‘My thoughts today are stimulated by a sense of unease.’ Dr Cherian George, a Singaporean writer and academic, made it clear from the beginning that his plenary speech would cover some uneasy truths. Indeed, the propositions he put forth suggested that what is portrayed in the media is not always what it seems. Quite the contrary, mainstream media often adjusts truths to regulate the opinion of the masses. However, it is in such an ambiguous landscape that he believes the role of librarian as ‘custodians and curators’ of information is more important than ever.
George established that both journalists and librarians share a strong belief in the power of public knowledge. Yet he called to question the common assumption that access to knowledge alone was sufficient by introducing the term ‘unknown knowns’, taking inspiration from Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous quote.
The ‘unknown knowns’, George explained, encompass truths known by the authorities but rendered opaque to the public. Governments and corporations alter the angle of news content and their order of priority, presenting ‘truthiness’ to the masses – convincing but skewed versions of the truth. To illustrate this, he made reference to questionable reports discrediting Global Warming as ‘hoax’, suggesting the possible involvement of conglomerates who might not favour cutting carbon emissions.
Yet what George fears the most is the phenomenon of ‘information impunity’, where the public is aware of the truth but chooses to avoid it. This goes beyond the question of access and distribution of knowledge to the very psyche of mass media consumers. Even though we live in the most information-rich society in human history, this immense potential may ultimately be undermined by the individual’s general sense of apathy and preference of the status quo. Drawing an analogy from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, he compared Julia’s disinterest at the protagonist’s efforts in exposing the Big Brother censorship to the indifference of many citizens today.
In his conclusion, George was careful not to offer simple answers. When asked by an audience member if he could identify a place and time in history when the media rose to the occasion, he simply answered ‘no’. It is clear that in George’s mind, the media has a long way to go in fulfilling its key moral purpose, which is, as Roger Silverstone puts it, to provide ‘resources for judgment’. He encouraged all librarians to remain vigilant and discerning and to continue serving as important guardians of authoritative and authentic information in society.
The full text of Cherian George’s speech is now available.