Equality Is Overrated
by Barbara Quint
I remember reading a book decades ago by Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian, a book full of strong and cogent arguments against equality. Actually, it wasn’t really the principle of equality that he opposed, but rather its corruption into egalitarianism, which allowed enthusiasm for the principle to extend the concept into inappropriate areas. It may be inconvenient and even embarrassing, but while people are or should be equal before the law, in the hearts of their parents and many other circumstances, they would have to be identical to be completely equal all the time. And as we all know, people do not come from General Motors. Some of us are going to be better or worse than others of us at one thing or another.
Even in areas where equality should be a public goal — areas such as opportunity — differences will always persist. While everyone may and should have the opportunity to succeed, no one gets the opportunity to succeed at everything. Reality intervenes.
But what really irked Barzun was the extension of the laudable goal of recognizing and supporting the innate equality of human beings into the error-laden practice of applying it to all things human. Humans have ideas. So whatever ideas humans have are equal? In the Catholic Church, a papal encyclical condemns the religious application of this notion as the heresy of “indifferentism.”
Let’s take another situation. Humans have a right to feel equal to each other. So designating one idea as better than another violates that right? There’s only one problem: Truth is not egalitarian. It’s absolutism. While equality should exist in one’s right to express an idea or attempt to judge an idea, the idea itself should meet the standard of some external reality. Ironically, one of the primary necessities for discovering the truth — listening to multiple views — can also become a danger when the truth is discovered if the roar of the voices drowns out the sound of discovery.
So when I see a new information service emerging that proudly proclaims it will accept any input from any interested party, I tend to worry. What would the world do if the Great God Google ever got bitten by the egalitarian bug one day and started to sort results alphabetically or chronologically — 1–10 out of 26,435,552? Google’s relevancy-ranking algorithms, its discrimination mechanisms, are at least as important to users (not to mention the company’s bottom line) as its breadth of outreach. Librarians and other information professionals may rally loyally behind the banner of “No Censorship,” but we spend most of our time and resources making sure we get good goods in what we buy — the truth, not the dross.
The changes and explosion of technology have transformed “publishing” into an activity anyone can do. Buy a “dot” and you’re “equal” to nytimes.com. Go onto Facebook or Twitter, and your comments on the passing parade sit side by side with those of the people waving from the top of the floats. While this may make you feel a little more empowered and connected to events, more equal, the feeling may only be a comforting illusion. The danger comes when the equality of the right to input overcomes the ability and commitment of carriers and their users to filter the true from the false, the important from the irrelevant.
In this era of information overload, we information professionals must stand for quality more than equality in our service to users. Ironically, again, this may mean expanding the sources we recommend and array for users. When people see masses of data rolling toward them, they tend to hide in familiar nooks and crannies. They turn to the handful of sources they find familiar. At least with Google, that might mean the first page of a result set, but the result set alters significantly with each request. But what if they just turn to a social network and only round up the usual suspects, substituting familiarity for discretion? Even Google is adjusting its results these days to what each user has used before. This tends to drive librarians who are using Google to answer user questions remotely into a nervous frenzy, as the answers on the librarian’s computer always differ from the user’s.
Our concern must always focus on what sources, what tools, what techniques are most likely to produce the best and truest data. And here let me once again call out for the creation of a “.lib,” which could unify sources bearing the librarian stamp of approval. I’m sure that if we had such a structure in place, it would appeal to Google ranking decisions in the way .edu, .org, and .gov seem to. And as for the devilish details, not to mention expenses, of getting that dot-lib, may I suggest that the Gates Foundation would probably be an easy target?
These days, the main problem is not necessarily getting the truth online or even finding it online, but rather getting people to see it, making it visible. If you still worry about censorship or any form of closing the door on alternative opinions, you could build tools to link to alternative views. It wouldn’t be the first time. Back in the day when Dialog was king and only professional searchers went online, we had a lot of monster megabases that traced scholarship from respectable print sources. But in the midst of these giants (which would barely qualify as dust on a little person’s shirt compared to today’s web-tracking databases), there was one little engine that could which I was very fond of. It was P.A.I.S. The creators of this database took great pride in cherry-picking top sources on any public interest topic from different types of sources — books, government reports, newspaper articles, magazines, etc. But besides being eclectic in the types of sources they tapped, they also had a policy that when the mainstream views on a subject were sufficiently covered, they would open coverage to the more fringy viewpoints. Now that’s a nice idea to develop for our dot-lib infrastructure, don’t you think?
Oh, by the way, P.A.I.S. was developed entirely by librarians.