We need to understand what information is if we want to figure out how to use it to improve the human condition.
In June 1991 Michael Buckland, from the School of Library and Information Studies, University of California, Berkeley, published an article on the meaning of information in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science. This was just two months before Tim Berners Lee posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext.newsgroup, the first public announcement that the WWW was available on the Internet. Perhaps it was a coincidence that just as we were about to take part in the most disruptive information technology in our lives to date, we were also still grappling with what we meant by the word “information”.
In his article, Buckland proposes four definitions of information:
- Information as a process i.e. the act of informing or communicating
- Information as knowledge i.e. the knowledge communicated as some fact, subject or event
- Information as thing i.e. an object such as a document, book or data set, and
- Information processing i.e. the handling, manipulating, and deriving of new forms or versions of information as thing.
It seems we have spent the last century refining our abilities to address information as thing, specifically since Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine and Alan Turing’s Universal Machine. Our mathematical and engineering genius has afforded us an incredible opportunity to share information like never before. We have moved from whole documents and books to bits and bytes. And today with mashups, tweets, business intelligence, social tagging, and web services we can now create many new forms and versions of information as thing. A lack of imagination is our only boundary, even though we will continue to struggle to organize objects.
Information as a process and information as knowledge often go hand in hand.
We continue to struggle to inform based on known knowledge. For instance, we haven’t yet successfully achieved the envisioned benefits of artificial intelligence or the semantic web – both sophisticated means designed to use known knowledge to inform and communicate; cultural and language nuances lead to the misinterpretation of text-messages and emails; the dynamic and shared nature of the Web complicates the reproducibility of digital research; publishing business models and information standards further complicate information access, as do politics.
The struggle to inform isn’t a new one, but now there is more access to information than ever before. Studies on the impact of increased access to information are a sign of the times. (You might want to read more by Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky.) However, information as knowledge i.e. a fact, an event, or subject has always been a part of our lives – pre- and post the Gutenberg press. Anyone who has read James Gleick’s recent book called The Information will recognize the challenges information access presents for information professionals and laypersons alike. For instance, “noise” as we know it today generally relates to meaningless or irrelevant information we are presented with when searching or browsing the Internet. In the 16th and 17th century “noise” (both literally and figuratively) was what the Europeans heard when listening to the drums in sub-Saharan Africa. In both cases essential and culturally relevant information is not conveyed and the opportunity for learning is lost.
Effective use of information is further complicated by the issue of “information overload”. In essence, there is so much information it is hard to decide what is important to know and what isn’t – and there is a serious chance that the most important piece of information may be lost forever among the myriad of information produced at any given moment. Information design, or information architecture, is critical for any information-based product or service but not everyone is fortunate enough to have one. If in fact a designer is engaged, she will certainly be faced with figuring out the relative value of “overload”. The challenge of information overload was even true before the Web and one reason why Dewey’s decimal system was such a hit. For those who never had a library in their home, the early public libraries probably felt overwhelming; for digital natives comfortable with information served up on a multitude of devices and formats isn’t overwhelming at all; for some office workers email is the only way to communicate, and for others it is the bane of their existence. Information overload may be more about preferences than meaning.
So what is it we can learn about information that will enable or detract researchers in the next ten years to create knowledge that can then be applied to improving the human condition? By studying researchers’ interactions with information in innovative ways, perhaps we can identify breakthroughs in and the potential for information’s contribution to advances in humanity. An early review appears to suggest at least an assessment of the four aspects of information as defined by Buckland. Let’s hope the potential of collective intelligence makes it easier to learn than the isolated experience of a few Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1700’s.