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February 5, 2004

Scott Silverman (Information Services)
What's So Informative About Information?...
Or: Does Information Say Anything Intellectuals Value--
Whether They Ought To or Not?

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Scott opened this conversation by acknowledging, first, "what had been advertised":

  • the connections and disjunctions between information and knowledge;
  • information's (de?) valuation of intellectualism; and
  • how particular definitions of "intellectual" work (or don't).
He then gave the pre-history of that advertisement, his suggestion last September that this group might consider together
  • When and in what circumstances did "information" enter into the lexicon of English and its major western European counterpart languages?
  • What circumstances and factors shaped its placing in the lexicon? Did the development of the modern scientific method have anything in particular to do with it?
  • When and how did "information" as an adjective enter into the suite of social sciences in the guise of "information science"? What is its special relationship to "library science"?
  • Does "information" mean anything that intellectuals value? Is it okay yet--will it ever be?--to accept it as a substitute for "knowledge"?

Scott turned next to a "highly selective cultural history of information in the West over the last 500 years": a claim that the "Information Revolution" was not a shocking explosion, but the result of a series of smaller revolutions in communications and transportation. The Web is the watershed event in the information revolution, but its two "killer applications" are (not the personal computer, the internet generally, nor hypertext particularly) but rather t.v. and, before it, the decisive carrier: the printed book, which appeared--was invented--towards the end of the 15th century. Everything since then gave agency to this artifact and carrier of the modern world.

As an exercise in exploring the dimensions of this claim, Scott offered a series of three paired quotes, not in opposition but in tension:

First, what computers produce and exchange --information--is epistemologically different from and perhaps even antithetical to the categories of thought and communication that intellectuals have traditionally produced and offered to the public. Those categories include culture, knowledge, wisdom, social criticism, and negation or even nihilism (often with redemptive or utopian implications).
--Patrick Brantlinger,
"Professors and Public Intellectuals in the Information Age." Shofar 21, 2 (Spring 2003): 125.
In virtual culture, knowledge is literally vacuumed from all the orifices of the body, society, and economy, downloaded into data storage banks, and then sampled and resampled across the liquid media-net, and all this in perfect synch with the expansionary momentum of the recombinant commodity-form. When knowledge is reduced to information, then consciousness is stripped of its lived connection to history, judgment and experience. What results is the illusion of an expanded knowledge society, and the reality of virtual knowledge. Knowledge, that is, as a tightly controlled medium of cybernetic exchange where thought has a disease, and that disease is called information.
--Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein. The Theory of the Virtual Class, Electronic Media and Technoculture. Ed. John Thornton Caldwell. Rutgers Depth of Field Series (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000): 134.

Scott's follow-up query, "has information got nothing on knowing or is getting information to know nothing?" evoked a wide range of responses. It was asserted that the web accelerated--and so brought about a qualitative change in--the process initiated by the book and t.v.: its significance is that it allows individuals to find information specifically meaningful to them. By increasing individuals' freedom from editorial judgments made by others, it encourages precision of personal selection. What is made available to us on the internet, by a larger group of people working independently, is generative for the student whose questions don't fit into library categories. A counterclaim was that this means we don't have to learn to listen to others: an individual can become alienated when he isolates himself from community awareness of other ways of making sense than those idiosyncratic to himself. Yet another position was that, without the systematic indexing of Library of Congress categories (for instance), one may not know how to judge the quality of the the increasing wide array of information available: what is lost here is an announcement of the set of principles in the selection process. It is limiting for a learner to lose the tension between her categories and those of the systems "out there." Is finding one's way by trial and error a wandering adventure or a category crisis? How much learning is taking place if the first "hit" a student gets on Goggle "becomes information," is weighted as more valuable than those appearing lower or later on the screen?

There was a reminder of last week's discussion of "white noise": when many independent sources are added together, does one get increased meaning, or just increased noise? We were also cautioned to understand that Google is not a record of "an organic space of where brains have been," but the result of economics. The order of hits given us by search engines are not free; they have to do with money. Are we actually putting ourselves in a place of our own choice? Are we really having a conversation, if we only talk with others who share our assumptions? There was quite a bit of discussion of "sampling" as a cognitive and artistic activity: how mechanical is the process? How much stripping of "history, judgment and experience" occurs when we do it for ourselves? Has the information revolution actually moved us out of centralized systems with a single imposing value into an arrangement where every person is her own gatekeeper, determining her own set of values? Aren't we still operating within centralized systems and the market? We have not (in the lingo of the old advertisements for money machines) "become our own bankers"; we have just "become our own tellers." Another distinction was made between the web and previous forms of information storage: we have gatekeepers for books because of their costs; we pay for someone to decide what books should be reproduced. But on the web there is no cost for more copies.

Scott then offered us a second pair of quotes "in tension":

An individual actively participates in the acquisition and incorporation of information as knowledge. By extrapolation, knowledge is an artefact, constructed by the individual as part of their paying attention to date, cues and stimuli from the environment, and using the raw material gathered via their senses in knowledge-construction.
--Lelia Green. Communication, Technology and Society. (London: Sage, 2002): 78-79.
Specialists in information management may believe that they (or the machines they oversee, or both) are quite capable of performing the functions of evaluation, understanding, interpretation, teaching, and critique, but such specialists are typically narrowly focused technicians with minimal liberal arts training. Today, on just about every university campus in the world, faculty and students are being wired--that is to say, given computers and perforce required to use them. But every dozen or two-dozen computers seem to require the hiring of at least one technician, spawning a whole new cadre of educational employees. And when a university hires, say, three or four techies, it can no longer hire an additional professor or two. So even if one believes that computers will never replace professors, the creation of the new computer-technical workforce is one way in which the professoriate at large is being downsized.
--Brantlinger (2003)

In response to Scott's query, "Is intellectual vigilance the antidote to the hyper clever?" we speculated that the perceived binary between technies and faculty was false (the real trade-off, it was suggested, has been in the work of secretarial staff, who are not needed for the kinds of filing and typing tasks they once performed). It was claimed, rather, that we do not resist the acquisition of new technical knowledge, that we are now more "highly intolerant of appearing clueless," that many of us are actively engaged in incorporating technology into our work--and that actually technology lags behind our needs of it. Some of us find the web a useful--even revolutionary--force for changing the way the intellectual community does its business. The question was asked, however, whether we were all just "feeders" on this "thing" that is the GNP, the explosion of goods that creates a consumer society. Perhaps we are "trying to put too much of our own agency" into this process, looking for our role in a feedback loop which we are not driving. Are we simply "sampling for an ever-expanding commodity net," re-generating wealth and business for others? What can we "scale" it all by? Our last semester's discussion of the varied uses of numbers and narratives was evoked, in particular the session in which Michelle Mancini showed us how the statistics generated by Henry Mayhew were displaced by his narratives. What is deleted when we leave out numbers, pick apart information and knowledge? Are intellectuals who (think they) understand knowledge duped by their own arrogance? Do we have more meaning, now that we have more information--which requires us to impose more meaning? We are certainly asked to do more decoding.

Scott's final pair of quotations were these:

In the first, oral stage the self is constituted as a position of enunciation through its embeddedness in a totality of face-to-face relations. In the second, print stage the self is constructed as an agent centered in rational/imaginary autonomy. In the third, electronic stage the self is decentered, dispersed, and multiplied in continuous instability.
--Mark Poster. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990): 6.
At one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as "intellectuals" as though there were no others.
--C.P. Snow. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. (Cambridge: University Press, 1959).

With Scott's final sally, "Are intellectuals capable of consciousness sufficient to construct a salable house? Is consciousness prerequisite to building anything?," a characterization of the "unstable, decentered self" as appealing, and reference to a long-standing conversation sponsored by the Center for Science in Society regarding The Two Cultures, we dispersed until next week.

On Thursday, February 12, Sandy Schram of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research will discuss Contextualizing Racial Disparities Under Welfare Reform: Toward a New Poverty Research.

In the interim, the discussion is invited to continue online.

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