Power lies in controlling questions

Luciano Floridi at CILIP Conference 2017

If the role of librarians is to counterbalance the people and institutions that wield power over communities, their battlefield has drastically changed.

To understand why this is the case, delegates at CILIP Conference 2017 were led over a philosophical assault course by keynote speaker Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford. His key point was that questions are now the key to power, not answers.
Atomic bomb

One building block of his argument is that digital technology has forced society to re-evaluate things that it had always taken for granted: concepts that we have seen as inseparable have been split, while other previously separate concepts have been forced together. Concepts that we thought were atomic, unsplitable, such as presence and location and ownership and usage, have been split while others like producer and consumer or analogue and digital have been joined.

‘You were located and present in a location unless you were in a sci-fi movie,’ he said ‘This was experienced as an atomic bloc. Once you split that, unless you re-invent you go out of existence.’ Some of these split concepts are already impacting libraries, for example ‘now you can read a book virtually, but you can’t drink a cappuccino virtually’.

Similarly, when you buy a digital book you can’t sell it second hand. He said: ‘You have a right to use, not to own. A unity that has existed since John Locke, these two, that have always been hand in hand are now totally unglued.’
Atom split

One such split provides the focus of Luciano’s argument - the splitting of information. He suggests the formula of question(Q) + answer (A) = information (I) and says ‘Digital has unglued the question from the answer. Today we have plenty of examples of where it is not about answering, it is about providing the means to ask questions. It is there, in that ungluing, that power has shifted to control of the uncertainty. In so far as I have business and models to control that particular morphology, that is exactly where you find the higher level of power.’

He said that uncertainty is a matter of power and that we still want to control our uncertainty. Mostly still try to do so by controlling the answers that salve it. But the arena has changed ‘In the past we controlled that by controlling the answers.’

For an example of this shift in power he said Amazon is more powerful than publishers even though it doesn’t produce books. ‘So what is it that gives it power? The ability to produce information.’ Society at large remains ignorant of the information that these companies produce so the counterbalance to their power will come from questions.
Library role

The break-up of Q+A=I means that power relationships have changed. Luciano said: ‘If these relationships change, then the counter has to change’ and asks ‘What is LIS’s counteracting role in this?’ In principle it is ‘To break the monopoly on control of uncertainty’ and it means the profession must change from being about the I and become about the Q.  He said: ‘This counterbalance is provided by guaranteeing and facilitating the free and effective formulation of questions’ but adds that ‘Those controlling questions should not disappear but should have counterbalance.’

He offered a reworking of George Orwell’s words from 1984: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’

His version is that: ‘The morphology of power becomes the morphology of uncertainty. In other words how you manipulate the ways in which we satisfy our questioning becomes the way in which we control – and who controls the questions, shapes the answers. But who shapes the answers, controls reality.’

His reworking of Orwell's adage for Librarians is: 'LIS does not just take care of the past for the present, it also takes care of the present for the future.'


Headline image, Professor Luciano Floridi photographed by Martyn Hucks at the CILIP 2017 Conference in Manchester

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