Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cycles of knowledge production, consumption, and contestation

I work in two academic departments at once, one which we might call a "journalism school" and the other a "library school". Part of my job entails finding connections between these two, which I conceptualize as two different (but related) "positionalities" for viewing the overall circuit of knowledge production, consumption, and reproduction in society at different (but related) "moments" in the overall dialectical process. (Whew.) So when I find an interesting and accessible example of all this -- a situation in which the moments of journalism and librarianship overtly connect -- I want to talk about it.

Milwaukee-based newspaper columnist Joel McNally wrote a recent column which provided me with just such an example. The column concerns the evolving debate over the production, consumption, marketing, economic profitability, and economic externalities of "fast food" in American society. Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser has most recently reenergized this debate with his 2001 book _Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the all-American meal_, a work of "muckraking" reporting which evolved out of an earlier two-part article of his in _Rolling Stone_. Since then, a popular film and DVD _Super Size Me_ has taken up the same theme (including an interview with Schlosser on the DVD edition) and former president Bill Clinton has negotiated a deal with major soft drink distributors to stop placing sugared soda in schools. Now Schlosser and a co-author, Charles Wilson, have taken their message to a youth media audience with their new children's book _Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food_ -- a clear candidate for widespread dissemination in public and school libraries.

Controversey has followed this iteration of knowledge from journalism to bookseller to cinema to library. As McNally writes,

Front groups with names that imply they are promoting "freedom" or "liberty" are, in fact, attempting to demonize Schlosser to prevent him from getting his message to the book's target audience of middle school students and young teenagers, who are in the process of developing lifelong, unhealthful eating habits.

The instantly manufactured controversy upon publication of the book was foreshadowed by a story in the Wall Street Journal about an internal memo circulated within McDonald's management preparing them to deal aggressively with the publication of "Chew on This" and the release of an upcoming film based on "Fast Food Nation."


Some of the tactics reach ever further back to the red-baiting days of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy. A right-wing group that calls itself the Heartland Institute accuses Schlosser of "tricking young people into fearing the world's finest food supply in order to entice them into his web ... to lead them away from capitalism into his failed socialist ideology."


The most vicious attacks accuse Schlosser of being a racist who wants to deny choices to minorities. This is a reporter who has documented the industry's exploitation of minority communities and disregard for the lives of black and Latino workers. The motive behind the smear tactic is as transparent as the accusation he is subverting the young.

One of the efforts to refute Schlosser's arguments is the website "Best Food Nation", an industry umbrella group (sponsored by the American Meat Institute, the National Potato Council, the Snack Food Association, etc.) which claims to offer "the facts about the U.S. food supply, which is among the safest, most affordable and most abundant food supplies in the world":

Simply put, America is the Best Food Nation. From safe, abundant and affordable food choices to
jobs and economic growth for our communities, the people working in the U.S. food system provide innumerable benefits not only to Americans, but consumers across the globe. Unfortunately, critics
of our food system want consumers to think otherwise and are promoting their agendas using
information that is inaccurate, misleading and incomplete.


We have always invited public discussion on issues related to our food supply. But we feel those discussions should be based on facts, and invite you to explore the information contained within
this site and form your own opinion.

As one might expect in a debate like this which involves not simply personal life choices, but questions of science, medicine, and technology, both sides appeal to the "facts" and deride their opponents as "promoting their agendas." Of course, if Schlosser's "agenda" is to make a career as a reputable and influential journalist, and the food industry's "agenda" is to make the greatest profit producing and distributing food, we might very well factor this into the construction of "facts" on each side. As reported on the PR Watch website recently, tracking the "agendas" of the various interest groups (and front groups) mobilized in such a debate -- such as the "Heartland Institute," the "American Council on Science and Health," and the "Center for Individual Freedom" -- is in itself a full-time job for organizations like SourceWatch.

For example, McDonalds corporation is funding anti-Schlosser campaigns both on its own and together with other food industry partners. I say anti-Schlosser, and not pro-fast-food, because it seems that the tactics not only defend industry practices, but attempt to discredit Schlosser as a voice of authority. According to an article on the debate in the Wall Street Journal,

McDonald's Corp. has been trying to counter Mr. Schlosser's message with a public-relations campaign that plays up the chain's new healthy offerings and spotlights workers who have climbed through the Oak Brook, Ill., chain's corporate ranks.

The nation's largest fast-food chain is also funding TCS Daily, an arm of the Washington lobbying and public-relations firm DCI Group, that is making more pointed attacks against Mr. Schlosser and his work. Last week, TCS Daily launched a Web site called Fast Talk Nation that called his theories "rhetoric" and argued that he wants to decriminalize marijuana, based on excerpts from one of his other books, "Reefer Madness," about sex, drugs and cheap labor in the American black market.

Last Friday, TCS Daily abruptly closed the Fast Talk Nation site two days after its launch. James Glassman, who says he "hosts" the TCS Daily site, says he closed the Fast Talk Nation site because he wanted to pool his resources with the broader industry's Best Food Nation site.

But for me, this debate is interesting because it is being played out at so many different points along the circuit of social knowledge production -- in letters to the editor, in bookseller and film protests and boycotts, in corporate trade association and think tank press releases, and now, quite possibly, schools and libraries. McNally gets it right, I think, when he pinpoints the current focus of the campaign against Schlosser as schools and libraries which are both prone to local community pressure and dependent on local community support:

In a way, it doesn't even matter how patently absurd or easily discredited the attacks against Schlosser are. They will succeed if they somehow turn Schlosser, a talented journalist writing about important subjects, into a "controversial figure."

One of the goals, obviously, is to keep Schlosser (and his book) out of our schools. School administrators today are easily intimidated into censoring everything from books in the library to plays students are permitted to perform to the T-shirts kids wear.

Professionals from the positionalities of both journalism and librarianship need to be involved in debates like these -- indeed, they can hardly avoid them. Journalists can offer a perspective on the quality of Schlosser's reporting: Is it clear? Well-sourced? Is the evidence he uses credible? Are his methods transparent? And does he have a history of quality reporting for quality media outlets that can bolster his legitimacy? Similarly, librarians can offer a perspective on the quality of Schlosser's translation of this reporting for a youth audience: Is it unique? Have teachers and administrators been seeking such resources? Does it resonate with children? Is it transparent? Does it lead the classroom to open a debate, or to forclose it? Teaching our future journalism and library professionals to wade into such controversies bravely and competently is one of our greatest responsibilities at the university level, I think.

But when confronted by such a coordinated and, to my mind, non-transparent attack on the kind of knowledge claims that Schlosser is making across various media, across various institutions, and across the various moments of the knowledge production-consumption-reproduction cycle, it is not enough to view such controversies only from one's own vantage point. Journalists and librarians, teachers and professors, scientists and doctors, government officials and non-governmental activists alike -- in fact, anyone who makes their living (and draws their legitimacy) from the professional production of quality knowledge -- need to coordinate as well. We need to understand the points where power is applied in society in such debates over not only knowledge "facts," but methods of knowledge production themselves.

All this is not to say a teacher, a scientist, a politician should or will agree, in the end, with Schlosser -- or with any other sincere individual trying to push the boundaries of knowledge in society from his or her own professional position. But what it does say is that all knowledge professionals have a stake in how knowledge is produced, consumed, and contested across the whole cycle. In some parts of the cycle, corporate wealth carriers with it great power to influence debate (sometimes even shut down debate). In other parts of the cycle, grassroots experience, opinion and, yes, even ignorance can be mobilized in powerful ways. And sometimes sincere, transparent, peer-reviewed, non-profit knowledge production carries a powerful weight in and of itself. But if those involved at each different moment never take the time to consider the source and extent of their power in the cycle -- both as individual professionals and together as collaborative professions -- that cycle itself threatens to "short-circuit" through the path of least resistance.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Embodying information artifacts and information labor

There's an interesting little essay over at Inside Higher Ed today by anthropologist Alex Golub on a topic that my class on US library history has been debating recently: the benefits and drawbacks of paper-based information artifacts (like books) versus digital information artifacts (like online journals). Golub nicely points out that one might reasonably appreciate both physical and virtual modes of information production, distribution, and consumption, for differing reasons:

I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0’s ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association’s newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.

But the thing that interests me about Golub's essay is that he speaks not only of information artifacts, but of information labor with and through those artifacts -- how labor itself has qualities both virtual and embodied, which we often take for granted:

Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied — we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us — even the lab scientists — with Ph.D.’s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations?

Golub goes on to point out that information artifacts -- especially physical, print artifacts -- help us structure and define the very space and time of our work and leisure environments, and become wrapped up with our identities as information consumers and information producers:

Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay’s Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.

It seems to me that considering issues like these of labor, space, and even identity constitute a much more productive way of thinking about the dialectic between print and virtual information than the "either-or" arguments that are so easy to engage in (and which, admittedly, sometimes I foster in my own classes on the subject).

For example, Nicholson Baker's popular and controversial (at least within library, information studies, and archival fields) book _Double Fold_ seems to be in a sense entirely about the same print-based versus screen-based personal identity construction that Neil Postman talked about in his book _Amusing ourselves to death_. Baker talks mainly about the battle for space and funding in libraries and the rationalization for microfilming and then destroying printed texts in order to secure that space and funding. And Postman is mostly interested in the effects of consuming screen-based information rather than print-based information, especially the effects on the public's ability to engage in rational debate. (Much of this debate could probably be traced back to McLuhan, in fact.)

But both of these texts raise questions about information production as well -- the way moving among printed materials itself becomes part of our conception of ourselves as knowledge producers, knowledge "miners," knowledge organizers. That's not to say one can't produce, "mine," or organize knowledge in a virtual environment as well. But we are bodies in space and time, like it or not, and I have to believe that over the long term the way we work, and the way we build individual and collective meaning from that work, must change in relation to the spatiality, temporality, and materiality of that work.

P.S. As I'm writing this I'm also proctoring a final exam in a basement classroom which has become a temporary holding pen for books being moved out of a small department library which is itself being transformed into more of a "wired workspace" than a set of print stacks. I am not at all against this transition, which is being performed carefully and professionally. But ironically, the colleagues who teach regularly in this classroom tell me they want the rejected books to stay here -- not only for their sound-deadening properties, but because they give the room a different "feel." I guess it takes a trained anthropologist to recognize that the "feel" of such spaces might really matter in substantive ways to the value that is produced in and through those spaces.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Spanish-speaking workers in the US and the technological training products which target them

As the debate over undocumented Latino immigrant workers in the US has unfolded over the last month here in the US, I've been trying to think about the ways in which concepts of "information labor" are wrapped up in this issue. Marc Cooper, a journalist and "Senior Fellow for Border Justice at the USC Annenberg School’s Institute for Justice and Journalism," had two weeks ago written a nice summary at TruthDig of how immigration reform bubbled up to the top of the news agenda in the last few weeks -- along with some revealing statistical and historical context to the debate.

The root cause of the immigration surge, of course, has nothing to do with a broken U.S. border but everything to do with a ruined Mexican economy. The wage differential between the U.S. and Mexico is about 11 to 1. Some studies suggest that in the agricultural sector there’s a 20-to-1 differential. The passage of the 1994 NAFTA agreement further depressed Mexican rural wages and further accelerated the immigration wave. No one knows the exact figure, but something like 15 million Mexicans have emigrated to the U.S. in the last 20 years. An equal number are expected over the next two decades.

An estimated record 12 million undocumented —or illegal aliens if you prefer—now reside in the United States, more than double the number of a decade ago. Undocumented Mexican workers, once found primarily in the fields of the Southwest, now occupy the front lines of the service labor market in almost every state of the union.

So the time/space geography of undocumented Mexican labor in particular seems to have diversified from seasonal work in rural agricultural regions to year-round service work in urban and suburban regions -- particularly in the hotel and restaurant industry, if the sources I'm reading are any indication. Certainly those industries have taken "informatizing" measures over the last two decades in order to consolidate their business processes, from just-in-time ordering of food and supplies to fragmenting the time and space of handling take-out orders (such as the McDonald's experiments with having remote English-speaking drive-through workers speak to customers in restaurants with largely Spanish-speaking on-site labor). So certainly information tools and telecommunications links are now intimately tied up in the corporate environment which employs so many Spanish-speaking Americans and would-be Americans.

But there are other ways in which this labor force is being targeted by vendors of information products -- especially for high-tech English language training. I found a 2004 story from the Dallas Morning News which was reprinted on the site of the restaurant-industry-sponsored Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance that talks about some of these new training efforts:

Dallas-based Brinker International Inc. is launching one of the largest initiatives combining technology and English lessons.

In February, the nation's second-largest casual dining company plans to launch an at-home program called Sed de Saber (roughly "thirst for knowledge" in Spanish).

Workers will use durable interactive touch-pads, similar to the popular LeapFrog toy.

They'll study a Mexican novella to learn restaurant terms and concepts in English, said Jose Gomez, director of diversity for Brinker. More than a third of Brinker's roughly 95,000 restaurant employees are Hispanic.

Interestingly (or ironically) Brinker International is the parent company of the very profitable Mexican-themed chain restaurants "Chili's" and "On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina".

The "Sed de Saber" system, which does in fact use licensed LeapPad technology (designed for infants to highschoolers), is produced by Newport Beach, CA-based Retention Education, LLC. Manuals for both employees and their "program managers" can be found on their web site. Although the system is promoted as an "English language learning program" which is "designed to help your Hispanic employees learn English language skills that can improve the quality of their lives," many of the topics listed in the manual concentrate on food service job tasks like "understanding schedules," "being a prep cook," "taking orders," "handling money," and "being a shift manager." Still, other more general topics are included like "shopping for groceries," "talking to the pharmacist," and "finding community resources."

At the beginning of the program manager guide is a warning of sorts that there are legal standards for how this four- to six-month training must be offered. If it is a mandatory training program, employees must be paid for their participation time; if it is voluntary, employees must not be penalized for choosing not to participate, and must not use the system during work hours. Retention Education even suggests that employers might want to offer Sed de Saber for employees to purchase themselves, perhaps "through a payroll deduction." The retail version of Sed de Saber costs $300 (plus shipping and handling), so a weekly payroll deduction over the suggested six-month training period would be at least $12.50/week if the employee paid all costs. I wonder how Brinker and other restaurant owners, large and small, are handling these legal nuances. (The MF&HA piece indicated that Brinker's use of the program was as an "at home" training, suggesting that it is voluntary/unpaid.)

I wonder what Latino/a, Hispanic and Chicano/a advocacy groups think about such training programs. My brief web search hasn't revealed anything, but I'm going to keep following this thread. Of course, the corporate rhetoric around such training programs, no matter what their merits or risks, never talks about using them to facilitate the hiring of undocumented labor. These are training programs for "Americans" to learn English. Amidst the current charges that undocumented Mexican immigrants in particular are some sort of "drain" on the economic resources of the US (charges which I think are ridiculous if one counts not only the economic value these workers add to the economy, but also the sales taxes, SSI taxes, and property taxes they pay), perhaps it could be useful to highlight these persons as not only eager to learn English -- and to pay in terms of their time and possibly their money for the opportunity -- but also as a huge consumer market targeted by the leaders of high-tech education ventures.