Monday, September 7, 2009

Information as Created Knowledge

Buckland’s discussion of information as thing spurred a lot of meta-thinking this week as I considered his philosophical claims and practical applications. While I found some of his advice useful, I found his theoretical argument troublesome. After I examine Buckland’s metaphysical discussion of information as thing, I’ll discuss why some of his practical points are still applicable—within a certain context.

I want to discuss two of Buckland’s definitions of information: as knowledge and as thing, since of the three these two are closely related. (It may be that I don’t fully understand Buckland’s use of information as process, but for the purposes of his article and this response, I don’t see much use for it. This point should certainly be a topic of class discussion.)

Despite Buckland’s arguments, I’m not convinced that information as thing can be anything but a metaphor. When he discusses the bits and bytes of a computer, he’s not referring to information qua information but the vehicle through which information is delivered. To think of information as thing is to separate information from the author and the interpreter. It’s to say that information resides in the physical despite humans and despite the process of reasoning. The individual letters in Buckland’s article, for example, are not information per se. It’s the combination of letters into specific words and words into specific sentences and sentences into logical order that present the information Buckland intended.

Contrarily, to think of information as ethereal knowledge in the mind—that is, completely separated from the physical—is to sever the only means humans possess to gather information, their perceptual faculties, from reality. Perhaps someone might argue that illogical whims randomly developing in our minds should be considered information, and they are separated from reality. Let me answer only with an axiomatic claim, the proof of which is self-evident but, ironically, could require more explanation than I have space: All instances of information as knowledge originate from an objective reality that is knowable through the senses. (For an in-depth discussion of this claim, see David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses: A Realist Theory of Perception.)

It seems to me, then, that information is factual knowledge formed by an application of reason to existence—a combination of the mind and perceived reality. In other words, I prefer to think of information as created knowledge.

To further point out how information as thing is a metaphor, I submit these three sentences:

“Inside this document is information that will bring down the government.”
“Inside this document is evidence that will bring down the government.”
“Inside this document is dirt that will bring down the government.”

Obviously, the use of the metaphor doesn’t constitute a new definition of information—though I’d be interested to read definitions for information as dirt. Nonetheless, though I presented my problems with Buckland’s metaphysical and epistemological arguments for information as thing, I still find the metaphor useful if we understand it within context.

His discussion of types and tokens, for instance, is an important part of the copyright and intellectual property debate. In the digital era, it’s important to ask, “What constitutes legally protected digital information as thing (metaphorically) and what is digital knowledge?” For example, is a digital song like the Heimlich maneuver, which could not be legally protected because it was knowledge, or is it like sheet music? It is only through the metaphor of information as thing that copyright and intellectual property can exist at all. Even though the physical object, whether book or byte, is not the information per se, authors still hold exclusive rights to copy that information in physical form precisely because their minds created it. Information as thing is the metaphor through which individual rights are linked to property rights but only if the idea of information as created knowledge is properly understood.

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