to be a computer. It was a question that students struggled to answer without withdrawing into deep recesses of ableism and essentialism. Make philosophical questions about human nature, epistemology, and artificial intelligence part of our core curriculum, and let’s examine the ways in which information technologies affect and are affected by social
- Give students constructive criticism. Many LIS courses are designed to keep us busy doing stuff, but allow us to remain lazy thinkers. What does the example at right tell me? I turned it in on time, I “respond[ed] to the questions,” I met my quota of peer-reviewed articles from a certain date range, I successfully used APA. It tells me that my thinking was adequate, but does nothing to help me grow. Educators can do better. Look for more than dotting i’s and crossing t’s. If necessary, let’s address the conditions of graduate teaching assistants and faculty that may make them unable to meaningfully engage students’ work.
In a presentation just a few hours ago at the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Lyon, Peter Lor asked, “Do librarians seek refuge from troubling questions by turning to technology and managerialism?” From what I experienced in library school, from what I was trained to do and how I was expected to approach assignments in library school, the answer is yes.
If we are to persuasively advocate for our jobs and our role in society as more than/different to a database or an algorithm; if we are to retain our capacity for taking pleasure in the field and the pursuit of knowledge; if we are to provide people with a portal to their capacity that doesn’t rely on drugs or pseudoscience; if we are to be masters of information and not merely its handmaidens; in a word, if we are to be superheroes, we need to make library school more humane. Otherwise, being an LIS student isn’t much better than becoming a sparkly cosmic flash drive.
*Note: This assessment is drawn from my own experience at an iSchool and from conversations with students at a dozen or more different programs over the last two years at conferences, online, and through Hack Library School. I’m still thinking of ways to put this into a set of research questions. But until then, you’ll have to trust me on this. I feel it in my bones.