Review by Christine Dann

You know that a library book has changed your life when you have to buy your own copy. I own the first edition of The Cult of Information (1986), subtitled The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking, and the second edition (1994), subtitled A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking. The National Library of New Zealand owns a first edition. Or possibly owned – I don’t dare check to see if it has already been tossed out. For if there is one book in the whole Overseas Published Collection that I would recommend every New Zealand librarian reads, it is this one.

Theodore Roszak (1933-2011) was an American historian and social scientist whose first book, The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) described and analysed thinkers and social movements opposed to technocracy, industrialism and capitalism. In his sixth book, Unfinished Animal (1975), he summed up where technology was taking humanity as follows: “As for technology, which was meant to serve as the engine of progress, it becomes a compulsive and self-defeating pursuit of total dominance over society and nature …urban industrial society is doomed to lurch from crisis to crisis, emergency to emergency… the final act of this unhappy scenario [is] a global wasteland where a bandit elite of corporate profiteers, commissars and technocrats…enjoy the dwindling riches of the Earth, while the impoverished billions starve without even clean air in which to draw their last breath.” (p.178, Faber Paperbacks 1976 edition) This may have sounded a bit over-dramatic in 1975, but half a century later, with crises and emergencies as grave and global as Covid-19, global heating and the sixth extinction event upon us, and seven of the top ten most valuable companies in the world being technology companies, it looks extremely prescient.

It is this understanding of the downsides of substituting machines for human minds which informs The Cult of Information. In his introduction to the second edition Roszak reminds us that “…mind has never been dependent on machinery to reach the peaks of achievement.” (p xx; all quotes from the University of California Press second edition 1994) Another quote from the introduction which speaks directly to the horrors of the current age, and shows the way in which neo-Nazi, white supremacist and other hate cults began to be nurtured and empowered by digital technologies three decades ago, is “In Austria kids can now purchase neo-Naziware videogames called Aryan Test and KZ Manager which allow players to run death camps and gas inferior races.” (p xxvi)

In the eight years between the publication of the first and second editions of the book, some high tech idiocies had been laid to rest (who remembers the Logo programme now?) but new ones were under development or being applied in the last places they should be applied – schools, universities and libraries. Roszak devotes a whole chapter to libraries. Entitled ‘Ben Franklin’s Information Service: Libraries, Literacy, and the Ecology of Mind’, the chapter covers issues which are as relevant today as they were then. In the section on ‘The Library’s High-Tech Identity Crisis’ Roszak says: “In the era of the electronic book, the neographic text, and the virtual library, librarians have understandably begun to wonder: maybe libraries no longer need walls, maybe walls no longer need libraries, maybe librarians no longer need books, maybe libraries no longer need librarians. Maybe librarians need a hot new identity. Maybe they should become Information Managers-Scientists-Brokers, Data Surfers, Digital Gurus, Info-shamans, Cyber-hypertext-punks.” (p. 181)

That is what the market-oriented librarians of the day thought should happen, and we can see them gaining dominant positions in the profession in the twenty-first century and becoming servants of the technology corporations rather than servants of the reading public. The public good position, which was espoused by librarians calling themselves ‘progressive’ in the USA in the 1990s, was expressed thus in a quote from one of them: “We are,” protests John Buschman, “moving far too rapidly away from our historic professional and institutional values of print literacy, social memory, and equal access to resources for an informed citzenry.” (p. 182)

The rest of the chapter raises more issues which are as relevant today as they were three decades ago. Roszak quotes from the Library of Congress’s general reference librarian’s summation of why libraries can not and should not go fully digital, and should not even attempt it. These include “the combination of essentially unbudgeable legal, economic, preservation and psychological impediments”. The legal impediments are primarily copyright issues, which publishers and authors are even hotter on today than they were back then. The economic and preservation impediments are the cost of digitising in the first place, and then of maintaining access to the material as machines wear out and need replacing, and new software has to be purchased and constantly updated. The psychological impediments were not as well-researched then as they are now, and include what is now known on the ways in which humans read differently on screens than on paper, and retain and understand what they get from books better than what they get from screens.

Roszak covers these issues in his sections on ‘Electronic Alzheimers’ and ‘Literacy Imperiled’, before ending with a big shout out to real librarians, whom he calls ‘ecologists of the mind’. People who understand the relationships between sources of knowledge, and can help readers and researchers find both what they already know they want to know, and also – and just as importantly – what they did not even know was there to be found.

I know that most of the librarians in New Zealand still aspire to be such ‘good book’ people, and have not drunk the digital Kool Aid. I would really recommend that they read Roszak for the support he can provide in making their case, while all citizens who want real libraries staffed by real librarians need to read him too.

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