Utopia vs Dystopia? Reflections on a Summer Exploring Information Principles with Mulford Q. Sibley

Decades ago I had the privilege of participating in an NSF summer institute for faculty at two-year colleges who NSF no doubt assumed needed a jolt of academic discipline in their mundane lives.  The class was on Utopias and Dystopias (though it probably had a more academic-oriented title.)  The teacher was the legendary Mulford Q. Sibley, known to this day as an outspoken radical who spoke his mind freely and frequently, wore a defiant red tie to make a statement, and did not suffer fools gladly.

For the most part we grateful students eagerly probed the master’s mind which Mulford Q. was more than willing to open wide and to change in media res.  Half way through the course our leader opined that we should probably produce concrete evidence of our learning.  Each was to write a utopian or dystopian essay or story.  Positive thinker –and contrarian – that I am I chose the road less travelled by…Though I cannot say it made all the difference, it did expand my worldview.

My academic job was as librarian in a small, liberal arts college.  It was my good fortune to have world enough and time to think about the expanding universe of which mere mortals and their institutions are not pawns but players.  The library in which I spent my days perched on a cliff from which you could see forever; the youthful learners were fresh, eager, headed in all directions.

The NSF Institute took place in the mid-70’s. just as the information and communications revolution was seeping through the very pores of the library and of our lives.  Predictably, my dystopia was set in a volatile information age environment. Scholars and plebians alike greeted the new age with mixed reaction – elation, terror, confusion, fascination with the gadgetry, and new investment policies. Those who grasped the basic principle of information power were girding their loins, acquiring the technology, scooping up licenses and bandwidths, and otherwise eliminating the competition.

The dystopia spewed forth from my IBM Selectric without a hitch – at some level I was living it. The awkward tale I spun forewarned a time of information overload – mountains of data erupting, human minds blown by too much information, the phase-out of people with the skills and institutional support to filter information.  With a bit of narcissism I wrote of librarians, journalists, publishers, educators, speech writers, editor, booksellers  and others who form the information chain that links source with user and user with source.

Dutiful student that I was in the day, I worried, but didn’t write about the ownership of the information per se —  I already knew how that would ignite  Dr. Sibley.  I stuck with the threat posed by too much information, too little time and too few coping tools.  A tragic dystopic – not to mention political — tale.

Or so I thought.  Dr. Sibley had other ideas which he expressed in bold red ink notes that live on in my psyche.  In his interpretation I, the control freak librarian, saw myself as a censor, curbing access to information, barring the gates to knowledge in the guise of creating order and adding value.  Dr, Sibley averred that it was the likes of me who would create the very dystopia that I had vilified.

Dr. Sibley envisioned a world in which information flowed unfettered, beyond the restrictions of government and propagandists.  Access was his goal.  And he was right, of course.  From my perspective, the distinction between availability and accessibility was palpable.  Information does no good, I argued,  if a curious searcher cannot manipulate the information chain. I think I was right, too (not that I pressed the point at the time.)

Where we were both right was in taking time during a mid-70’s summer session to focus on information as a force with which to be reckoned.  Though Dr. Sibley was closer to the mark when he worried about control, his emphasis was on political, not economic, control. For my part, focus on overload was naïve because I portrayed filters as relatively benign links in the chain

The institute was long ago and lasted for just six weeks – six long hot weeks contemplating life, the universe and everything from the upper reaches of the U of M Social Science Building.  Still, the lesson endures. The experience of thinking about information in concrete political, economic and social terms instilled a lifetime habit.  At times I remind myself, ITIS – It’s the Information Stupid!

This ancient tale resurfaces now as I watch media grapple with the challenges of a full-blown  information and communication age.  Utopia and dystopia still loom as options.  It concerns me that we who consume and act on information are only tangentially  engaged in choosing the utopian vs dystopian path.

We seem equally disinclined to analyze the unique role of the media in a tangled information chain that engulfs and threatens society.  Though we accept that information rules as the undisputed coin of the realm we have yet to understand that information, the channels of communication, and those who control either – or both — need to be tamed.

Jobs, taxes, housing, and other realities are tangible, measurable, concrete, suited to slogans and simple stories. Information is elusive, intangible, implicit, esoteric, remote, complicated.  It’s also ubiquitous, a vital force that runs through every aspect of our lives and our society.  It’s just not easy to contemplate or to explain.  Besides, there are  disincentives to any attempt to probe the turgid depths of the information labyrinth.

That’s what the information powers know only too well.  The information powers are at the ready to defend themselves, in part by harnessing the power of information and communications technology they control.  to justify their misdeeds – to control the story spun to the little people who are only too eager to pay for the pap they are fed.

Still I hope Michael Copps is right in his optimistic prognosis.  Copps, a Federal Communications Commissioner who takes his role seriously, recently advised members of the National Newspaper Association that they are not alone.  While the press may lead, he told them, the American public supports a utopian model of a free press.

At the same time, Copps worries about the dystopic path:  “I have come to realize,” he says, “that, without a serious national effort and some significant changes, our media environment will only get worse…I believe we can – and I believe we must – find ways to redeem the promise of journalism because good journalism is so vital to redeeming the promise of America.”

This leads me back to that summer with Mulford Q. Sibley – the yin and yang  of our takes on the imminent information explosion — the seasoned scholar’s concerns about the free flow of information vs. my youthful certainty that conventional filtering systems were more than ever essential to avoid disaster.   What we shared was not a perspective but a deep conviction that information is the essential building block of a democratic society – a belief that information is worth thinking and talking about at a fundamental level.  Today I reflect on that experience (which probably is more profound in the mind than in the day) with appreciation tinged with nostalgia.

I can only imagine a chat with Dr. Sibley about the role of 21st Century institutions in preserving a utopian vision and creating a path to reach a utopian goal. The technology, the politics, the economics of information have changed over the decades.  What has not changed is etched in my memory, a gangly Mulford Q. Sibley still challenging, still teaching and still sporting that defiant red tie!  As I watch the Murdoch empire crumble I can almost hear Sibley chortling.

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