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This week there was a lot of discussion about the ethics of tracking library users (specifically students) and passing that data along to university administrations to help support the “student experience”, ensure “student success”, and “prove the value of libraries”. There was a lot there to get into - I recommend looking at the timelines of Dorothea Salo, Barbara Fister, Donna Lanclos, Meredith Farkas, and Angela Galvan for good, in-depth takes on why this is a problem.

What sparked this conversation was a presentation at Educause 2017 on “Closing the Data Gap: Integrating Library Data into Institutional Learning Analytics”. Two of the questions posed in this presentation was “Are there correlations between library use and student success measures? And how do you measure success?” The presenters argued that by integrating library use(r) data with other campus data, we could prove the value of library use. One of the slides contains the following quote:

[The Libraries] are critical to supporting student success, which is one of our highest priorities at the University. Libraries researchers have gathered compelling data that indicate that undergraduates are more successful (as gauged by higher GPAs, higher retention rates, and higher 4-year graduation rates) when they use our Libraries. (Provost Karen Hanson Remarks at the Libraries IMLS National Medal Celebration, July 19, 2017)

The twitter conversation was often critical of the political naiveté of this position, exemplified in these two tweets (taken more or less at random):

What this particular discussion reminds me of are the debates around industrial rationalization that took place on the Italian left in the 1960s. There was a sense that “rationalization” was objective, neutral (sound familiar?) - that the increased efficiency produced by, say, automation or time-motion studies (i.e. taylorism) were somehow independent of the class relationships integral to the capitalist organization of labour. Many on the left in Italy in the sixties - enjoying an enormous boom in productivity and standard of living following the difficult years of post-war reconstruction - argued that improvements in productivity should not be seen as integrally connected with capitalist exploitation or the domination of capital over labour. Raniero Panzieri, editor of the “Quaderni Rossi” (Red Notebooks) journal, argued that this point of view stripped particular developments (time-motion studies, user-tracking) from their concrete position and function within the struggle between labour and capital, which led to seeing these things as objectively valuable, useful, and good, and only put to bad use by exploitative capitalists. The dominant federation of labour unions at the time maintained this position, seeing “time and motion studies, ‘human relations’, even the restructuring and parcellisation of the labour process [i.e. the assembly line]” as possessing “an intrinsic rationality and necessity which their current use by capital could never obliterate” (Steve Wright, Storming Heaven, p. 42).

This view is mirrored in the library and higher-education world by those who think that the good we can do by tracking and aggregating user data outweighs the risk of that data being “misused” by (neoliberal) universities and the corporate interests that are so embedded within them. I put the word “misused” in quotes because the use of user/student data to increase the exploitation of students - to turn them into workers, to rank, to order, and to condemn the lowest performers - is precisely the proper use of such data under capitalism. It isn’t so much that librarians are afraid that this data may be handed over to the government or corporations (though of course we are afraid of this, and rightly so), but that our data is used to deepen and extend the quantification of education and educational performance, and thereby the relations of neoliberal capitalism itself.

Another tweet I came across which sums up the political naiveté of those who think that any user tracking can be innocent is the following, which contains a slidefrom ARC17:

This point of view might have been innocent in the early days of the welfare state, before the transformation of society into one large immaterial factory took place, but in a world in which both data and the algorithms that operate on them are being used to broaden, extend, deepen, and solidify social control, inequality, exploitation, and domination, in particular by previously “enlightened” or “progressive” institutions like libraries or universities, such a position is no longer innocent, but actively culpable.

Part of this innocence is, as I see it, due to a misrecognition on the part of librarians (especially academic librarians) and faculty members that we and the students are all part of the working class; we do not own and control the means of production that we use every day - the means of production are owned by the university or the government (what Mario Tronti calls “the collective capitalist”), and we are brought together with them every day in buildings they also own. The decline of industrial production in North America has tended to mystify this fact; we can imagine that because we aren’t industrial workers that we aren’t workers at all. But in fact, the opposite has taken place. As Tronti argued in his 1962 essay in Quaderni Rossi, “Factory and Society”, “When all of society is reduced to a factory, the factory - as such - seems to disappear”. What we do when we participate in logics of rationality such as integrating our user data with other “learning management” data is to spread the “factoricization” of the library and the university. We have to learn that we are not, despite appearances, outside the logic of domination and exploitation of capitalist production just because it is hard to see what our commodity is or because we have more autonomy and better benefits than other members of the working class. Labour is not just a part of the capitalist relationship, it is “the truly active side of capital, the natural site of every capitalist dynamic” (Tronti). So we have to be vigilant with respect to our complicity in the processes and dynamics of capitalist social reproduction.

Eventually, of course, vigilance will not be enough; we will also have to see that increasing our standard of living relative, or our autonomy, or our benefits, with respect to others (especially students and marginalized users) is not a goal worth pursuing. Eventually we too will be completely proletarianized. In the words of Tronti, what needs to occur, in libraries and universities as part of the social factory, is that “labour must see labour-power, as commodity, as its own enemy” - improving the “value” of our commodity, our labour-power, is not enough, we have to end the fact of labour as a commodity completely, as part of the total abolition of the commodity-form in general.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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