july 8, 2016
The world is too much with us. Looking beyond, around, and before the devastating news we've seen in the last week alone, the trajectory it seems we're stuck on is a grotesque one. "Prejudice burns brighter when it's all we have to burn," the Manic Street Preachers warned us in 1994. Maybe it's not so much all we have to burn as it is what the social web makes it so easy to set ablaze. Those machines of loving grace, not really a thing, huh?
I'm a white lady, from a rural white area, working in a profession that's predominantly white ladies, in a state/region of the country where it's especially predominantly white ladies. I want to be a good ally, one like Justin Cohen describes and recommends in this post written in response to recent events, but I feel like I need to do a lot more listening before I can be that.
A few months ago, I joined the Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibility Committee of our state library association; I've also been a member of the Boston-area Radical Reference group for about a year. The IF/SR committee has had a desire to do an offshoot event about the topics we try to address for some time now; the plan is roughly to focus it around surveillance, IF, and patron privacy issues and how these intersect with outreach and services we provide to our communities and underserved populations.
At the end of June, I put up a short call for participation on our Rad Ref group's Facebook page and was asked, "Is this a 'white presenters only' event?" Initially I thought, "Of course it's not." But then I thought, "What am I actually doing to make sure it's not?" Who should I ask to join us to speak from a perspective outside the overwhelming whiteness of libraryland - especially our corner of it here in Massachusetts? And I realized I had few ideas. My tinfoil hat-ready nightmare vision of a surveillance state pockmarked with runaway computer vision is a far cry from the reality of platform bias that is presently undermining the lives of minority groups and inciting nationalism and hate to an unprecedented, sickening degree.
So what do we do? For our would-be mini-conference, we could cast a much wider net than librarianship for needed perspective. For our committee and the state association it's part of, we need more active recruitment efforts to welcome all. For our profession, there's got to be more listening and introspection and awareness and hardcore self-evaluation and hard work. And we must broaden our scope beyond studying our damnable introverted navels - we gain nothing from isolating ourselves so. We could begin laying the foundation for a digital literacy that recognizes, scrutinizes, and confronts the farcical neutrality of tech. We could be the monitors of algorithms: humans that watch over the machines that show no love nor grace, just insecurity and permanent cookies.
We could be these things. We could do these things. Will we?
Let's shift gears to a more positive consequence of our attention economy.
My cat Panda suffered a broken leg in a freak accident at home back in early April. Because both her tibia and fibula were fractured, she couldn't be fitted with a regular cast. Instead, she's sporting what's called an "extra-skeletal fixator," a network of pins that make a stabilizing safety cage on either side of her leg, taking the stress off her healing bones. Since her initial middle-of-the-night emergency vet appointment three months ago, she's had to return to her surgeon twice and will have to go for at least a third time; x-rays keep showing her fibula is totally healed, but the tibia just can't get it together.
I don't have pet insurance (does anybody?), so this has all added up to a small fortune. The animal hospital that's been overseeing her care has got to be one of the best in the business, like so many other Boston-area medical facilities of note, but that means it ain't especially cheap. I trust their better judgment on the course of treatment for my little lady. But after I heard word from her second failed followup exam on Tuesday night, I was starting to despair, between the mountain of bills and the growing suspicion that her leg might not ever fully heal. As I stormed down South Huntington to go pick her up, hoofing it the whole way from work to Jamaica Plain, I started to wonder: where do I draw the line? When do I decide I can't write another multi-hundred-dollar check on a baseless bet that an x-ray comes back clean?
And then...scrolling through tweets yesterday afternoon, I stumbled upon a GoFundMe campaign that sounded eerily familiar. I went to the donation page and lo and behold, I saw an all-too-familiar face, sporting her plastic Elizabethan collar from a a few months back when she still couldn't be trusted to not infect her pin tracts (which, by the way, she did manage to do in the spring, and spent a few dreadful days circling the drain until the amoxicillin kicked in).
Within a matter of hours, the fundraiser was at the halfway mark, thanks to some large anonymous donations that I'll forever be scratching my head about. It got shared several dozen times on Facebook, plus retweeted a whole bunch; it caught like wildfire among the staff of the Boston Public Library in particular. My jaw dropped this afternoon when I saw it reach its $1,500 goal in less than two days. The outpouring of generosity, the teamwork, the love and support and positivity I feel from this - I dunno, man. It's impossible to do it justice with HTML.
Kindness keeps one's head on straight in times like these. For all its faults and fears, the volatile web can still augment friendship and charity. Panda will walk again. And I will pass along the care and thoughtfulness that drove this campaign to other struggling pet owners in the future. Isn't that type of thing exactly what we once dreamt of for "cyberspace?"
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Hey Cal, why is there no comments section? Comments sections have a tendency to devolve into nasty little spaces, teeming with spam & ad hominem attacks. I also have a fondness for the 1.0 Web (props to Neocities, powerer of this site). If you'd like to share your thoughts, find me on Twitter or fire off an email. Thanks!