Beyond the Bomb Builder at the Reference Desk – When Information Has Social Costs

A standard ethical question raised in library school classes is some variation of dilemma of the hypothetical bomb builder who comes to the reference desk asking for information. You’re the reference librarian–what do you do? David Wessel in “Better Information Isn’t Always Beneficial,” in the Wall Street Journal (free) points to more subtle cases of information ethics in which technology makes it easier and faster to obtain information that has detrimental social costs, such as finding out which judge is more likely to grant you a patent or rigging Congressional districts so that one party is guaranteed to win. Librarians tend to think that more information is always better and anything less is censorship. These examples, however, call that view into question. Discussion of the social costs of the use of information fits into standard five of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education to “understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally.”

5 thoughts on “Beyond the Bomb Builder at the Reference Desk – When Information Has Social Costs”

  1. Good observations Marc. I was a bit concerned about the link to WSJ – because you often can’t get to their content unless you are a subscriber – but apparently you managed to find some free content on their site.

  2. Marc:

    Thanks for the tip. I just subscribed. I think that’s the new thing I learned today. But they do point out for most of their feeds that only subscribers get the full text. How nice of them to offer one feed of free stuff.

  3. Okay, here’s an example of the misuse of information: just about everything Karl Rove does with it. (Hey, how obnoxiously partisan can we be here?) Seriously, I’ve been amazed at the nefarious ways personal information – bought off the shelf – can be used not just for trying to get me to buy things but to shape public opinion and, ultimately, world events. It’s spooky and cynical.

  4. Politics is about trying to shape public opinion and world events. Those that want to shape public opinion and world events can choose a career in politics.

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