Critical Data Studies in Kesh

Ursula Le Guin writes in Always Coming Home (1985):

PAN: You destroy valuable books?

ARC: Oh, yes. Who wants to be buried under them?

PAN: But you could keep important documents and valuable literary works in electronic storage, at the Exchange, where they don’t take up any room–

ARC: The City of Mind does that. They want a copy of everything. We give them some. What is “room”—is it only a piece of space?

PAN: But intangibles—information–

ARC: Tangible or intangible, either you keep a thing or you give it. We find it safer to give it.

PAN: But that’s the point of information storage and retrieval systems! The material is kept for anyone who wants or needs it. Information is passed on—the central act of human culture.

ARC: “Keeping grows; giving flows.” Giving involves a good deal of discrimination; as a business it requires a more disciplined intelligence than keeping, perhaps. Disciplined people come here, Oak Lodge people, historians, learned people, scribes and reciters and writers, they’re always here, like those four, you see, going through the books, copying out what they want, annotating. Books no one reads go; books people read go after a while. But they all go. Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.

Pan then complains that Arc is starting to talk like a utopian, with a long, elegant, persuasive answer for everything. Fine, says Arc. How about ask a few questions.

ARC: Who controls the storage and the retrieval? To what extent is the material there for anyone who wants and needs it, and to what extent is it “there” only for those who have the information that it is there, the education to obtain that information, and the power to get that education? How many people in your society are literate? How many are computer-competent? How many of them have the competence to use libraries and electronic information storage systems? How much real information is available to ordinary, non-government, nonmilitary, nonspecialist, nonrich people? What does “classified” mean? What do shredders shred? What does money buy? In a State, even a democracy, where power is hierarchic, how can you prevent the storage of information from becoming yet another source of power to the powerful—another piston in the great machine?