Session 1 notes

There were three speakers in this session, whose talks are briefly summarised here:

  • Magnus Ramage talked about history of cybernetics. He started with the origin of cybernetics that in the 1940s, mainly in US, with the word deriving from the Greek for steersman. It was coined by Norbert Wiener, and the subtitle of his book Cybernetics: communication and control in the animal and the machine shows how he saw a link between how machines and animals work. Of particular importance in the development of information concepts were the Macy conferences of the 1940s and 1950s, chaired by McCulloch. One of the key things that they established was the link between information and communication. Weiner said that the amount of information in a system is a measure of the degree of organisation. For him it was the opposite of entropy and he therefore used the term negentropy. Information was seen as a sort of physical entity, like water, and had nothing to do with meaning. Kathryn Hale, in her book about Macy conferences says that ‘Information lost its body’. Information was becoming disembodied from people but becoming embodied in machines. The challenge then became to find a way of re-introducing the notion of the subject into information. The key person here was Gregory Bateson, who spoke of information as the difference that makes the difference
  • Chris Bissell spoke on ‘There is no such thing as ‘The Information Revolution’ …and this is a ten-minute talk about it’, his title being a reference to the opening words of Steven Shapin’s book on The Scientific Revolution: There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it. Drawing on Shapin’s approach, Chris posed a few questions of the information revolution: 
    • is it a real, coherent, cataclysmic, and climactic event? 
    • has it fundamentally and irrevocably changed our view of the world? 
    • has it made the world post-modern? 
    • when did it happen? 
    • is it a good thing? 
Chris argued that when start you to examine the phrase ‘The Information Revolution’ you find that all words are problematic including, perhaps especially, ‘the’. Statements such as ‘the annihilation of space and time’ have been made variously in the past for such things as the penny post, steam power or electricity. The word ‘information’ is even more problematic than ‘revolution’. Chris looked at various ways in which it has been approached, and noted that the word ‘knowledge’ is much more exciting than ‘information’ these days, but wondered whether we should also consider ‘wisdom’. ‘The’ implies that something – and one thing – completely unprecedented and unique has happened. In conclusion, Chris found it difficult to answer positively of any of the question he posed at the start, though there was an argument for it having made the world post-modern, and he left individuals to decide whether it was “a good thing”. 
  • Sue Holwell talked about information systems in the context of individuals acting in the world. People are undertaking purposeful activities supported by information systems. The information systems will be embodied in some technology, but the information systems are clearly considered separately from the technology (the IT). People perceive things in the world, attribute some meaning to what they perceive, make judgements about them, form intention, then take action. Each of these steps is informed by the individual’s set of standards – thus a botanist will perceive different things in the world from those perceived by a plumber. However the set of standards will themselves be informed by the activities, so the process is an iterative loop. Furthermore, individuals do not exist in isolation, so there is an additional step of engaging in discourse with others. The invention of new technologies to implement the information systems which support the processes make new purposely activities possible. From all the facts or data ‘out there’ in the world, an individual will only perceive a small fraction, according to their own set of standards. Sue, with Peter Checkland, has coined the term ‘capta’ for those facts or data that are perceived. ‘Information’ is used for what emerges when the individual has assigned meaning to capta, and knowledge is used for the long-lived and larger assemblies derived from information. 
Sue Holwell had finished her talk with a question about why some people gather data – capta – which they appear to have no use for, citing the example of her father who had kept meticulous daily records of the weather for many years. Similar examples were put forward in discussion and while some people doubted that there was any significance to it (“some people just do it”), Sue suggested that if we could understand what was going on when people do this, there are potential implications for information systems and knowledge management. 

At Sue’s suggestion, there was a show of hands on people’s main interests between the categories (approximate numbers in brackets): Information (8 – 10?), Information Systems (8 – 10?) or Information Support (4 – 5?). One person (Woman?) wanted to say ‘none of the above’, and suggested ‘Information Flow’ as an alternative. John Monk did not put his hand up for any, because it is all ‘smoke and mirrors’ – when we are talking about information or information systems, are we talking about the same thing to one another?

Allan Jones, on Chris Bissell’s observations concerning the utopian ideas hanging on technologies, commented that it is not just technology. He cited the example of Esperanto that enthusiasts argued would bring wars to an end because people would no longer misunderstand one another. Allan observed that they had misunderstood ‘misunderstanding’. Allan suggested that while there is an argument that there isn’t an ‘Information Revolution’, nevertheless people feel that something has happened, but can’t quite pin it down. Chris Bissell countered that people feel it for while, but then get used to it and no longer think of it as revolutionary. Now it is social networking, a few years ago it was the internet itself. John Monk made a comparison with the Diderot’s encyclopaedia. There was a lot of idealism around with the early encyclopaedias, and claims previously made of encyclopaedias are now made of wikipedia. There is continuity in the rhetoric, not in the technology.

A colleague from the Library picked up on the suggestion that the library was concerned with information support, suggesting that in reality the library is concerned with much more, taking in information, information systems and information support. Libraries are concerned with unlocking information whatever format it is in. Chris Bissell observed that it is the expertise of librarians that matters. Magnus Ramage spoke of libraries becoming disembodied, and wondered whether this is did reduce the role of librarians.

Paul Lefrere spoke of Framework VII considering projects looking at wisdom and wisdom management. Paul wondered whether this was a possible area to get external funding.

Kirsty Ball observed that the discussion so far had been one-dimensional, reflecting a linear, cognitive psychology, understanding of information, leading to a ‘boxes and lines’ understanding of the subject. She called for a multidimensional view, taking account of things like gut-reaction. Sue Holwell disagreed that she was presenting a linear view, since it was inherently iterative, and included gut-reaction in what she had taken as perception. There was a suggestion that gut-reaction would be included in what Sue had referred to as ‘standards’. Magnus confirmed with Sue that her use of the term ‘standards’ derived from the work of Geoffrey Vickers. Vickers embodies the classical English ‘not showing emotion’ perspective, so that passion should be ruled out of the way in which the meaning attribution processes is done. This line would similarly be taken by many people in cognitive science.

One (male) participant queried whether there had been an over-emphasis on visual means of communicating information, and that maybe we should also consider smells or sounds, for example. Sue suggested that this bias was because most of the work had been done in the context of organisations, and smells might not be taken seriously in that context.

Sue asked what was meant by information flow. Kirsty said it related to a change of state or movement between actors. John Monk commented that talk of information flow implies a material metaphor, as do ideas such as mining information. Capturing information implies a creature, but still a material creature. John suggested that since we can’t get a grip on information, we are forced to metaphors, and when we use a material metaphor we start talking as though it is a material. We are trapped in a material metaphor, and this leads to the cognitive model with the diagrams of boxes and lines.