When I received an email asking me if I would be interested in a review copy of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything by F.S. Michaels, I was intrigued by the book’s description:

As human beings, we’ve always told stories: stories about who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. Now imagine that one of those stories is taking over the others, narrowing our diversity and creating a monoculture. Because of the rise of the economic story, six areas of your world — your work, your relationships with others and the environment, your community, your physical and spiritual health, your education, and your creativity — are changing, or have already changed, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And because how you think shapes how you act, the monoculture isn’t just changing your mind — it’s changing your life.

A book about the stories we tell about ourselves and one story in particular that is getting out of control? Ok, I’m in!

Before starting the book I tried to think of what story it might be about and decided that technology was the most likely candidate. But I was wrong. The story is economic. But let me back up a bit.

The governing pattern that culture obeys is a master story – one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture.

The monoculture story invades every aspect of our lives and colors the way we approach issues and talk about things. A monoculture doesn’t mean everyone believes the same thing, but it ends up acting as a shared belief and assumptions about who we are.

Michaels focused on the United States and a little on Canada in her examination of the economic monoculture. The economic monoculture isn’t just about money, it is much bigger than that. The story says that we are all individuals who “fundamentally exist apart from others.” It also says that we are rational. Rational here means that when faced with making a decision about something we go through a 3-step process: 1) examine all the ways you can reach your goal (the story assumes you know what your goals are) and determine the costs and benefits of each possibility; 2) figure out what the most efficient option is, in other words, which one gets you what you want for the least cost to you in personal resources; 3) choose the most efficient option because the most efficient option is always the best choice. The economic story also says that everyone is self-interested, always looking out for our own best interests and acting accordingly. The story says that you know yourself and what you want, what you prefer, what makes you happy and that you can never have enough, your wants are unlimited. But the world has limited resources so there isn’t enough to go around.

The world is also made of markets run on the basis of supply and demand. If you can’t afford something or your wages are too low or you lose your job, nobody is to blame but the market. How you navigate in the markets and your experience of them is determined by how much information you have and the quality of that information. When the economy grows, life gets better for everyone.

These are the basic tenets of the economic story. Michaels does a great job of laying them out in an easy to understand way that makes sense and left me with a creeping dread the more I read. I won’t go into all the areas Michaels examines but I will say that I was pretty convinced by the time I got to the discussion on libraries.

The economic story has affected the way governments do business. It used to be that programs were created because they were deemed a public good. But now everything is going private and the approach is one of business. A worthwhile government program has become one in which the government gets a good return on its investment.

Libraries used to operate under the belief that books changed lives and that civilization rested on the foundation of a literate and educated population. The purpose of public libraries was to improve people through books. Apparently librarians in the 1940s and 50s used to argue over whether “light” fiction should be allowed on the library shelves because it was considered entertainment. Because libraries were viewed as a public good, they existed outside the market, preserving the human record and embodying intellectual freedom.

When the economic story spread to the library,

library services become understood as a market, and what goes on in markets starts happening at the library. Information is transformed from a social good that helps to develop informed citizens into something to buy and sell and profit from The library becomes an information business in the information services industry and starts to focus on what businesses focus on: customer service, cutting costs, efficiency, productivity….

Library patrons become customers, and libraries start to gathering information about customer needs and wants through market research. Libraries become worth supporting not because they are a public good, but because they respond to customer needs.

And so libraries start to look like and be run like bookstores and libraries have to “market” themselves, keep track of numbers to prove they are a good return on investment. Libraries sell naming rights to different spaces within the building and the previously neutral public space is no longer neutral but an advertisement for big business. You also get governments outsourcing the running of public libraries to private companies who say they can run the library cheaper and more efficiently than the librarians who have been working there for years. This has actually happened in several California counties.

I enjoyed, if enjoy is the word, the book very much. Sometimes I thought the issues were too simply boiled down and lost a bit of complexity. But overall it was somewhat of an eye opener. I mean some of the things I was aware of, but others like the decline of community and the public good, were presented from such an interesting angle that I had to stop and consider my assumptions about what I knew and how I saw things. I didn’t always agree with everything, but I found the book to be greatly worthwhile.