Monday, September 7, 2009

Information-as-thing thing...

“Language is as it is used,” could well be the mantra of transformational grammarians. The recognition of information-as-thing form the transformational school is an argument won of preponderance. If that's how people are using the term, then adjust the dictionaries, style guides, text books and what have you.

I come from multiple backgrounds that allow me to accept Buckland's notion of information-as-thing, without criticism. (I should admit that I am a transformational grammarian at heart...) To test the notion, I run it through a few of my fields of participation: art, music and storytelling.

As an artist I know that media, texture, shape, color, etc. (which are at the root of thingness) convey information - are information. The material is as critical in making meaning as the subject of the work. In communications parlance, the medium is the message - or massage. As a musician I recognize that an invisible blanket of reverberating sound waves, both physical and ephemeral, is information-as-thing. Its tapestry of sound informs me not only of the presence of different instrumental voices, but the tempo, volume, chordal structure, etc. indicate to me a sense of motion and emotion. The written music is text, but the performed musical text is also information. The same goes for storytelling: the performance is information-as-process, but the sound is the meaningful conveyance of information-as-thing.

One focus of the essay is the defense of information-as-thing rather than the other two states: as-process and as-knowledge. However, it is information-as-knowledge that I find the most difficult to manage because it is rooted in the often shapeless void of interpretation. Interpretation is required to know which of any various input streams are important, or as the essay illustrates, which pieces of evidence are important. Interpretation provides us with the means to make meaning from chaos – and this process is far more unwieldy than information-as-thing. To me, that is where the ambiguity lies: the evidence can sit before us for a long time before we see its value to our case.

Later, in the discussion of events, which is more in line with my comments above about the performing arts, the author lists three ways in which the evidence of events is used: objects (i.e., bloodstains on the carpet), representations of the event itself (photos, newspaper reports, memoirs), and the re-creation of events. Missing here is a fourth way known widely in archival circles – oral histories, the telling of stories about an event. Buckland regards 'accounts' as “no more than hearsay evidence,” which effectively eliminates the entire world of oral culture from the halls of information science. And yet, later in the essay, he posits the importance of representations in information retrieval. Recollected stories are representations.

I am reminded of other ways oral culture gets shuffled to the side in discussions of information science. Buckland, citing Clarke and Eco, writes that “'Natural sign' is the long-established technical term in philosophy and semiotics for things that are informative but without communicative intent.” Natural sign would be the classification given to animal tracks on the forest floor, scratch marks on tree trunks, cloud patterns, and so on. The Western mind (if I may use large brush strokes) sees no causality in these 'natural signs' perhaps than to ascribe some vague Mother Nature-ishness to them, whereas many indigenous peoples would read these as stories left for them to read and interpret. For example, Buckland sees trees as informative in only two ways: “Obviously, as representative trees they are informative about trees. Less obviously, differences in the thickness of tree rings are caused by, and so are evidence of, variations in the weather.” He sees trees as a scientist or pragmatist does and not as someone whose life or livelihood depends on being able to understand other meanings trees convey.

Parting shot: I felt that the section titled “Being information is situational,” was needlessly complicated. It would suffice to say that the degree to which something is particularly informative depends upon its context – which almost needs no stating at all.

Mark Oppenneer