In his new book, Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’sInformation Society (Rowman & Littlefield), author and library educator R. David Lankes, explores how a century of war has shaped our knowledge infrastructure, and why we must chart a new, more humane course for the future. PW recently caught up to talk with Lankes about war—and peace—in the information age.
Congratulations on the new book. To start, what prompted you to view our information infrastructure through this wartime lens?
The book started as an examination of data, technology, and the role of media in our society. But I’ve always been interested in history, and a few years ago I discovered the story the CS Alert, a British cable ship that went out into the ocean in the early days of WWI, pulled up all the German cables, and cut them. It turns out that was the first military action in the war between Britain and Germany, and it wasn’t a bombing, or a naval clash. It was an act of communication warfare. And as I looked more at the history, I realized how much our information architecture today has been shaped by the last century of war. And so that became a lens through which to explore some of the complex topics we’re dealing with today in the knowledge and information realms.
You write about the rise of propaganda and the media’s role in crafting a sort of common vision. Talk a little about that?
Yes, so, as I was researching the book I grew really intrigued by the history of propaganda and censorship, which of course have a long history. And what I learned is that it really wasn’t until after WWI that people began to recognize and understand how these were used to shape perceptions.
For example, Germany and Britain were both active in building a case for the United States to either stay out of WWI, or to come in on their side. At the time, German-speaking Americans were the largest foreign language group in America. And the Germans were very open about trying to influence American sentiment toward the German cause. The British, on the other hand, were much less transparent. The British understood that they could control the information infrastructure, including how news and war stories came from Europe. So everything went through some serious censorship. And that censorship was behind the scenes. It wasn’t until after the war, when the vast amount of British censorship became apparent that people grew very concerned about the potential negative effects of such actions.
And then there was Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was reluctant to get the U.S. into WWI, but once he was in, he dedicated himself to it, and he created an American propaganda campaign so strong that many of the themes still echo today through messages like American exceptionalism and the role that America plays as an international force for democracy and good.
Propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, and censorship are very important subjects today—but given the current media landscape, they’re not the same as they were during the last century, are they?
No, they’re not, because today there are so many information channels people can utilize. It was the rise of mass media that truly changed our understanding and perception of propaganda. But what we’re seeing now is the dissolution of mass media into this fractured media environment.
For example, during WWI if you said anything negative against the war or against the government, that was treasonous. There were laws and the state could and did threaten to shut down newspapers. Try to pass or enforce a law like that now and people wouldn’t stand for it. And yet, what we see today is entire media organizations openly dedicated to defining narratives, using propaganda mechanisms, and basically effecting censorship through noise.
By that I mean, since it is now nearly impossible in the internet age to make it so no one hears a message, you instead make sure people hear lots and lots and lots of disrupting, conflicting messages, which leads to a high level of distrust—that’s censorhip through noise. For example, instead of the “big lie” being one message that’s being put forward, what we’re really seeing is hundreds of little lies about the 2020 election that can lead to the big truth getting lost for some. Because in today’s information world it is more effective to destroy and disrupt messages than to build support around a common narrative.
In the second section of the book you explore the tech and media landscape, and you write about the library’s trusted role in our evolving knowledge infrastructure. The key takeaway about libraries for me was your obliteration of the idea that libraries are or can be neutral. Can you briefly explain why libraries are not neutral?
The idea I keep coming back to throughout the book is this notion of a knowledge infrastructure, right? And by that I mean the mechanisms by which we come to know the world—what we believe, what we hold as facts, how we see different people, different areas, different countries. And if you think about it, it is simply impossible to conclude that any of our information sources are neutral or somehow objective.
Rather, when we talk about presenting multiple viewpoints on a topic, we are talking about choices that people make. And choices that people make are not neutral. I’m not neutral. Publishers aren’t neutral. Newspapers aren’t neutral. And so public libraries, which are very much crafted by the people in their communities making choices, are not neutral.
In fact, public libraries in the U.S. were built out of an activist movement, the same movement that led to women’s suffrage and public education. During the rise of public libraries in the late 1800s there was a push for libraries to begin collecting fiction. That was not a neutral choice. There were newspaper editorials at the time arguing against bringing this filth into our libraries and leading our children astray. But libraries stuck with it to the point where, today, we say, “Well, that’s what libraries do.” Well, that’s what libraries do because librarians fought to make that what libraries do. And that did not come from a neutral standpoint, but from an activist standpoint.
None of this is new, of course. But if it seems more controversial these days, I think it’s because librarians tend to subscribe to a scientific, rationalist world, and that is under attack these days. But I also think that we’re increasingly recognizing that institutions don’t make choices, people do.
For example, with the Black Lives Matter movement we’re seeing librarians seeking to have dialogues around racial and social justice issues. It’s librarians who are asking, “how do we represent other viewpoints, other races, and other creeds? How do we bring multiple, different perspectives into our catalogues?” And we’re also seeing some public library board members push back against these actions as being non-neutral. But the reality is, if you’re not pushing forward with an agenda of anti-racism, you’re suppressing. And there’s nothing neutral about that.
As I was reading the book, the U.S. was being hit by a wave of ransomware attacks. And it struck me that we used to understand war as nations battling with bombs and armies. Yes, information was part of war, but it was behind the scenes. Today, however, it seems to me that an adversary can cripple a nation’s infrastructure with a laptop and an internet connection. So I have to ask: Is the information realm now the theater of war itself? And if that’s true, what does peace look like?
That is a fabulous question. Because what we’re dealing with now are not just armies, but non-state actors and cybercrimes. Yet governments keep falling back on an old metaphor—conflict.
Look at it this way, I grew up during the War on Drugs. I grew up on information war, on a steady diet of having to identify an opponent and having to put things into a non-nuanced perspective. But after decades of a failed War on Drugs, how do you stop seeing drugs as an enemy and pivot to treating addiction as a disease? It’s really hard, because we don’t have a powerful metaphor that says, oh, it’s not a war any more. Now it’s...what?
So, what does war look like in the future? And what does peace look like? I don’t know. But that’s such an important question, because it recognizes how vital the information realm is, and how we’re all trained to see information through a filter of conflict, where there are people who agree with us and people who don’t agree with us and they become enemies or allies. And that’s a problem, because it makes it hard for some people to accept facts or come to common understandings.
You also write about the rise of massive scale computing and how so much of our lives are now influenced by AI, data collection, algorithms, and automation. And I’m sorry for this, but it made me think about the Terminator movies: As our powerful information technology continues to grow so rapidly, can we humans defeat the machines?
Yes, humans can absolutely defeat the machines [laughs]. With the advent of the internet has come massive-scale computing, and yes we’re seeing massive gains in data collection and artificial intelligence. But I think we are also getting to the point of taking a breath and recognizing that things are going in directions that we’re not happy with. We’re definitely seeing this in social media, right? We’ve only had social media around for a relatively short time, and we’re starting to realize its true cost and impact, for example, with the January 6 insurrection, or the Covid-19 vaccine. And while we’re not quite sure what to do about it in this moment, I’m confident that we can figure that out.
My larger concern is that people don’t realize that we can make changes. That it’s a human choice about how far we want technology to go. That it is a human choice about how invasive we want technology to be, about what business models we’re going to allow or not, or what curbs we’re going to put on them. It’s when we begin to surrender our individual agency as people, as citizens in a society, because we think technology is too big, or too complicated, or too special, well, that’s when the machines can win.
In the book, you argue that we need to rethink our knowledge infrastructure. Can you give us a broad point or maybe a first step toward what a rethinking of our knowledge infrastructure might look like?
So, the knowledge infrastructure I write about consists of people. We’re all part of it. And right now, at this point in history, we’re all part of it in a very different way than we were in the past. So in the last section of the book I explore various factors—the people, policies, technology, the sources of information—and I look at some things that I think can make for a more humane and effective knowledge environment.
It all comes down to a fundamental question: where will we allow these technologies to go? Historically, we have let the military and industry drive a lot of the uses of technology, and I think we’re out of balance now. I think we need to look more closely at the public good. We need to look at how we can foster agency and understanding so that as individual citizens operating in this world and learning about this world we can trust the knowledge infrastructure and, critically, see ourselves in it. Because, if we can’t, these powerful technologies and policies can become a way of controlling what we can do and what we can know. And that scares the hell out of me.
R. David Lankes is the Virginia & Charles Bowden Professor in Librarianship at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information. His previous books include The Atlas of New Librarianship (MIT); and The New Librarianship Field Guide (MIT).