Joho the Blog » Rough, rough draft: What info was

Rough, rough draft: What info was

Draft of my talk on the end of information at the Berkman Center. [NOV 11: Here's the video of the webcast done on Nov 9. Ethan Zuckerman's extensive and amazing live blogging of the talk is here..]

I have been working for weeks on a talk I’m giving at a Tuesday lunch at the Berkman Center, where “work on” means erasing more than I’ve written. I’ve done more complete rewrites than I can count, mainly because I can’t figure out what the point of the talk is. I started out knowing what the point was, but as I actually wrote it, I knew less and less. So, here’s a rough outline of the current sorry state of the talk.

I. Information has been the dominant metaphor

This is the easy part. From cradle to grave, we’ve reconceived of ourselves and our world as information. But, except for the technical definition, we don’t know what it is (and most of how we’ve reconceived of ourselves has nothing to do with the technical def, and most of us don’t know the technical def anyway).

II. A discontinuous history

“Info” has two ordinary senses that precede its take-over by Claude Shannon in 1948: It’s something you’re about to learn, and it’s the content of tables. Shannon then introduced his technical definition, which only a tiny percentage of the population understands. Nevertheless, info became the dominant paradigm. So, what enabled it to take over our culture? Two notes: 1. I am explicitly not going to talk about its utility or its politics of control and mastery, both of which are obviously crucial to the answer. 2. I am going to contrast the Info Age with the Link Age (or whatever we’re going to call the new epoch).

Enabler 1: Information scales

Info scales sufficiently to enable large corporations to manage themselves. But its scaling strategy is to exclude everything that doesn’t fit its rows and columns. E.g., the personnel database contains only a tiny bit about what employees know about one another. In the Age of Links, we include everything. Links create a world of abundance. The irony is that while the Info Age’s strategy was to exclude bad and useless info, in the Age of Links we’re better able to manage the abundance of crap than the abundance of good stuff.

Enabler 2: Info is a resource

It’s a resource in that it’s useful to us. We can retrieve stuff from it, using the criteria of precision and recall: Did our query get only the right stuff and all the right stuff? In the Link Age of Abundance, however, getting all the right stuff is a disaster. (Which is why we invented two new criteria: relevance and interestingness.)

Furthermore, info is a resource from which we fetch nuggets of value. The Web, though, is a place that we enter and navigate. The irony is that in the Age of Info, we thought about entering an info space as becoming Jeff Bridges in Tron. Or, we thought that if we entered the info space because it engulfed us, it would be a cold world of men with clipboards, as in movies such as Desk Set. In the Link Age, the place we enter is fully social, and is becoming completely integrated with the real world space.

Enabler 3: Bits apply to everything

We sometimes talk about atoms vs. bits because anything can be turned into a bit. Bits are thus coextensive with the universe. But, bits can represent anything in the world because they are so fundamentally unlike the world. Every other measurement measures some property of the world (height, weight, shoe size, whatever), but bits measure pure difference. The world bits model always shows itself in particular ways, in particular properties. Bits are thus profoundly unnatural; they exist only because we take them as bits. They are thus very much unlike atoms.

Further, bits reduce everything to the simplest of differences: yes/no, 1/0. Links, on the other hand, are put in place to find and tease out differences that are complex enough to require language and to be worth pointing out.

Enabler 4: Information explains communication

Although Shannon expressly was not trying to explain human communication, his diagram matches our basic view of communication as the movement of code through a conduit. (Paul Edwards is good on this, as on many other issues.) Plus, Shannon’s popularizer, Warren Weaver, expressly said the theory applies to people speaking, pipers piping, dancers dancing, and just about every other form of communication. Still, we have to ask why think of communication as the process of moving symbols through conduits when so much else is required, and so much more is implied, by even the simplest of human conversations. Part of the answer is, I think, our Cartesian metaphysics that thinks that we experience representations of the world, and thus can only communicate by shipping messages to others that affect their representations of the world. The world itself has dropped out of this equation: We only have heads and conduits between them.

This basic picture of communication of content moving through a medium to a receiver treats communication as an obstacle to be overcome, for noise keeps banging on the conduit. This is how the world looks if you come out of an experience where communication was difficult, as was the case for the early info scientists, some of whom had worked on how to improve communications on a noisy battlefield. (Paul Edwards again: The Closed World is excellent.) But hyperlinks are neither content nor medium; more exactly, they’re both. Like a path, a hyperlink assumes an existing world, a shared ground. (Links are a very special sort of path, though, because they are generative of their world.)

Enabler 5: Information lets us understand the world

Models let us find what is essential and common among all that which they model. But they deny the abundance of the world and the fact that the world doesn’t behave the way we want. The contingent does show up in the Info Age view of the world. It shows up as noise. In the Link Age, succeed by making the world noisy: creating a path among ideas that differ. (This is not noise in Info Theory’s sense.) Of course, we rightfully worry that amidst this differential linkage we will only seek that which is familiar and reassuring. The success of the Link Age depends upon it remaining as noisy and full of difference as possible, the opposite of how the Info Age measured success.

So, as I write this out, I can see some sections that don’t really add up. For example, Enabler 3′s discussion is pretty incoherent. But that’s why I’m writing this out now.

I have one day left to get something presentable out of this, since I am out all day on Monday. And I’m jetlagged and pretty exhausted now. Ack.

17 Responses to “Rough, rough draft: What info was”

  1. Thanks for sharing your early thoughts. Very thought provoking. The one place I am not sure I follow is, “in the Age of Links we’re better able to manage the abundance of crap than the abundance of good stuff.” Would enjoy understanding your thoughts here.

  2. Ah. That was too compressed. Sorry. All I meant is that we do ok in managing the flood of spam, etc. But the availability of so much worthwhile stuff has thrown into a tizzy those institutions that were built based on the assumption that worthwhile stuff is relatively scarce. E.g., when the NY Times put its columnists behind the paywall, most people simply moved on to other writers; the newspapers’ economic model is built on the notion that if we don’t pay them, we won’t have access to news and opinion worth reading. That’s all I meant.

  3. David, how do you differentiate between information and knowledge? If info was the channel to knowledge, then new sources of knowledge challenge the nature of that channel, or am I being ignorant? See, I think humankind’s quest is for knowledge, not information, and that this is what’s new in the world today. As Gutenburg’s movable type put the protected knowledge of the elites into the hands of everyday people, so too the Web is doing the same thing today.

  4. I guess I was making this prompt before here.

    I think we should put into the discussion about the information, the relation of computer/IT/WEB-related notion of information to the notion of information in science of languge, in the linguistics, in recent discoveries of people like Steve Pinker, etc.

    My feeling is that it could enhance understanding of its its role as culture enabler 4 & 5.

    No more time to write more now, flying from Paris to London. I will be extremely happy to see a link to the Berkman talk when it is available.

  5. As a former IS lecturer and avid social media consumer here is how I would approach it .
    Apologies for the rough nature of this but I am writing this on the fly here.

    The end of information (retitled in search of wisdom?)

    Practical definition’s and quick reflections

    Information is:

    That which is capable of informing, by increasing our store of personal knowledge.

    Stuff we know that lets us act in ways we think are informed (get/keep us in the know)

    I reckon most people; have a definition at this level to hand.

    Shannon is a great tool for analysis but we have to be careful as to what we consider ‘the message’. These days part of the message is in fact who is recommending the information and which network that information is sent on. This Meta information is integral to how we treat the information it’s not noise.

    It’s not really the end of information but it is the end of the emphasis on Information.

    Getting the information we want now is a given.

    It’s the nature of the search and our expectations for what we will find and what we will do when we find it that have changed.

    In the old paradigm we were after the one right answer,

    Now when we search we are after one possible right answer or a wise answer or a pointer to a new solution. We seek people who are wise in particular domains and this knowledge or the understanding of how to get it is itself extremely valuable.

    We do all of this though increasingly interlinked  informal networks that can sometimes be used in a formal way. This is a first and the networks make communities of practice that that penetrate organisational boundaries practical for the first time (at least until organisations kill them through artificial restrictions)

    Prized assets: Access to the right networks, knowledge about the network and kudos in the network.

    Kudos in individual networks is gained by being a source of excellent information and knowledge or being a source of sources of same.

    This socialisation of information is what has changed this is now about the search for wisdom.


    Data – > Information -> Knowledge -> (Wisdom?)

    Legions of IS papers have painted this picture but in truth  the knowledge age as defined by the typical state of most KM initiatives has been about directed, predefined  information use.

    Information has been the dominant metaphor now we move towards the contextualisation being dominant.  This is enabled by the socialised network.  Knowing how to find the people and the knowledge that you need is key. It’s not that those searching are becoming wise so much as they are seeking wisdom not information when they search.

    The drive in the past was towards getting and accessing the right kinds of info now it’s about applying or generating new info for use in many different ways. The older metaphor was reaching back towards single information points not reaching forwards towards wisdom. It’s the shift in direction and expectation that really heralds’ the end of the Information age.

    The power of peers

    We respect our peers, and this respect becomes manifest in the information stream.

    Twitter, blogging even serendipity tools like stumbleupon are really about looking to find inspiration in the information space. We often build rather than find solutions from what we discover.

    In the new space we take the information for granted and we are responding to the huge amounts of data, information and knowledge by personalising them like we do in our real lives. We use blogs, twitter networks and social sites to act as filters ,aggregators and sources of trusted recommendation and confirmation.  When we find what we want we often cobble together solutions in a form of semantic bricolage.

    We are looking to be educated rather than informed but not in the formal sense of education this is adhoc education.   It is education in anything from social minutiae to particle physics.  It’s on the spot learning facilitated by a trust network (it’s a search for domain wisdom not information).

    What we consume on our social web can’t be seen as information alone it’s all contextual now. This social contextual filter wraps and in some ways warps the media we consume.

    Shannon’s model is still useful but you have to be extremely careful about what you categorise as the message and what becomes noise. The same media chunk is going to be viewed very differently depending on which network and who sent it (was it sent by your mum by your college by a student or by Stephen hawking? Was it sent on twitter on professional forum   or on a fun bulletin board).  It’s the same message but the network adds and warps the message and the way it is understood in new ways.

    Information hasn’t died it’s just lost its pre-eminence. The way we consume and use is has evolved.

    We are no longer in search of information we are in search of wisdom.

    Posted via email from Urban Ascetic

  6. [...] The end of Information ? in search of wisdom In Uncategorized on November 8, 2009 at 6:31 pm This is a response to the following post on JOHO [...]

  7. David. Thank you for taking the time to elaborate. Much appreciated. Best wishes for the talk, and I look forward to reading about it (or listening).

  8. [...] Weinberger is writing and speaking about the end of information. Information has been the dominant metaphor for understanding the world and people, but this is [...]

  9. David, I’m looking forward to your talk! I just blogged here about “The end of information, the return of conversation” – about the return to conversation, and to genres of curated conversation within self-organized communities.

  10. … as you know, I’ve been nooding on this for a while, and the trend toward streaming conversation is making those musings more salient, I suspect.

  11. Not sure I have much of substance to contribute — but I have a cool quotation, and that always makes up for substance, right? Your mention of tables suggested this bit from Hamlet:

    “My tables,–meet it is I set it down,
    That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
    At least, I am sure, it may be so in Denmark. [Writing.]”

    Personally I do think there’s something interesting going on here with the notion of “information.” The sad joke in the scene is that Hamlet has just sworn that he’ll never, ever forget or forgive what Claudius has done — but then he writes it down, suggesting that he needs some technology to remember it by.

    Perhaps we moved from the Age of Memory to the Age of Information when our default method of remembering became to write (or “write”) stuff down. Perhaps we’re now in the Age of Links because now we don’t *need* to remember anything. We, the newly linked we, don’t ever forget anything.

  12. Re: Enabler 3 (the only enabler not using the word ‘information’)

    Bits are more like a quantum particle than atoms. Bits have only two states. Atoms are more complicated than that.
    Digital information may be reduced to bits, but it is better to talk about the next level up — ASCII, EBCIDIC, 64-bit words, AIFF, JPG, etc. as the atomic particles that represent data that can be used to present or store data in a human readable form — letters, words, images, video. audio.

    I think what you are really getting at is the liquidity of digital information making all forms of data representation malleable, transportable, quickly and easily retrievable. Even ‘liquid’ or ‘mercurial’ isn’t definitive enough to cover new properties such as links, infinite branching, pi calculus, etc. It is the sudden ubiquity of these powerful attributes to any and all kinds of information that have fundamentally disrupted the institutions established to deal with the old physical constraints for collecting, purveying, withholding, managing, manipulating, broadcasting, publishing, presenting, etc.

    In the Information Age, the pre-digital forms of information (books, movies, records, concerts, paintings, chalk boards) became digitized, then stored and controlled by similar institutions as before. In the post-Information Age, these assets became liquid, ubiquitous, and cheap (Information wants to be free) the institutions, business models built earlier around physical constraints and economic assumptions (newspapers had to be printed and delivered) are irrelevant in a world inhabited by digital natives.

    So Enabler 3 might better be described as: Information continuously evolves beyond existing physical and economic constraints.
    This is a fundamental reality for anyone born after 1985. For those born earlier, it is revelation.

    Not sure this helps, but here’s hoping it does.
    See you tomorrow.

  13. [...] offers an outline of his talk on his blog, though he tells me that the outline is an earlier version of the presentation. J’s of [...]

  14. [...] expands access to intellectual entrepreneurs.  Like the recent call for slow news, and attempts to periodize the last few decades as a problematic “information age” we must transcend, the hunger for the authoritative voice of [...]

  15. [...] at the Berkman Center yesterday. I spoke quickly, waved my hands a lot, and spewed. [Rough draft here.] Even so, Ethan was able to commit an amazing act of streaming journalism, with very few places [...]

  16. [...] Weinberger is writing and speaking about the end of information. Information has been the dominant metaphor for understanding the world and people, but this is [...]

  17. [...] you don’t have time to watch, Ethan Zuckerman liveblogged the talk, and David posted an early draft outline of it. AKPC_IDS += "16848,"; SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "David Weinberger: How information became the [...]

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