Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

You Can't Polish a Pumpkin 1: Scattered Speculations on the Development of Information Ethics

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

You Can't Polish a Pumpkin 1: Scattered Speculations on the Development of Information Ethics

Article excerpt

In the opening of his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, the French philosopher Alain Badiou (2001, p.1) remarks that "Certain scholarly words, after long confinement in dictionaries and in academic prose, have the good fortune, or the misfortune ... of sudden exposure to the bright light of day," unexpectedly catapulting such words to "centre stage." Ethics, Badiou contends, is undoubtedly one such word. And although we wish to resist the banal and tiresome process of academic list- making, the word information indubitably and unequivocally belongs next to ethics in and under the spotlight of post- modernity. Of course, Badiou plucks "ethics" from the darkness of philosophical obscurity only in order to show how the post- modern obsession with ethics simply reflects and reinforces "the logic of a capitalist economy" (2001, p.4). Similarly, the current essay attempts to rescue "information" from those who would reduce its essential contestability to so many "semantic quirks" (Machlup 1983, p.641). In so doing, it attempts to make explicit the proposition put forth by Robbins and Webster (1988, p.70) that "information is not a thing, an entity; it is a social relation, and in contemporary capitalist societies it expresses the characteristic and prevailing relations of power." And so, despite the many recent attempts at theoretical illumination the only point that seems to have been clarified is the essential contestability of both these concepts. Yet taken together, especially in Library and Information Science (LIS), information ethics is understood in a very general sense to be a self- verifying good and as such something that must be unquestionably defended, supported and promoted.

The purpose of this essay therefore is to highlight the manifold limitations of information ethics in the specific context of Library and Information Science (LIS). In particular, we wish to suggest that in a world characterized by the commodity form of information an ethics of information is at once both imperative and impossible. This impossibility and this necessity originate from the very same source: capital-the definite social relation by which the means of production are transformed into the means of exploitation. Although information ethics is purported to analyze the "relationship between the creation, organization, dissemination and use of information and the ethical standards and moral codes governing human conduct" (Reitz 2004, p.356) this has not led, on the whole, to any sustained process of consideration of the social meaning of the production and commodification of information. While there have been a smattering of exemplary and engaging critiques (Frohmann 2004; Stiglitz 2000; Schiller 1997; Enright 2008) dealing with the implications flowing from the generalization of the commodification of information, very few attempts have been made to comprehend the impetus that underpins the ceaseless movement toward ever more commodification. That is, the commodity form itself tends to be treated unproblematically as a pre- given category that emerges as if from nowhere. There is a tendency then for those who identify as "critical librarians" to take the emergence and even the analytical priority of "information ethics" as simply a given, the starting point of any properly radical theory. The temptation here is to reiterate a portion of Stahl's (2008, p.348) critique insofar as he suggests that information ethics can lead to the "closure of debate and reification of meaning and understanding" but certainly we can assert that in resisting, or at the very least problematizing "information ethics," we are not witnessing any return to the "neutrality" of which information ethics was a critique, even a necessary critique (Hauptman 1988). Though neither does it seem useful to accept the implications of, for example, a version of "information" that exists in abstraction from the specific capitalist social relations that give rise to its very existence, a counter- productive version of political history inasmuch as it entails a division and classification which collapses political and theoretical criteria into an almost moralizing simplicity. …

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