We All Need More Consensus in Our Lives

Letter From the Executive Director, November 2020

More and more, it seems like our world is increasingly divided into parties on one side or another into haves or have-nots, or into winners and losers, or into one side or another of a particular community. It is a sad state of affairs when only half of the world, or far less, gets what they want, and the rest are forced to simply accept their lot.  

Unfortunately, because of polarization, and—in some areas—because there is more value in having “an issue” with which to battle one’s opposition, there seems to be little desire to find common ground. Rather than working toward a reasonable position that all parties can agree with, too often people dig in and assume a winner-take-all negation posture.   

Thomas Jefferson made an analogy regarding the exchange of ideas that ended with “As he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” This idea also extends to realms outside of the knowledge and learning to which Jefferson was referring. The world needn’t be arranged as a zero-sum exchange, where you are diminished because I now have what you have lost. We can all be better off by finding a win-win path forward to address our problems.

NISO is a consensus body, which brings together people representing organizations from across our diverse community in efforts to work toward shared solutions. The core features of this process are diversity and consensus. If there are issues to be resolved, diversity likely will lead to varying opinions and perspectives on the situation. Working within a framework of fair and agreed-upon rules, parties engage with one another to seek a reasonable solution. The goal of consensus doesn’t mean that everyone so engaged agrees upon all points in the end. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that participants are all seeking the same goal, though that does help. At its base a consensus solution is one in which the result is something that all parties can agree is a reasonable solution. Consensus means there is an absence of sustained objection. 

This is not a clarion call for letting go of one’s core beliefs. Not at all. Rather, it is a recognition that we all need to function together in the same world. One part of that fact is an inherent social compact that relies on some measure of accepting that others exist in the world and that we all need to engage with one another. Believing that the other side is “evil” or a threat prevents us from working toward consensus and the broader public good. This belief tends to feed on itself, tainting both sides and leading to greater polarization, thereby reducing the areas of potential consensus. This could be true in the arena of politics, in international relations, or in the marketplace of publishers, libraries, and software providers. 

Hopefully, the one thing we can take away from the months and years that led to this week is that we need more opportunities to build consensus and to seek ways to find common ground to address matters at hand. We all need to seek more ways to find a path toward consensus. 

On a much, much lighter note, it would be a pity to not highlight a big (pun intended) anniversary this month. Next week we will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the first, and in my opinion one of the greatest, internet memes of all time. On November 12, 1970, on a quiet coastline near Florence, Oregon, the story begins with the sad demise of a whale, whose body ended up on a beach. It ends rather spectacularly with several hundred pounds of explosives, some well-meaning if misguided civil servants, a fleeing crowd of onlookers, and a crushed car. The website explodingwhale.com was first registered in the mid-1990s, and the oldest version captured in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is from November 1999. As an indicator of how far we have come in sharing digital content, there’s a note on that 21-year-old archived page that the 3.5minute  AVI file depicting the event is a “11 meg download which will take you about 25 minutes but its [sic] well worth every second.” A modern cell phone can download an 11MB file in about 4 seconds on a 4G network or in less than a second on a fast broadband connection. Just imagine where we’ll be in another 20 years. Probably still laughing at internet memes. I thought I’d leave you with that, as a way to draw the US election season to a close.


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO