§ 2. Data Smog
The problem here is that hackers, just like the corporate technologists they often oppose, end up falling into the same trap by conflating the single type of information
with (in this case usually software or source code) to all
information. There are extensive legal, social and political traditions regarding various types of information, copyright
being only the most obvious (and even those laws are, if the long historical view is taken, relatively new and vary greatly from country to country). 12
information, turning it into a substance which 'wants' something or is laden with certain inherent qualities, most technologists tend to ignore the societal influences. Admitting to this 'fuzzy' element of information runs contrary to decades of computer engineering
, and worse, severely complicates the quantification
and subsequent commodification
. It becomes extremely difficult to sell people on information and its technologies if you can't give it a measure, or a distinct definition, or one begins to acknowledge a great deal is falling through the cracks. While computers may well be fantastically apt at moving data
, they are increasingly shown to be poor at transferring real knowledge
, as two prominent business writers feel compelled to openly admit,
...the difficulty of looking to the various forms through which information
has conventionally come to us, however, is that infocentric visions tend to
dismiss them as irrelevant...such things as organizations and institutions
are viewed as little more than relics of a discredited old regime...the ends of
information, after all, are human ends. The logic of information must
ultimately be the logic of humanity. For all information's independence and
extent, it is people, in their communities, organizations and institutions, who
ultimately decide what it all means and why it matters. 13
After all, Information doesn't want to be anything
, any more than air desires
to rush in to fill a vacuum or ice feels compelled
to float on water. Information takes too many forms to be uniformly characterized with these kinds of aphorisms: a car horn blaring as the brakes fail in traffic, a snippet of clever film dialogue endlessly repeated through a song, an old love letter
still smelling of perfume, an Encyclopædia Britannica
entry from the turn of the century, a government Census database
or an electronic marketing
report. In one manner or another each represents information: some context
-specific (transfer the sound of the car horn to the song and the information being communicated changes completely), some subjective
(not every reader would recognize the perfume), some intangible
(you can't digitize a scent or a memory), some temporal
(the Census data will be significant for years, the market survey will be seen as largely useless within a month).
Countless writers in all fields continue to spar over the fixed distinctions between terms like data
When a hierarchical scheme is affixed to this sequence, data rests at the bottom, wisdom at the top, and information and knowledge are transitional stages (or even dynamic processes) in-between. Trevor Harwood, a communications policy writer (in just one succinct example) reminds us data
by itself, independent of context
, is meaningless
- reams of numbers are difficult to interpret without knowing what, if anything, they represent or how they were generated. Traffic statistics, spectrographic readings from solar flares or a distribution map of random points will all appear equally impenetrable
as number sets unless you know what those sets represent (i.e. the context or environment which produced them).
In other words, data requires "cognitive
skill to decipher and the recall of previously assimilated information" in order to be promoted to information. Otherwise, its simply a mess of numbers or an unverifiable factoid
. Harwood and many others seem to place significant emphasis on the human skills of memory
or reflection, making them paramount to the rational process of distilling insight from swirls of raw data. Information itself is born only of a "process of reception, recognition
and conversion, made possible by our cognitive history and our ability to decipher symbols within a particular culture
", where "knowledge is as much mediated by other people as it is by our own experience" and wisdom
is seem as the gift of being able to perceive "undetected patterns, giving us the ability to validate and confirm" credibility or "explore novel and untried associations". 15
The higher on this hierarchy one climbs, the more intuition
seem to play a part- all to which computers are known to be notoriously ill-suited.
Others in the field stress that human speech or thought must be codified into external symbols, words or numbers which then can be transported through space or last over time, in order to be acknowledged as information
per se. This is where the 'technological
' aspect, be it stone tablet or 'personal digital assistant
', plays a defining and a clear distinction is made between the communication of data and the existence of information. Michael Hobart makes a compelling case that this must be so given that in a pre-literate
world there was only the fleeting medium
of speech, which had difficulty (being formless) congealing into a body of knowledge:
Reading the epic known to us as The Iliad is vastly different from
the preliterate experience of hearing and seeing it performed...the
reader can access any one of those 15,000 lines at will...writing
permits communication over time and space, whereas the bard is
constrained to the here and now...not letters on a page but gust of
air and spittle...in the oral world, the face-to-face mode of
communication inevitably intrudes upon its content...facts get communicated:
"Watch out for that boar!", "The enemy lives over yonder", "It looks
like rain." But these facts are not abstracted from the specific
circumstances of 'this' boar, 'that' enemy, 'those' clouds, constituting a
separate body of knowledge about hunting, tactics, the weather. They
do not become information. 16
Hobart then goes on to stress this difference between oral and written culture, that before writing humanity lived in a 'pre-informational' world and that only writing provided a level of stability to the abstraction
and characterization of experience
, which we might use as a definition for what information allows us to accomplish. Writing is lasting abstraction then, where "the classificatory aspect of language abstracted from the flow of experience and rendered visible...writing therefore constitutes the first information technology and the birth of information itself." 17
12 Mark Stefik, an R & D engineer at Xerox's Palo Alto lab and manager of the Human-Documents Interaction area has made an excellent case about just how unenforceable copyright may now be in a networked digital environment: "Copyright law, by itself, does not prevent unauthorized copying. Where the enforcement of copyright law is imperfect however, technology limitations and the economics of paper publishing help to check infringement...this balance of power in the paper medium does not, however, directly translate to the digital medium. Even though digital works can be expensive to develop, copying them is essentially free." Mark Stefik, The Internet Edge: Social, Legal and Technological Challenges for a Networked World (Cambridge: MIT, 1999), 81.
13 Even more heretical (to the 'information industry') is the following statement later in the book, "Certainly much about knowledge's recent rise to prominence has the appearance of faddishness and evangelism. Look in much of the management literature of the late 1990s and you could easily believe that faltering business plans need only 'embrace knowledge' to be saved. While its often hard to tell what this embracing involves, buying more information technology seems a key indulgence." See John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), 16-18, 118.
14 As a starting point, the Latin verb informare meant to the Romans 'to shape', 'to form an idea of' or 'to describe' wherein the practical notion of a form (like a mold or stamp) was twined with its abstract 'meaning' or 'ideal', thus mixing content and container, medium and message, from the very beginning, until it passed into English in the 14th century as meaning, to 'give form or character' to something.
15 Trevor Harwood, Info-Rich/Info-Poor: Access and Exchange in the Global Information Society (London: Bowker Saur, 1995), 1-6.
16 Michael Hobart, Information Ages : Literacy, Numeracy & the Computer Revolution (Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 13-14.
17 Ibid., 34.