Information, they say, likes to be free. And in some cases that is certainly true, but it would be a lie to act like all information is readily available for free to those who want it, because there are some serious costs involved, and some of those are maybe not immediately obvious to those occupying positions of social and economic power. No information is truly free, and access to information predicates a lot of things: how people understand society; how people vote; how people interact with each other; whether people have a chance at economic, political, and social self-determination; and more. Thus, it’s critical to talk about how people access information, who accesses it, and how this intersects with class.
As a college-educated person, I immediately have doors open to me that are not available to people with high school diplomas, equivalency certificates, or neither. I know how to use libraries, and I have a network of people who can help me access texts that might otherwise be off-limits, as well as academic journals, newspapers, and other sources of information. If I don’t want to pay for a subscription to something, chances are that I know someone who has a subscription, either because she’s chosen to buy one or because she’s affiliated with an institution that provides it, and I can use her resources to help me get the thing I need.
I also know how to hunt down informational resources, thanks to my experiences in college. If, for example, I want to find out more information about scientific research into a specific area of interest, I know which journals to start with, the kinds of keywords to use, where to look for more data. All of this can help me pull together a sizable package of resources to look up and use. This information may be ‘free’ in the sense that it is readily available to the public or can be, ahem, accessed in a way that is free to me, but it is not ‘free’ in the sense of costing nothing.
It actually costs rather a lot. It cost me four years of higher education during which I learned how to research and collect data, and during which I started to establish a network of contacts who could help me locate resources. It cost me painstaking years of building up a post-college network of people from academic librarians to fellow journalists to researchers. These things, my ability to build them and access them, are predicated on social and economic class. They aren’t free. A brand new high school graduate doesn’t have them and won’t acquire them without effort, especially if that graduate comes from a low-income background and a family without a history of higher education.
When I look for news, I take advantage of resources all over the world. Again, my knowledge of these resources—just knowing that they exist, let alone knowing how and where to find them—came at a cost. Not everyone is born knowing about where to find news and with the awareness of which sources are most likely to be reliable and where to find specific information. Not everyone magically knows the political slant of every major newspaper around the world (something which, to be fair, I don’t know!), and not everyone is familiar enough with the culture and politics of other regions to read the news in a well-informed and conscientious manner; this all needs to be learned and it’s a continuous process.
This is not free. And it’s time to stop talking about information like it’s free, because this implies that people who don’t have that information are willfully uninformed or stupid, when often, they’re not. They’re working with what they have, which is resources far more limited than those available to those of us who sit in positions of privilege. We can sneer at people who don’t read The Economist (it’s online! you can read articles for free!) or we can talk about media literacy and who has access to what kind of media, and who is able to interpret the information found therein. This all comes at a cost, and the ability to access and use ‘free’ information is determined by where you went to school, how long you stayed in school, your social and economic background.
Someone who grew up in a low-income area and attended an underfunded school with limited library resources is not going to have the same facility with information that someone who attended a rich private school, or a well-funded public one, does. There’s a clear disparity between someone who can freely make use of a huge, well-stocked school library with multiple librarians and technicians, orientation classes, and more, backed by a curriculum of informative, helpful classes with small sizes and personalised attention, and someone struggling in classes of 30 or more students with a school library the size of a broom closet and a single librarian who can only be there part time. These two people are not equivalent.
Especially since one might go home to a house where people subscribe to multiple publications, talk about the news with each other, and have home computers that can be used for further research and acquisition of information, while the other might go home to a house with a single partially-filled bookshelf, or no books at all, and parents too busy working to read the news, let alone talk about it. Before these two students have even reached adulthood, they’re facing informational disparities and a huge gulf in media literacy.
When one of them isn’t good at evaluating news sources, has trouble finding information, and relies on a limited list of resources for information, are we really going to blame that person? Is it her fault for only listening to Fox News when she’s never been exposed to other media, nor has she been taught about how to locate and use alternative news sources? Sure, we could make fun of her, or we could ask each other why media literacy is treated as something ‘everyone has,’ rather than something that requires time and privilege.