Digifesto

Tag: information

I really like Beniger

I’ve been a fan of Castells for some time but reading Ampuja and Koivisto’s critique of him is driving home my new appreciation of Beniger‘s The Control Revolution (1986).

One reason why I like Beniger is that his book is an account of social history and its relationship with technology that is firmly grounded in empirically and formally validated scientific theory. That is, rather than using as a baseline any political ideological framework, Beniger grounds his analysis in an understanding of the algorithm based in Church and Turing, and understanding of biological evolution grounded in biology, and so on.

This allows him to extend ideas about programming and control from DNA to culture to bureaucracy to computers in a way that is straightforward and plausible. His goal is, admirably, to get people to see the changes that technology drives in society as a continuation of a long regular process rather than a reason to be upset or a transformation to hype up.

I think there is something fundamentally correct about this approach. I mean that with the full force of the word correct. I want to go so far as to argue that Beniger (at least as of Chapter 3…) is an unideological theory of history and society that is grounded in generalizable and universally valid scientific theory.

I would be interested to read a substantive critique of Beniger arguing otherwise. Does anybody know if one exists?

a thoroughly academic dispute about the nature of “information”

I had an interesting conversation with Ashwin Matthew, a colleague in my department. Among other things, we were talking about the construction of the modern concept of information. You might expect that at a School of Information we’d have this issue thoroughly ironed out by now, but in fact, the opposite.

Doing my best to characterize the debate, it’s this: information seems to be very important. Why is that? Is it because a bunch of institutions and/or social powers have an interest in promoting a concept of information that reinforces their power? Or is it because there is a real thing, which we call information, which is out there in the world and influential whether we understand it or not? To put it another way: is “information” an ideological construct or does it pick out something real in the world?

Ashwin calls the social order that depends on the information ideology the Information Society, which passes the Wikipedia test for ‘is it real?’. So does information per se.

I want to call the view that “information” is an ideological construct information antirealism. An argument for information antirealism comes from Geoffrey Nunberg’s “Farewell to the Information Age”, which notes that the modern usage of “information” is historically recent and asserts that this usage is the result of a confusion (either intentional or otherwise) of other meanings. I want to call the view that information is a real thing in the world that we should be paying attention to like scientists information realism.

I would say that I am an information realist. However, if there was ever somebody thoroughly embedded in the information society, it would be me. So, naturally, I would believe the ideology of that society, which is information realism. Ashwin, I believe, would rather bracket the term “information” out so as to be able to critique the Information Society. That seems like a worthy endeavor to me.

But I got to say that I think “information” as a concept has more going for it than its ideological role in supporting the information society. Rather, I think it supports the information society because it reflects a truth about the universe. Just because there is a lot of hype around something doesn’t make it unreal. The Bronze Age was pretty psyched about bronze (I’m guessing). There was certainly a class of people who benefited from bronzeworking. But what made them so powerful wasn’t “bronze” as an ideological construct, but rather their mastery of a part of reality, bronze.

By way of analogy, I’ve been reading Piaget’s “The Child’s Conception of Time” for a class. In it, Piaget describes the cognitive evolution of the concept of time. Piaget relates that as toddlers, children confuse time and space, thinking that something that has traveled greater distance must have taken more time (not understanding how velocity plays a mediating role). Later, children develop “articulate intuitions” of things like succession and duration, but these do not fall into any kind of ‘operational order’. By this Piaget means that when we discuss timing and aging with children at this stage, they will articulate statements about succession and duration but what they say will seem to be full of contradictions or naivete. For example, they will believe that over time, their age will “catch up” with adults. At the last stage, the child achieves an “operational synthesis” and discovers or constructs a sense of time that is homogenous and uniform and the sort of thing that allows you to effectively use clocks.

So, here’s a proposal: that the modern concept of information is an “operational synthesis” of other, more naive “articulate intuitions” about information that have occurred historically.

What is an “operational synthesis”? Well, it’s constructed. But it’s a construct that gets a lot done. You might say that a good operational synthesis is true in at the very least a pragmatist sense.

So, maybe our modern understanding of “information” is as legitimate as the modern understanding of “time”. Which is to say: resistance is useless, prepare to be assimilated into the Information Society.

Defining information with Dretske

I prepared these slides to present Fred Dretske’s paper “The Epistemology of Belief” to a class I’m taking this semester, ‘Concepts of Information’, taught by Paul Duguid and Geoff Nunberg.

Somewhere along the line I realised that if I was put on earth for one reason and one reason only, it was to make slide decks about epistemology.

I’ve had a serious interest in philosophy as a student and as a…hobbyist? can you say that?…for my entire thinking life. I considered going to graduate school for it before tossing the idea for more practical pursuits. So it comes as a delightful surprise that I’ve found an opportunity to read and work with philosophy at a graduate level through my program.

A difficult issue for a “School of Information” is defining what information is. I’ve gathered from conversations with faculty that there is an acknowledged intellectual tussle over the identity of iSchools which hinges in part on the meaning of the word. There seems to me to be roughly two ideologies at play: the cyberneticist ideology that sought to unify Shannon’s information theory, computer science, management science, economics, AI, and psychology under a coherent definition of information on the one hand, and the softer social science view that ‘information’ is a polysemous term which refers variously to newspapers and the stuff mediated by “information technology” in a loose sense but primarily as a social phenomenon.

As I’ve been steeped in the cyberneticist tradition but still consider myself literate in English and capable of recognizing social phenomena, it bothers me that people don’t see all this as just talking about the same thing in different ways.

I figured coming into the program that this was an obvious point that was widely accepted. It’s in a way nice to see that this is controversial and the arguments for this view are either unknown, unarticulated, or obscure, because that means I have some interesting work ahead of me.

This slide deck was a first stab at the problem: tying Dretske’s persuasive account of a qualitative definition of ‘information about’ to the relevant concept of Shannon’s information theory. I hope to see how far I can push this in later work. (At the point where is proves impossible, as opposed to merely difficult or non-obvious, then we’ll have discovered something new!)