Libraries: gateways to other lives

Zadie Smith speaks out in defence of libraries -- and a Tory spokesman responds.

Zadie Smith gave a speech last night at a pub in Kensal Green, very close to the local library she hopes to defend. Public appearances from Smith are rare these days, and her most recent appearance is testament to her strength of feeling on the subject of library closures.

Smith delivered a robust defence of the value of public libraries. Books are a form of education, and education is one of the few effective methods of social mobility that this country has. Zadie Smith put this simply: "I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives."

She continued:

It always has been and always will be very difficult to explain to people who have money what it means not to have money. "If education matters to you," they ask, "and if libraries matter to you, then why wouldn't you be willing to pay for them if they matter so much?" They're the kind of people who believe that value can only be measured in money.

No doubt the government would like to deny this. So who, when Radio 4's Today programme went looking for an official response, did the coalition send to do battle with the dangerous Zadie Smith? They sent Shaun Bailey, "ambassador for the 'big society' project", and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate. As an unelected party member, he wasn't a participant in the parliamentary debate held in January on library closures.

Bailey is a former security guard, and a man who puts things starkly. In an interview with the Telegraph last year, he said: "The key wickedness that the Government has perpetrated is the idea that government can pay for everything. If you continually give people things and ask for nothing back you rob them of their will. People have to be involved in their own redemption."

To Bailey, Smith's speech was not about library closures, community disintegration or the dissolution of social apparatus, but rather "about self-driven success".

"The problem with this big massive state that she really enjoys," Bailey said,"is that it actually hasn't had any luck in imparting the notion of education to young people."

What if Smith's point, as the Today presenter Justin Webb pointed out, is not merely that we shouldn't be closing libraries, but we should be encouraging people to use them? Bailey runs what looks like an excellent social charity, which aims to "break the cycle of poverty, crime, and ill-health in struggling communities, through people centered sustainable change". Yet he didn't see how libraries would help this aim.

Smith isworth quoting at length on "community":

Community is a partnership between the government and the people, and it's depressing to hear the language of community, the so-called "Big Society", being used to disguise the low motives of one side of that partnership, as it attempts to renege on the deal. What could be better than handing people back the power so they can build their own schools, their own libraries? Better to leave people to the already onerous tasks of building their lives, and paying their taxes. Leave the building of infrastructure to government, and the protection of public services to government, that being government's mandate, and the only possible justification for its power.

Bailey had other ideas: "it isn't the government that decide if your library stays open or not, it's actually your local authority ... that's why this Big Society thing is important, because you are close to those people for an electoral point of view and have more sway over them. If you, as a group of people, want your opinions heard and that you have the right and the mechanism to go and do that so actually I don't accept any of her points on that."

Perhaps it's more that he didn't understand any of her points? Libraries are, currently, a public service. As Smith recounts: "Like many people without any money, we relied on our public services - not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities."

Smith spoke yesterday for a reason, and it would be a shame if fleeting publicity were to be the only result. Many people have been fighting to save libraries for quite some time now -- if you want to join them, or to check what your own council's plans for libraries are, a good place to begin is here, where Ian Anstice, a public librarian, has created a site that is the most up-to-date mine of information on the web. From there, you could visit Voices for the Library, and add your voice to theirs.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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