Chapter 8: Information literacy and noöpolitics – Information Literacy


Information literacy and noöpolitics

Andrew Whitworth


This chapter extends a resource-based analysis of politics, or ‘geopolitics’, into the sphere of information, producing a perspective that has been called ‘noöpolitics’. Control over information’s production, accessibility, dissemination and even meaning are conduits for the transmission of cultural hegemony, and noöpolitics also sheds light on how we can be excluded from informational spaces within organisations, and how our working lives and social relationships can be managed through information. These all give rise to competing notions of value. As information literacy is fundamentally about assigning value to information sources, the IL educator must be aware of noöpolitics. The question of what information literacy is for can be analysed as a political question. Contradictions and conflicts may arise between different possible answers to the question. These may give rise to political issues, which could prevent the politics of IL being manifested.

Key words

informational resources





information literacy

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy …. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language(1957, pp. 152–153)


This chapter continues a debate I first engaged with in a chapter published in the collection, Change and Challenge (Whitworth 2007) and then with my book, Information Obesity (Whitworth 2009a). It will summarise ideas I developed in these earlier publications, but not revisit them in depth: interested readers should turn to one of these other works for the necessary detail.

Here, my intention is to take a more explicitly political stance on the question: what is information literacy (IL) for? And if there are different answers to this question – which I will suggest is the case – how might contradictions and conflicts between these different views give rise to political issues? In consequence, how might politics prevent the benefits of IL being manifested? And how can IL educators meet these political challenges?

I begin this task by reviewing the idea of ‘information obesity’ and the environmental model of information, as these are essential foundations for the later discussion. Viewing information as an environmental resource is a metaphor, but like all metaphors, it provides a tool for seeing the world in particular ways. I therefore develop the model by considering how a resource-based analysis of politics – or geopolitics – can be effectively reworked around the environmental model of information to provide a perspective that I call noöpolitics. I want then to suggest that IL education, whether practitioners are aware of this or not, is one route through which noöpolitical issues are contested, resolved and then embedded into the informational environment and the technical and social tools which we use to interact with that environment. These tools include IL. Like all educational activities, IL therefore has unavoidable political implications. Awareness of noöpolitics should therefore become part of the development of IL educators.

The theories which underpin this discussion are relatively complex, and space is limited here. The chapter is also a contribution to a book that is not about political theory but is directed at IL educators, therefore, I have omitted any in-depth discussion of these ideas. My argument is ultimately founded in critical theories such as Habermas’s notion of colonisation (1984/7) and Gramsci’s description of hegemony (1971). For detail see Whitworth (2009a, part 3).

Information abundance and information obesity

It has proven difficult to assess the impact of the huge increases in the quantity of information available to the average person without resorting to metaphor. Information is essentially intangible, but has real effects on the world. Perhaps as a consequence, almost all the terms used to describe its impact make analogies with physical effects. Information overload is one example (Toffler 1970). Here, the image being evoked is of a system, or perhaps a vehicle or beast of burden, suffering under a greater load than it can carry comfortably. The impression is that this is a dangerous situation. Fuses may blow, axles or backs break. Either way the ongoing health of the system, vehicle or beast is threatened. Thus, the term ‘information overload’ brings to mind potentially dramatic and dangerous consequences of having access to a large quantity of information. At the very least, we will suffer a loss in quality of engagement with information, and require new tools and strategies to deal with overload: an argument first made effectively by Bush (1945).

Another metaphor is that of data smog (Shenk 1997). As with information overload, the damaging effects are acknowledged, but here their impact is more insidious. Smog may be invisible, but it remains a pollutant which can gradually overwhelm our defences. We may not realise we are in an unhealthy environment.

Information overload and data smog are both negative metaphors. Put simply, the claim is that there is too much information and its effects are damaging. Such a view may seem natural to us as it has come to dominate the literature, but this is, in itself, a sign of the impact of a metaphor and the way it can affect how we see things. As Morgan says (1999:4):

metaphors imply a way of thinking and a way of seeing that pervade how we understand our world generally …. The metaphor frames our understanding … in a distinctive yet partial way …. In highlighting certain interpretations it tends to force others into a background role.

Contrast these negative metaphors with a more positive phrase, ‘information abundance’. This is rather less frequently used, though see Gandel et al. (2004), and Tennant and Heilmeier (1992). Abundance itself is not really a metaphor, but a synonym for ‘available in large quantities’; nevertheless, there is an analogy being drawn, with information likened to a natural resource. From an abundant resource one can take as much as one needs, without damaging others’ ability to make the most of the resource themselves (cf. Cleveland 1982). In addition, the ease of information production in the modern world means that all of us can contribute to this abundance. Hence, the information commons (Hess and Ostrom 2007) is fertile, ever-evolving and richly diverse.

Yet even here there are concerns about the true impact of this fertility. Gandel et al.’s article (2004) still suggests that abundance is a potential problem rather than a benefit. Quantity is not a substitute for quality (Burns 1991: 54, cited in Gandel et al. 2004); or, rather, it is because of sheer quantity that information of quality is obscured. Abundance obscures information of relevance (Ackoff 1967, cited in Gandel et al. 2004). Over-production of information is also considered problematic by writers such as Keen (2007), who denounces what he calls the ‘cult of the amateur’, and Thompson (2008) who similarly blames the ease of production, as well as the decline in traditional sources of authority and ignorance of the principles of scientific method for the rise in what he calls ‘counterknowledge’. The problem for these authors, and also for Shenk (1997), is a lack of gatekeeping: abundance is a symptom of the decline in checks and balances on who can publish, and what can be published. Rather than seeing this abundance as a fertile, rich and diverse environment, they view it as a chaotic jumble, without signifiers of quality and ultimately, a block on the development of knowledge. The abundance of information can be seen as polluting rather than resourcing, and the information commons damaged by overuse (Hess and Ostrom 2007) rather than sustained.

What must be established is the specific problem that these negative metaphors are highlighting. This is what I attempted to do with the metaphor information obesity. This is intended to evoke a situation in which resources are being consumed, but not used in a productive way to sustain individuals, communities, organisations and societies. Information is not being turned into knowledge and then fed back into the environment to be drawn on later. In more technical terms, information obesity is a block on what Goodwin (2009, cited in Luckin 2010:11) calls ‘cooperative semiosis’:

a continuous transformation process through which signs that are secreted into the environment by people are built upon by others to produce sign operations that create a new environment. Thus action and meaning are built through a social process.

It is this ongoing, continuous and autonomous transformation of their own informational resources that is blocked when individuals, communities and organisations suffer from information obesity. However, this is not caused only by information abundance. As with physical obesity, there are causes at all levels of society, which essentially amount to a failure to manage the abundant resource. The individual, inattentive to what they are consuming and/or unaware of the potentially damaging effects of their indiscriminate consumption, may be seen as blameworthy; countering information obesity at this level may include the raising of awareness and exercises to enhance one’s mental ‘fitness’. There are also structural causes: the power of the information industries which have a financial interest in increasing consumption, and reducing critical attention by consumers to what is on offer. These industries also seek to reduce costs, with a concomitant reduction of quality. Finally, there are community-level causes of obesity which are often overlooked (see Levine 2007); with information obesity these include a neglect of local information resources (such as archives, libraries, museums), the decline in social capital (Putnam 2000), and the increasing tendency for community-level association to be regulated and/or replaced by state or corporate intervention, a process that Habermas (1984/7) has called colonisation.

From geopolitics to noöpolitics

Politics is the study of how decisions are made. It is therefore concerned with how values are assigned to different options and what, indeed, value consists of in particular contexts. Not all decisions are made consciously, and the study of politics must therefore also concern itself with how structures of various kinds – physical structures, organisations, belief systems and so on – affect the way we act, and even the way we think.

The non-living spheres of the Earth, collectively known as the geosphere, and the biosphere, or sphere of life, are among the fundamental bases for politics. Duverger places ‘physical structures’ first in his discussion of the field (1971). This is geopolitics (or sometimes, biopolitics). An excellent example of such an analysis comes at the start of Reischauer and Fairbanks’ history of Japan (1958: 451–6). Starting with the simple geographical fact of those islands’ physical isolation, 115 miles (184 km) from the Asian continent, and also attending to factors such as Japanese terrain, climate and supply of natural resources, Reischauer and Fairbanks build hypotheses about the development of Japanese culture, economy and, ultimately, history. They do so with respect to both the differences between that nation and other peoples, and also between different regions of the country.

Geopolitical factors are not all-important, of course, but because they work at such a fundamental environmental level, their effects can be far-reaching, and cumulative. A simple study of any map will show the tendency of urban areas to cluster around good harbours, important river crossings and other key points of passage. Even where advances in technology (for example, the rise in air travel) cause some geopolitical factors to lose significance over time, extant cities remain important. Environmental feedback loops develop, with a city pulling in investment and cultural resources: transport and communications infrastructure come to centre on it. Inequalities between regions may therefore emerge.

Here we start to see the crossover between geopolitical concerns, rooted in the geosphere and biosphere, and the sphere of information, communication and thought, termed the noösphere (Vernadsky 1945):

Much of what we see in the world around us is the result of interactions of the noösphere with other parts of the environment. This is clearly true of constructed, urban landscapes, in which different types of information interact with natural environments to produce cities and towns …. But even a rural landscape will have been shaped by the knowledge required to farm and manage it, and a wilderness may only be such because it is protected by human legal constructions which ‘fence’ it off from development. Information is as much embedded into, say, a railway viaduct as into a page of the London Financial Times. Indeed, considering why railways were built, it is, at least in part, the same kind of information. (Whitworth 2009a: 5–6)

All the spheres of the Earth are interconnected, and it was my argument in part 1 of Information Obesity (particularly Whitworth 2009a: 20–2), drawing also on the notion of the information commons developed by Hess and Ostrom (2007), that this means we must see concepts such as environmental health, diversity, and sustainability as applying just as much to the informational sphere as the physical ones. A noöpolitical analysis of history, and present politics, is therefore just as valid as geopolitical explanations, and can productively draw on the metaphors already introduced, such as information abundance and its opposite, information scarcity. As Gandel et al. (2004, n.p.) say:

The history of human learning can perhaps best be described in terms of a lack of abundance, or scarcity. Before the invention of moveable type, literacy and learning were placed in the service of the secular or ecclesiastical ruling elites. Sacred and secular texts were copied by hand and stored in imperial palaces or monastic scriptoria for protection from both the elements and prying eyes. The diffusion of knowledge in an era of such scarcity was necessarily slow and highly controlled. Access to learning and knowledge was mediated by privilege and social standing; literacy was limited and rationed both because of the prevailing technologies (e.g., the hand copying and illuminating of manuscripts) and because of the desire to enforce social control …. Until recently, the scarcity of information and of the means to manage it has been a defining character of human history. Political and social orders have rested on a foundation of scarcity, and our management systems have been configured largely to ration, conserve, and optimize the use of scarce resources.

Noöpolitics is interested in where control over informational resources is asserted. The environmental model of information shows that what were once commonly-held resources can be enclosed, fenced off behind legal barriers such as copyright, patents, or Official Secrets Acts, which block the legal exchange of information (see Kranich 2007). Information can be exploited for profit: for example, advertising targeted on consumers depending on what a supermarket ‘loyalty’ card records about their spending habits. Surveillance records not just our physical movements through a space but our navigation of the WWW, e-mails sent and received, contacts on Facebook and so on. In certain cases (see below), information is used as a weapon of war.

One reason why ‘abundance’ can be considered a more positive metaphor than overload or smog – and a more desirable state than scarcity – is that potentially, abundance poses a challenge to controlling and exclusionary practices. If censorship, for instance, blocks access to a particular website, there are likely to be ways to sidestep the blockage and access the information anyway. The more diversity there is in the information environment, the more options are available to searchers. Yet just because a resource is abundant does not mean it spreads itself evenly throughout available space, nor that access to the resource will be free:

In many ways, the markets for knowledge and learning are evolving like those for food. From a planetary perspective, we have the capacity to produce enough food to sustain human life in a reasonable fashion. The problems of nutrition and world hunger relate more to issues of distribution, global politics and economics, and education. (Gandel et al. 2004, n.p.)

We should remember the interconnections of the spheres. Noöpolitical power depends in part upon geopolitical power. Control of physical resources, economic resources, can (though does not always) equate to control of informational resources, and vice versa.

The term ‘noöpolitics’ is not mine, but it has been little used in the literature. At the time of writing, a book edited by Hauptmann et al. (2010) was in press, but no copies were available for consultation. Lazzarato (2004) uses the term to denote power relations that work on the memory and manipulate attention, and this idea is developed further in Terranova’s paper (2007), which is the main prior discussion of noöpolitics that I want to use here.

Terranova explains how control over information’s production, access, dissemination and even meaning are all conduits for the transmission of cultural hegenomy (Gramsci 1971). For Gramsci, hegemony is ‘manufactured’ consent to power and inequality. It does not constitute repression: indeed, a regime that has to resort to repression to retain its status has lost its hegemony. Hegemony denotes not just control, in a Marxian sense, of the economic structures of society, but its cultural and social structures as well; through such a process, crises such as economic difficulties or wars can be deflected, and prevented by the ruling elite from becoming political crises (Adamson 1980: 11). In these latter senses, cultural hegemony is (Terranova 2007: 125):

the process by which, in Stuart Hall’s early formulation, a temporary alliance of dominant groups or historical bloc, ‘strives and to a degree succeeds in framing all competing definitions of reality within their range, bringing all alternatives within their horizon of thought’ (Hall 1977: 333; see also Hall 1996a).

Terranova’s prime example of the noöpolitical construction of hegemony is the production and reproduction of a distorted and deliberately alienating image of Islam by US and other ‘Western’ news agencies. She discusses this with reference to Edward Said’s (1978) work on ‘orientalism’. Hegemonic utterances – in this case the ‘threat’ posed by Islam to the Western ‘way of life’ – are presented as discursive ‘truths’ by confronting the viewer with images of Arabs and other Moslems that are then associated with ‘feelings of anger, fear, hostility and resentment in the majority of the American public’ (Terranova 2007: 133). Terms like ‘terrorism’ are presented without attempts to define them properly: instead, the common mode of argument is to repeat the association, or accusation, rather than providing any justification for it (ibid., via Massumi 2005: 10). Through such hegemonic discourse, the public is persuaded to accept the diffusion of military and corporate objectives into everyday public opinion (see also Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1997: 6). Toffler and Toffler (1997) note a deep coalition of interests here which wield cultural hegemony to help manufacture consent to their own goals and means. (For another view of these issues, with particular emphasis on how children are targeted by these messages, see the film Beyond Good and Evil (Challenging Media 2006).)

Representations like these ‘mediate the apprehension of the world’ (Terranova 2007: 127). It is not the content of these messages that mediates, but the means by which they are constantly produced and reproduced. 24-hour news channels allow a constant bombardment. Hollywood movies are also culpable, including fantasy and other unrelated subjects which nevertheless constantly project an image of ‘the Other’ as dehumanised villains inevitably overcome by ‘necessary’ violence. All in all, according to Terranova (2007: 130), there exist:

new techniques of power (public relations, advertising, communication management, infotainment) to which corresponds another mode of conflict – a regime of information warfare. These techniques of power and regimes of warfare express an important mutation in the means by which the effect of cultural hegemony is accomplished.

This kind of disinformation is directed at multiple targets. In this case, the effects are directed both to ‘Western’ publics, persuading them to back the objectives of the deep coalition. But they also destabilise Moslems too, closing up available discursive spaces: degrading ‘adversaries’ capacity for understanding their own circumstances, and their capacity to make any effective use of whatever correct understandings they might achieve’ (Terranova 2007: 132, via Rothrock 1997).

This kind of political action can be just as damaging at the micro-scale as the macro-. Noöpolitics in the everyday sheds light on how we can be excluded from informational spaces in organisations, how our working lives, social relationships and so on can be managed through information and its manipulation. In a hegemonic discourse, there is (Terranova 2007: 127): ‘a kind of unrepresentability of the subaltern, who cannot speak within the discourse that constitutes her as such (Spivak 1988).’ The very structures and content of language can be used to exclude. The ability to enter particular discourses may be limited to those who have mastered certain jargon, or can put across an argument in particular ways. The legal profession is perhaps the most obvious example of such gatekeeping, but it can happen in more informal ways as well, being part of the socialisation practices which happen in almost all organisations and their subcultures (e.g. Turner 1971). Connell (1980) discussed how media presentations of events such as industrial action used language in subtle ways to define the debate despite claims of impartiality. For example, audiences will hear that ‘hopes are high of a return to work’ whereas there will be ‘fears that the strike will continue’. Whose hopes? Whose fears?

These are linguistic ‘rules’, even genres (Bakhtin 1986) which are pushed at us subtly, but continually. And yet none of this is undertaken through overt censorship, nor on absolute restrictions on who can publish. Indeed, it can sit quite comfortably alongside the great opening-up of communications media. These have ‘made it possible for “anyone in fact to say anything at all” while at the same time sifting all statements “either towards the dominant mainstream or out to the margins”‘ (Said 1997: 392). As already noted, the implication is that increased quantity of information, and increased access to media, lead ultimately to a deterioration in quality. The essential search for relevant information – harder and harder in a state of abundance – has led to the increasing application of (expensive) technologies such as data mining, surveillance, pattern-matching algorithms and so on. The technical ability to store, analyse, filter, process and apply information is thereby a foundation of hegemonic power. Control over these technologies, asserted either by their physical possession or by laws which restrict access and availability, is the noöpolitical equivalent of the medieval fortress which controlled the access points into and out of a strategic region, or the seagoing vessels which could monopolise trade and force the opening of unfriendly ports in the 18 th and 19th centuries.

Competing forms of value

Politics should matter to the IL educator because information literacy is largely concerned with judgements about value (Whitworth 2009a: 11–23; 2009b). In standard IL definitions, such as that of the ACRL (2000), the emphasis is on an individual student’s subjective valuations of the information that they find. The information literate student is one who determines the extent of the information needed, conducts a search and then evaluates its result. Yet there are other forms of value which must come into play and which are addressed by the ACRL guidelines indirectly, if at all. Objective and intersubjective values are also important. These domains of value are what move us away from the sort of subjective judgements we make as very young and self-oriented children, and into higher stages of intellectual development (see Kitchener and King 1981) where we can acknowledge that there are truths which, in different ways, have been validated by others. This validation can take place using the rules of scientific method (including social science); it may also be embedded in a moral or legal code. Validity claims stand behind every utterance or representation, and it is a prerequisite of fair and effective communication that these claims are open to scrutiny and accounted for by the other parties in the communicative exchange (Habermas 1984/7). It is characteristic of the kind of disinformation referred to in the previous section that this precept is at least potentially violated by such communication.

Objective, subjective and in ter subjective value therefore work together to form the complex structure of existing knowledge – what Habermas calls the lifeworld (1987) – against which we must assess the validity of found information (Whitworth 2009b). Without subjective value, individuals would not be able to critically investigate, within specific contexts, the information, values, beliefs and so on that are ‘pushed’ at them by organisations and communities. The result would be ‘groupthink’, defined by Janis (1972: 9) as a situation where ‘[group] members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action’. This not only leads to bad decision making, but stifles creativity; indeed, without subjective value creativity would be impossible. Without objective value, we may come to accept found information, or sometimes entire belief systems, that are widely believed to be valuable but which have no scientific validity. Thompson (2008) calls this counterknowledge and includes within this umbrella term contemporary myths such as creationism and conspiracy theories. Finally, without in ter subjective values such as laws and morals, we risk relativism – the poisoner seeking information on how to manufacture deadly gas, and doing so in accordance with good technical IL practice, would otherwise be seen as legitimate. We must note that economic value is also intersubjective, and there are times when it is appropriate to evaluate information against economic criteria; a way of working or thinking that requires more resources than are available in a company, family or environment is not a sustainable one, and should not be pursued.

In short, though subjective value remains important, intersubjective and objective values are those which have been developed over time precisely to overcome its deficiencies. Scientific method, for instance, is a structure of validation processes intended to ensure that what counts as ‘science’ is based on more than subjective hunches on the part of individual thinkers. Laws, morals and consensual agreements exist to prevent a ‘might makes right’ approach to resolving differences of opinion.

As a theoretical model, it is acceptable to see the three forms of value as interdependent, which I have visualised in the following diagram (first used in Whitworth 2009b); relating the forms of value to other works including Egan’s(1990) models of literacy and Bruce et al.’s (2007) six frames of information literacy (Figure 8.1).

Figure 8.1 Six frames of information literacy

However, the discussion of noöpolitics now allows us to see ways that in practice, values are in competition with each other, and this can distort the information that is available. Subjective value is deficient as the sole basis for judgements partly because of the existence of various cognitive biases which affect how we absorb information from the world (see Whitworth 2009a: 143–6; Blaug 2007). We seek patterns, and are reluctant to admit we are wrong; thus we may not even notice information that challenges our existing beliefs – at best, we can be easily persuaded to ignore or misinterpret the information. We overestimate our powers of prediction and while we will take the credit for our successes, we shift the blame for failure onto others. These are all natural tendencies in our minds, and should not necessarily be seen negatively: cognitive biases like this help us join the world, and overcome what might otherwise be insurmountable egoblocks against taking any decisive action at all. But they can also prevent us from learning (Blaug 2007).

At an intersubjective level, these cognitive biases can be exploited within organisations and communities. These collectives can ‘push’ ways of thinking at individuals. Though this oversimplifies the process somewhat, this largely takes place through reification, another cognitive bias:

Reification (a term best developed by Lukacs 1971) describes the ‘tendency of socially authored structures to appear as real, as external to and independent of, individuals’ (Blaug 2007: 32) … These … become embedded into the sociotechnical systems which we use to organise activity. Scripts and schema are products of prior knowledge and are stored, thus favouring certain activities, ways of thinking, and filtering decisions. Even an information literate actor is not free to determine for themselves the grounds on which they are filtering information, particularly not as much of this may take place before they start conscious cognitive work. But these schema are not necessarily the products of the actors’ prior knowledge and experience. Within organisations, they are as likely to have been designed by others. (Whitworth 2009a: 146)

Reification shifts the intersubjective or subjective to the objective, giving something the status of ‘truth’ when in fact it is just a ‘socially authored structure’. Schema, or ways of thinking, are designed and imposed, and individuals subjected to them are obliged to restrict their own judgements in order that they conform to the schema. For example, employees in an organisation may not pass on information they have gathered which could be in conflict with operational objectives, vision statements or things they otherwise believe the management want to hear. Eventually, they may even stop ‘seeing’ the information altogether. The members of the organisation see the world differently depending on what side of the power divide they are on (Blaug 2007: 39–40).

Failures of learning like these have arguably caused some major institutional collapses of recent years, such as those of Barings Bank and Enron. More generally, pushed cognitive schema can lead to the creativity and self-reflective practices of many employees being disregarded (cf. Robins and Webster 1987: 184). In terms developed by Henry Mintzberg (1989) this represents a deskilling of the professional core and an increased use of the technostructure, being that part of the organisation mandated to plan and control the work of others.

We should also note that procedural rules can be technostructural, and can serve to direct attention towards particular types of information and away from others. In education, assessment criteria fulfil this role. Though there is, almost certainly, no political motivation for the manipulation of students’ information searching in this way, it is difficult to argue that assessment criteria are not consciously designed to direct students’ attention towards particular information and away from others. The argument that this is done for students’ benefit, to help them pass a course and meet instrumental objectives, is beside the point. Whatever the motivation, the result is that students are not free to filter information on purely subjective grounds, as the ACRL (2000) imply.

Thus, noöpolitics becomes manifested in the design of organisations: which are, largely, information-processing systems. It is through such manipulation of cognitive schema that people become excluded from informational spaces. It is because of these subtle organisational processes that we must note the argument from Massumi (2005: 2, via Terranova 2007: 134): ‘that it is too simplistic to see a clear, linear cause-and-effect here, and a conscious and behaviorist manipulation of people’s minds by media’. Stokes (1991) makes the point that not all hegemonic messages are ignorantly absorbed by ‘subordinate’ groups – that, often, it is in fact precisely those in privileged positions to whom the messages are directed. Subordinates, on the other hand, ignore, subvert or parody these kinds of communication.

In addition, we cannot simply say that cognitive schema are damaging. As with the example of student assessment criteria, there may be times when it helps to direct attention. The political question here is not the existence of cognitive schema but the way they have been constructed, and whether they become reified, or instead remain open to continuous review and scrutiny. As with hierarchy, there are times when it helps to give over control of our activity to others: what we must do is remain vigilant (Blaug 1999) over its effects, and learn to see what these structures are often designed to conceal. This is where the politically-aware IL educator can make a difference.

A politically aware information literacy education?

As Bruce et al. (2007) have described, there are several ways of conceiving of IL, each with its own means of justifying, teaching and assessing IL. Not all are oriented towards overcoming cognitive biases, or challenging the colonisation of the lifeworld, the enclosure of informational resources, the deterioration in quality and inequalities in access and power over information. Education is as much a political battleground as other significant shapers of public opinion and activity, such as law and the media. In recent decades, a dominant current in educational practice has been ‘instrumental progressivism’, which ‘arguably forms the basis for educational policy across much of the world’ (Whitworth 2009a: 128). In Robins and Webster (1987: 204–5) it is linked:

directly to the requirements of the corporate sector and its influence over educational policy. The objective is ‘education for flexibility’, and ‘contracts in which students assume responsibility for their own development’, but this is not intended to empower learners to act autonomously in public community life.

The standard model of IL education, epitomised by the ACRL definitions, contains no requirement within it for learners to challenge, or even be aware of, the cognitive schema that are ‘pushed’ at them by hegemonic interests. Nor are measures of competency, interested only in how effectively students retrieve information, sensitive to context. These basic IL competencies are an essential foundation for the construction of knowledge, and thus informational resources, that is true; but they must be applied through engaging in active work with information that, ultimately, must have social impact (cf. Bruce et al. 2007: 41) if it is to work towards the sustenance of informational resources and thus, combat information obesity.

Deprived or disadvantaged communities can be empowered, from within, or with expert, communicatively-rational help, to improve their informational skills and resources (Warschauer 1999; Chapter 4-6), and do so with the intention of transforming their environments, even in the face of opposition and perhaps oppression from vested interests. These learning processes are happening all over the world, usually beneath the radar: hence their power. Remember that physical obesity, and poor health generally, is more likely to affect lower-income and other disadvantaged groups; general environmental quality is also lower in these communities (e.g. higher pollution, less aesthetic value). Applying this judgement to these communities’ information resources is, as this book has tried to show throughout, not just a transfer of a metaphor. It is a real contribution to the lack of control that many people have over their own lives. Information obesity is thus politically disempowering. To reverse its effects requires educational work across a wide spectrum of settings, from the formalised classroom, to the technological development process, the workplace, the local community, the family, and the social movement. (Whitworth 2009a: 193)

Gramsci’s notion of hegemony was not absolute. Within it he recognised that its opposite was not repressed out of existence: that counterhegemonic practices could be knowingly and actively engaged in. Later, Habermas’s related notion of colonisation was similarly juxtaposed with decolonisation. The strength of both ideas comes about because these oppositional forces are not abstract, idealistic states or thought experiments, like a fictional Utopia, but activities which can be engaged with in everyday situations, where any political act (the assignation of value, the formation of opinion, the making of a decision) is taking place. Attempts to reach a consensus rather than impose a viewpoint; opening up resources for public use that were previously inaccessible (perhaps by a change in a law or procedure, perhaps by scholarly work, translation, or tagging); empowering individuals or communities to undertake research work aimed at solving a problem they face (cf. Levine 2007; Whitworth 2009a: 195–8); all these are the sort of work engaged in by what Gramsci called ‘organic intellectuals’. For Gramsci, the whole of society is a school, with the ‘intellectuals’ including not only scholars but ‘anyone whose social functions is to serve as a transmitter of ideas within civil society’ (Adamson 1980: 142–3). Institutions that encourage the maturation of organic intellectuals must be developed as part of a transformative process that ‘allows “every citizen to govern” or at least, places him or her “in a general condition to achieve this [capacity]”‘ (Adamson 1980: 144, via Gramsci 1971: 40).

This kind of educational work does not simply designate some representations as ‘bad’ and seek to replace them with ‘good’ ones – for such a view is just relativist. Instead, intersubjective values are developed by showing ‘how all representations are constructed, for what purposes, by whom and with what components’ (Said, 1994: 280, cited in Terranova, 2007: 127). Ultimately, information literacy requires not just the ability to retrieve information but to critique it, scrutinise it, as essential aspects of the filtering process; because of cognitive bias this critique should be conducted not against subjective value alone but also against objective and intersubjective criteria. It requires a sense of the scientific validity and the public value of the information, as well as its content, and how well it meets subjective needs.

‘Public value’ is a term which has recently risen in stature in political discourse. Moore’s 1995 book, Creating Public Value, is the usual citation, and was a work oriented towards managers of public institutions. This is a useful perspective, and one echoed by writers such as Senn Breivik and Gee (2006), which emphasise the role of the library here. I have not really mentioned these institutions at all in this chapter, which is not to dismiss their historic role and usefulness in these endeavours. Libraries are essential resources for a community, however defined; both in their existence as repositories, and as contact points with trained information professionals. But they cannot act as the drivers of transformation. Librarians are specialists in the retrieval of information, but not its creation (Whitworth 2009a: 102).

Counterhegemonic and decolonising activity must come from the bottom up. It takes place wherever communities and individuals, otherwise kept apart, come together to reach some kind of understanding, communicate across boundaries and engage in shared activity without resorting to hierarchy. This is not to say all such work is effective in bringing about change. Yet one of the strengths of a noöpolitical analysis is that it shows not only what issues must be addressed, but the challenges which will be faced. Hegemony works partly by keeping communities and publics polarised, whether through creating clearly-defined roles in organisational structures, or using stereotypes, language and disinformation to do so in culture and the media: as with the discussion of ‘orientalism’ already referred to. This fragmentation is enhanced by information overload (Shenk 1997) and:

‘the conditions for a colonisation of the lifeworld are met’ (Habermas 1987: 355), as diffused ‘local cultures’ cannot be sufficiently co-ordinated. Lacking, then, any intersubjective ways of valuing and filtering information, and of then turning this information into knowledge and other resources which will be useful to them in the future, these local cultures – individuals and communities – are half-encouraged, half-forced to adopt merely a passive role with respect to the information flowing around their activity systems, and as a result, become obese on it … (Whitworth 2009a: 132).

Examples of practice which engage with this kind of critical, emancipatory work exist, though they are rarely called ‘IL education’. Critical media literacy or media studies, dismissed as it always will be by those with vested interests in the broadcast media who (rightly) see it as one of the few challenges to their hegemony, makes only one appearance in Beetham et al.’s (2009) list of exemplars of UK IL education, but it is there, as is the ACME site at (accessed 26 May 2010). Warschauer (1999: 189) describes an example of ‘Cyber service learning’, where students’ literacy (including, but not limited to, information literacy) work was devoted to producing material relevant to the relatively deprived and ethnically diverse community which was located around the University of Hawaii. This work was not just an example of student activism but was connected specifically to ‘structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development’ (Jacoby 1996: 5), and thus accreditable by the formal institution. Bruce (2008) has studied what he calls the process of ‘community inquiry’ as manifested in the Paseo Boricua district of Chicago, an underprivileged immigrant neighbourhood. His work is motivated by the same assumptions that drive all these and other examples of emancipatory education:

First, there is the assumption people can both understand the world and act through some sort of collective process. Second, this community inquiry is needed for social progress, because individual thought and action is too often dormant, scattered, or even counter-productive. Third, the process of community inquiry is itself integral to social progress, in fact is part of what social progress means. Finally, community inquiry is fundamental to moral action and development. (Bruce 2008: 5)


It is a shame to end this discussion with such a cursory review of practice in this area, but the aim of this article was merely to raise awareness of the possibilities. As Blaug (1999) says, hierarchism – a hegemonic belief system – works effectively to direct our awareness away from ongoing activity like this. Instead we are persuaded to believe that work like this is difficult or even impossible, and/or undesirable. It is exactly the process of ‘learning how to see’ decolonising, counterhegemonic work that is the important thing. I hope this chapter has at least started its readers on such a path. As I have said before:

Information is a resource, and could be managed in ways that not only keep it abundant, but retain its quality, accessibility and the possibility that from it, knowledge may emerge in users, and be communicated and shared. That said, neglect could lead to the pollution or deterioriation of this resource. Do we have the capacity to train our minds and adjust our systems to cope with this latest, ICT-generated boost to the noösphere’s dynamism and abundance? Or will we and our systems overload and shut down? In this question lies the move from information obesity to a healthier, more sustainable diet of information. (Whitworth 2009a: 50–1)


Ackoff, R. Management Misinformation Systems. Management Sciences. 1967; 14(4):B147.

ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries), Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. 2000. last accessed 26 May 2010, Available at.

Adamson, W. Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 1980.

Arquilla, J., Ronfeldt, D. A new epoch – and spectrum – of conflict. In: Arquilla J., Ronfeldt D., eds. In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997.

Bakhtin, M. Speech Genres and Other Essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press; 1986.

Beetham, H., McGill, L., Littlejohn, A., Thriving in the 21st Century: Learning Literacies for the Digital Age, Glasgow. The Caledonian Academy. 2009 Available at, accessed 10 April 2010.

Blaug, R. The Tyranny of the Visible: Problems in the Evaluation of Anti-Institutional Radicalism. Organization. 1999; 6(1):33–56.

Blaug, R. Cognition in a Hierarchy. Contemporary Political Theory. 2007; 6(1):24–44.

Bruce, C., Edwards, S., Lupton, M. Six frames for information literacy education: a conceptual framework for interpreting the relationships between theory and practice. In: Andretta S., ed. Change and Challenge: Information Literacy for the 21st Century. Auslib: Adelaide; 2007:37–58.

Bruce, B.C., From Hull House to Paseo Boricua: the theory and practice of community inquiryDicher B., Luduçan A., eds. Philosophy of Pragmatism (II): Salient Inquiries, Cluj-Napoca, Romania: Editura Fundaiei pentru Studii Europene (European Studies Foundation Publishing House), 2008. Available at. [accessed 26 May 2010].

Burns, C. Three Mile Island: the information meltdown. In: Horton F., Jr., Lewis D., eds. Great Information Disasters: Twelve Prime Examples of How Information Mismanagement Led to Human Misery, Political Misfortune, and Business Failure. London: Aslib; 1991:54.

Bush, V., As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly. July 1945 available at, accessed 26 May 2010.

Challenging Media. Beyond Good and Evil. available at, 2006. [(accessed 26 May 2010)].

Cleveland, H. Information as a Resource. The Futurist. 1982; 16(6):34–39.

Connell, I. Television news and the social contract. In: Hall S., ed. Culture, Media, Language. London: Hutchinson; 1980:139–156.

Duverger, M. The Study of Politics. New York: Crowell; 1971.

Egan, K. Romantic Understanding: The Development of Rationality and Imagination, Ages 8–15. London: Routledge; 1990.

Gandel, P., Katz, R., Metros, S. The ‘Weariness of the Flesh’: Reflections on the Life of the Mind in an Era of Abundance. EDUCAUSE Review. 2004; 39(2):40–51.

Goodwin, C., Calibrating bodies and cognition through interactive practice in a meaningful environment. Keynote speech. Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Conference 2009, Rhodes, Greece. 2009.

Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. London: Lawrence & Wishart; 1971.

Habermas, J. The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society. London: Heinemann; 1984.

Habermas, J. The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 2: Lifeworld and System – A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Cambridge: Polity; 1987.

Hall, S. Culture, media and the ideological effect. In: Curran J., Gurevitch M., Woollacott J., eds. Mass Communication and Society. London: Arnold, 1977.

Hall, S. The relevance of Gramsci for the study of race and ethnicity. In: Morley D., Chen K.-H., eds. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Hauptmann, D., Niedich, W., Mustafa, A.-K., Cognitive Architecture: From Bio-politics to Noo-politics. forthcoming publication, 2010.

Hess, C., Ostrom, E., Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge, 2007. [MA: MIT Press].

Jacoby, B. Service Learning in Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 1996.

Janis, I. Victims of Groupthink. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin; 1972.

Keen, A. The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture and Assaulting our Economy. London: Nicholas Brearley; 2007.

Kitchener, K., King, P. Reflective Judgement: Concepts of Justification and their Relationship to Age and Education. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 1981; 2(2):89–116.

Kranich, N. Countering enclosure: reclaiming the knowledge commons. In: Hess C., Ostrom E., eds. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2007:85–122.

Lazzarato, M. La politica dell’evento. Cosenza: Rubbettino; 2004.

Levine, P. Collective action, civic engagement and the knowledge commons. In: Hess C., Ostrom E., eds. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2007:247–276.

Lukacs, G. History and Class Consciousness. London: Merlin; 1971.

Luckin, R. Redesigning Learning Contexts: Technology-rich, Learner-centred Ecologies. London: Routledge; 2010.

Massumi, Brian, The Future Birth of the Affective Fact. Conference Proceedings: Genealogies of Biopolitics, 2005. Available at, accessed 26 May 2010.

Mintzberg, H. Mintzberg on Management. London: Collier Macmillan; 1989.

Moore, M. Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1995.

Morgan, G. Images of Organization, 2nd edn. London: Sage; 1999.

Orwell, G. ‘Politics and the English language’, in Inside the Whale and Other Essays. London: Penguin; 1957. [pp. 143–57].

Putnam, R.D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2000.

Reischauer, E., Fairbanks, J. East Asia: The Great Tradition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin; 1958.

Robins, K., Webster, F. The Technical Fix: Education, Computers and Industry. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan; 1987.

Rothrock, J. Information warfare: Time for some constructive skepticism? In: Arquilla J., Ronfeldt D., eds. In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997.

Said, E. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin; 1978.

Said, E. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage; 1994.

Said, E. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. London: Vintage; 1997.

Senn Breivik, P., Gee, E.G. Higher Education in the Internet Age: Libraries Creating a Strategic Edge. Westport, CT: Praeger; 2006.

Shenk, D. Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. New York: Harper Collins; 1997.

Spivak, G. Can the subaltern speak? In: Nelson C., Grossberg L., eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988.

Stokes, S. Hegemony, Consciousness, and Political Change in Peru. Politics & Society. 1991; 19(3):265–290.

Tennant, H., Heilmeier, G. Knowledge and equality: Harnessing the tides of information abundance. In: Leebaert D., ed. Technology 2001: The Future of Computing and Communications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Terranova, T. Futurepublic: On Information Warfare, Bio-racism and Hegemony as Noopolitics, Theory. Culture & Society. 2007; 24(3):125–145.

Thompson, D. Counterknowledge. London: Atlantic; 2008.

Toffler, A. Future Shock. London: Bodley Head; 1970.

Toffler, A., Toffler, H. Introduction. In: Arquilla J., Ronfeldt D., eds. In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997.

Turner, B. Exploring the Industrial Subculture. London: Macmillan; 1971.

Vernadsky, V. The Biosphere and the Noösphere. American Scientist. 1945; 33:1–12.

Warschauer, M. Electronic Literacies: Language, Culture and Power in Online Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 1999.

Whitworth, A. Communicative competence in the information age: towards a critical theory of information literacy education. In: Andretta S., ed. Change and Challenge: Information Literacy for the 21st Century. Auslib: Adelaide, Australia; 2007:85–113.

Whitworth, A. Information Obesity. Oxford: Chandos; 2009.

Whitworth, A. Teaching in the Relational Frame: The Media and Information Literacy Course at Manchester. Journal of Information Literacy. 2009; 3(2):25–38.