Critical literacy and churnalism

market 1

market 1 (Photo credit: tim caynes)

Anybody who’s interested in starting an online business could not but notice the interest in internet marketing – specifically through the so-called ‘social media’ (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and the like).  Yes, we all know that in cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream – but can they hear you market?  Interesting conundrum.

What I find amusing, in my wry and cynical way, is the huge emphasis on ‘content marketing’, and this is, I believe, of direct interest to information professionals.  Do a Google search for ‘content marketing’ and be prepared to be astonished – not so much by the number of hits you get, as the enormous range of differing opinions of what people think it is.  The most popular use of the term seems to suggest that it is little more than the fluff surrounding product promotion.  For example, if your product is dog shampoo, you will write anything at all about dogs, and keeping them clean and flea- and mud-free.  Never mind that the content is trivial, repetitive, and extremely badly written, as long as it scores on the Google hit charts and that people are directed to your site.  And buy your dog shampoo.

Now, as has been extensively discussed on this blog previously, ‘content’ – i.e. the stuff contained in a document such as a web page or book or film or vinyl record – is what I call ‘information’: the idea somebody has had, expressed and recorded in shared symbolic codes (language, writing, music, mathematics).  Extending this, it would appear that the newest trend in the digital world – in particular, the commercial part of it (and sometimes it’s hard to know what isn’t commercial) – is marketing ideas.

Yawn.  So what else is new?  Information professionals – and educators of all stripes – have been ‘marketing’ ideas for a long time.  Indeed, they do more than that: they select, arrange, organise, curate, store, protect and make available ideas, from any source.  Why? Not to sell ‘products’ as such, but to enable people to better understand their lives and the context in which they live: specifically, perhaps, to help them make better decisions by developing critical thinking skills and so sorting out the wheat from the chaff.  As previously mentioned, information professionals have a social responsibility and thus, it should follow, do not have ulterior motives.

‘Content marketing’ as it is practised seeks to achieve something quite different: manipulation.  From syndicated (and biased) news reports repeated endlessly no matter which newspaper you read (so it seems, anyway), to badly written ebooks written by people deficient in intelligence, erudition, maturity, insight and grammatical skills, to billions of blogs, probably written by the same people.  And they all repeat each other.  In fact, there is even software which will ‘rewrite’ the same thing in many different ways so that the same ‘content’ (I hesitate to call it ‘information’ because it may not even contain an idea) can be published many times.  You can also get – and for free, quite often – a collection of ready-written blog articles to suit whatever it is that you wish to publicise – home-schooling, gluten-free recipes, sportscars, adventure holidays – you name it, someone has supplied a load of bumpf for you to re-use.  I visited some freelance sites a while ago, and found that the majority of bidders for jobs requiring writing and editing skills for English content did not have English as their home language and/or couldn’t write their application without glaring grammatical errors.  No wonder so much stuff published on the internet is virtually unreadable.

So much for the ‘information explosion’.  Most comments on this issue focus on one of two phenomena: the huge increase in scientific and scholarly publications, or the easily accessible media now available – including, of course, the internet, as well as the traditional magazines, radio, television and newspapers.  While the vast amount of scholarly information now available does stretch the resources and imaginations of information professionals, the general public seldom has interest in or direct access to such information.  So many of us turn to Google, and are satisfied with whatever answer we find that seems vaguely relevant amongst the first 10 or so hits.  But the biggest ‘information’ explosion has come from every Joe Blow now thinking he knows something worth sharing.  Or even, knowing that they have nothing of interest to share, but sharing it anyway.  This disease appears to be contagious, gathering up common citizens, students, retirees, the unemployed, as well as people who should know better, such as journalists.  In the frenzy of making their digital mark, an awful lot is being badly said about nothing at all.  And this is what will, in all probability, appear in those first 10 hits.

This presents a real challenge to information professionals.  Critical thinking skills are seriously in decline, and many individuals seem to be unable to distinguish between ‘content’ that is being marketed, and reliable ‘information’. Citizens of the world, most of whom are able to vote, are being sucked into a vortex of ignorance and stupidity – in this, the ‘Information Age’.  If this continues, the meaning of ‘cultural memory institutions’ will evaporate, as their contents will simply not be understood, or worse, regarded as irrelevant to daily life.  All of those ideas which our forebears had, and recorded, that have shaped how we live today, will be invisible, as good as useless.

It’s not just ‘access’ that we should be concerned with – that”s easy enough, and becoming easier as information objects (‘documents’) are being digitised and networked.  And it’s  ‘reading’ either.  We shouldn’t be asking what people read.  We should try to understand  what our users understand and learn from what they read, and become teachers of critical literacy.

 

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Is knowledge management really information management?: a question of crucial definition

Picture of italian philosopher Luciano Floridi

Image via Wikipedia

No, I am not going to repeat the argument so well put forward many years ago by Tom Wilson (The nonsense of knowledge management, 2002, http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html), with which I largely agree.  While Professor Wilson argues his case well, he largely comes to the conclusion that the term ‘knowledge management’ was formulated in order to cover a number of organisational managerial and communication issues, without much of a nod to – or even recognition of – the existing field of Library and Information Science, or Information Studies, or Information Studies, or whatever you want to call it.  This poverty of nomenclature – the continuing disregard that we information professionals seem to have to clarity of expression – is at the heart, I believe, of many of the perennial issues and problems that fracture our field to no real purpose.

Wilson has, from time to time, referred back to ‘knowledge management’, reinforcing his point that, as a practice or field of study, it doesn’t really exist as a separate entity, as it is identical in process and conception to information management.  What would help his argument enormously, I believe, is if he were able to use definitions for these terms (‘information’ and ‘knowledge’) that had achieved consensus in the field.  Then, we would not have to explain to all of those involved in this field, many of whom are drawn from management, information systems, business studies, technology and so forth – exactly what it is that needs to be done in order to manage ‘knowledge’.  We could perhaps even encourage these folk to take a look at the masses of research already completed in our field concerning precisely the issues with which knowledge managers now engage: assisting in the communication of ideas from one human to another.  As I have written elsewhere (e.g. 2005 and 2007), I understand information professionals to be ‘information interventionists’: we intervene in the knowledge creation cycle.

The central issue, though, is that we importantly have not yet come to a widely accepted definition of ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’.  By this I mean, rather more precisely, that we do not have an operational definition that works for our field and for the work we do.  James Gleick, author of Chaos, inter alia, has now published a book on information: ‘Information: a history, a theory, a flood‘ (Fourth Estate, 2011) and one must admire him for his courage and ability to do so.  Having said that, he does not move us forward to understand better what ‘information’ is.  Neither does philosopher Luciano Floridi, who has written extensively on this topic and on the philosophy of information.  However much the data-information-knowledge model (often represented in pyramid form) is criticised or maligned, this still remains the starting point, or mental model, for both authors.  In Gleick’s case, the concept is further confused with information objects or entities, technology, networks and the new physics.  I find the understanding of information in the new physics fascinating: Information: the new language of science is probably my favourite book on this subject.  But this does not conceptualise the notion of  ‘information’ in a way that is meaningful for those of us who wish to assist people to create their own knowledge by finding out what others have thought, created, felt, experienced and so on.

This is why I wrote a PhD thesis on the topic of defining information. What I found in my research, amongst many other interesting things, is the political nature of the definition and interpretation of information, and I believe it would be appropriate for us to pay more attention to such dimensions of the core of our discipline/profession.

[I can let you have a digital copy of this work: email me or make a note here].

Digital Kulcha: selective memory?

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

Image via Wikipedia

Information is that part of an individual’s knowledge which s/he choses to share with certain other persons at certain times for certain reasons.  Information must be represented in language of some kind – and by ‘language’, I mean any form of symbol or code or gesture that enjoys a culturally derived meaning: there does not appear to be universally understood meaning that can be attached to any sound, gesture, image, colour or shape, as far as I am aware.  Information is best considered as a rather loose form of the concept of ‘ideas’.  A document, it has already been noted, can be considered as a container of information: that is, when information is recorded in order to overcome spatio-temporal constraints, it is recorded in a document.  The document, as a physicality, has its own particular characteristics.

‘Ideas’ are also perhaps culturally derived, or have cultural origins.  While, as individuals, we certainly enjoy individual personalities, capabilities and competencies, we also, fairly early on, start forming a knowledge framework, or scaffolding, onto which we can position other thoughts and ideas and insights and experiences, as they are encountered.  But while our individualism makes us selective, our individualism is, in turn, shaped by our context – our cultural context, specifically.  As Winston Churchill is believed to have said, ‘First we shape our tools (or houses) and then they shape us’ – we have a similar structurated relationship with knowledge, culture and ideas.  Eventually, what we know – our knowledge – is a product of our being and of our experiences – physical and cultural – of the world.

What is ‘culture’?  I will not attempt any definition of that word here, except perhaps to say that it does not necessarily mean the grand artefacts of high culture, nor the most popular of contemporary creative expression.  As T.S Eliot said, ‘Culture is the smell of cabbage soup’; slight sensations (like the smell of a madeleine dipped in tea) can give rise to great visions and deep understandings.

What does this have to do with digital libraries, archives and museums?  We do know that these are highly specialised and expensive projects.  We also know that the technology is still at a primitive stage, comparatively speaking, compared to where it might go: digital preservation is an area that, in particular, needs some significant development.  Because of these reasons, at least, digitisation efforts have, for the most part, been focused on digitisation of documents (used here to include any information-containing artefact) that  are perceived to have some cultural value.  In other words, these documents are considered to contain information which is considered to be important to transmit, to preserve, to communicate.

In making such decisions, however, are we not making choices which may change or even skew the understanding that future generations may have of the very ‘culture’ we are attempting to preserve and make available?  Do we run the risk of relaying or supporting only one particular view of what is important (however broadly that may be conceived)?  Archives tend to deal with those documents which provide evidence of business transactions – and which are considered worthy of conservation and preservation for possible later use (whatever that might be).  Museums will collect objects, sometimes defined by subject area (‘art’, ‘natural history’) determined to a certain extent by what is discovered or found, as well as what is unusual or scarce.  Libraries are known to be particularly selective in the documents that they collect and manage, depending on subject area and user community profile.

But what about all the other textures and flavours of everyday life?  What should we be doing about social media?  Should we continue to rely on Google to locate all the born-digital documents that are available less formally than those that are formally published and distributed?  Should we, could we, ignore more transient or ephemeral documents?  Where does ‘quality control’ begin and end?  Who will the digital ‘user’ be in years and generations to come?  Will focusing only on the past or present in a selective way make sense in the future?  How should we as information professionals be associated with open access materials?

A nice connection

Nicolaus Copernicus

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Enrico Francese, who commented below on the DIK definitions, and requested information on the origin of this hierarchy, posted this comment on his own blog, Mind Matters, http://fraenrico.carcosa.it/?p=793 , where he discusses libraries, technology and man in the middle.  He notes: Rispondemi sul blog, Sue Myburgh si dimostra “stupita” che il fondamento della disciplina si trovi in una poesia. Io invece no. Perché da sempre ho creduto nel valore ermeneutico della poesia, e dell’arte – che per me sono sempre stati strumenti di conoscenza molto più che non la stessa ricerca scientifica. [In her Answer on the blog, Sue Myburgh proves “astonished” that the foundation of the discipline is in a poem. I do not. Because I have always believed in the value of interpretation of poetry, and art – which for me have always been instruments of knowledge much more than the scientific research itself.] I would like to explain a little bit why I agree wholeheartedly with Enrico: the basis for my ‘astonishment’ is that ‘library science‘ or ‘information science‘ (particularly the latter) determined  that it would be more prestigious for the discipline/profession to be regarded as a natural science, along with chemistry, physics, mathematics, geology and so forth.   The literature shows a long-standing interest in being identified as a science, originating perhaps with Butler in 1933, when he introduced the term ‘library science’ to indicate the scientific and quantitative study of books and users, thus differentiating the field from the older conception of the ‘scholar-librarian’ and Dewey’s pragmatic ‘library economy’ approach.  The leaning towards science continued with Cleverdon’s work on information retrieval systems.  He believed that a researcher was committed to the discovery of truth by means of reliable research instruments and rational discussion, and this desire was expressed in the need to undertake quantitative research, which was, in particularly, quite clearly enunciated  the apocryphal comment by Lord Kelvin in the introduction to Cleverdon’s report on the results of his work, which gave us the strange measurements now used in information retrieval systems ofprecision, recall and relevance – Cleverdon’s attempts at quantification. When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind (Kelvin, cited by Cleverdon and Keen, 1966, p. 31). So, Enrico, what I would like to say is that I agree with you: I too understand that poetry and art, in all its forms, are more potent (and possibly ‘truer’ and more enduring) instruments or expressions of knowledge.  Scientific ‘facts’ are proved ‘wrong’ with regularity – look at Copernicus and Galileo.  But, what ‘astonished’ me is that, in its quest to be regarded as scientific, the field has boldly (or ignorantly) adopted as its basic premise a verse from a poem: the ‘pure’ science is based on a paradox.  Further, I would like to add, Eliot did not for one second suggest that data are the building blocks of information and can be ‘processed’, nor did he suggest that information becomes – or indeed is in any way related to – knowledge.  He was mourning the fact that in our busyness of life, we neglected the important parts (surely something we can identify with today).  It is the ‘pseudo-scientists’ (if I can suggest such a term here) that have created the hierarchy, and added ‘data’ at the bottom and ‘wisdom’ at the top, because it appears to make some kind of syntactic sense. Unfortunately, it doesn’t: data are created, organised, stored, understood, processed, recorded and so forth in completely different ways from those in which information or knowledge are created, organised, stored, understood, processed etc. What do the rest of you think??? Happy Valentine’s DaySue

Archie Dick on the political role of libraries

I understand, like Foucault, that power/knowledge are inextricably joined – not so much that ‘knowledge is power’ (otherwise we would be the most powerful people on the planet), but rather the ways in which knowledge is created, and the ways in which it flows through organisations and society, demarcate routes of power.  And those who control or influence knowledge creation and information flows have a decidedly political power – which is why libraries are the first to go as authoratarian and dictatorial regimes assume control.  Ideas are dangerous: if nobody’s said that already, I’ll say it here.

My good friend, and a man whose work I greatly admire, is fellow South African Archie Dick.  In this short clip (four minutes), he talks a bit about the role of libraries during the Apartheid years in that country.  Food for thought.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNY_B4raML4

Enjoy your day, wherever you are.

All the best

Sue

So, to kick off with definitions

I was taught, back in the day, that when indulging in academic discussion, it was vital to ‘first define your terms’.  So, I’ll bravely (or foolishly) start the discussion on definitions – or explanations – in order to achieve, in the end, mutually understood concepts.  I suggest that the aim here is not so much to attempt to develop a single phrasing or understanding of a term, as much as to understand how each term (‘word’ or ‘phrase’) is used within particular disciplinary territories, or perhaps even for different purposes.  In other words, how are these ‘terms’ conceptualised?

And I’m going to, perhaps even more bravely or foolishly, start with the terms that are so commonly used in our disciplines/professions.  (You’ll note that I put these words together, to suggest their strongly interrelated nature, much like Foucault used ‘power/knowledge’ for the same purpose).  These words are, I believe, data, information, knowledge, documents and records.  After a great deal of exposure to the literature in librarianship, information science, recordkeeping and archival science, I remained frustrated by the overwhelming number of definitions of these terms, and even more by the total lack of agreement and consistency in these definitions.  This gave me the impetus to study this topic in some detail for several years, and I arrived at the following conclusions.

The predominant image or metaphor currently expressed is that of a hierarchy, with ‘data’ at the bottom of a pyramid-shaped structure, supporting ‘information’ at the next level, and topped by ‘knowledge’.  The explanation is given that ‘data’ are the primary construction element: when these are ‘processed’, they become ‘information’ which, likewise, when processed, becomes knowledge.  Exactly what happens during the ‘processing’ phase is not explained.  It is presumed that this can be by a computer, and so ‘data’ can be seen as synonymous with ‘bits’, which are processed and understood (by the computer) as ‘bytes’, these bytes can, in certain sequences, be translated into various symbols (such as letters of various alphabets, punctuation marks, etc.) and so, in various combinations, form ‘words’.  These ‘words’ are not, of course, understood conceptually be the computer as referring to any other entity or phenomenon: they are simply sequences or patterns.  Algorithmically (and computer scientists, I stand to be corrected here), such patterns can be programmed as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ – hence the development of spellcheckers, for example.

The data-information-knowledge model therefore may be useful to computer scientists, if ‘data’ as a term is seen to represented the concept ‘bits’ – the presence or absence of an electrical or electro-magnetic charge.  However, it also suggests that computers are capable of producing ‘knowledge’, which is a conclusion with which I disagree.  Quite strongly.  If this model is used in a human context, it suggests that we accumulate ‘data’ somehow from our environment, and these include things like temperature (rather than the experience of heat or cold), and then process them into ‘information’ – presumably using only our cognitive abilities, which are sometimes regarded as little more than the add/subtract/compare processes of the computer. ‘Data’ are understood largely, in addition, to being ‘facts’ – many dictionaries provide this as an explanation of the term.  The problem with ‘fact’ is twofold: firstly, it suggests that it is ‘true’ – and of course the notion of ‘truth’ and what it is remains largely unresolved – at least in philosophical circles; furthermore, ‘facts’ are socially constructed.  We make ‘facts’ through the ways in which we frame time, space, measurement, power, and so forth.  ‘Information’ is understood to be some kind of result of analysis of the data having been ‘processed’.  But does this mean learned, understood, made meaning of? And information in turn is ‘processed’ (once again, it is not clear what activities are included) in order to become knowledge.  Distinctions are not drawn between the kinds of knowledges that we have: knowledge of things, knowledge about things, knowledge how to do things, etc.  I strongly resist the concepts of  ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge, however, which will become clearer later.

I am of the view that ‘knowledge’ is the place to begin an analysis of the other two concepts.  ‘Knowledge’ is what we, as human beings, have: it is what we ‘know’ – whether we know we know it or not.  Sometimes we have forgotten ‘stuff’, or do not realise that we know ‘stuff’. We acquire knowledge in a number of ways: firstly, we are born with the ability to acquire knowledge and language, after birth we experience the world through our five senses. Aristotle was particularly keen on this idea; Plato felt that our world was a mirage of the true or essential world. We also require knowledge vicariously, through other people, or rather, other people telling us of their direct experiences. If they record these experiences in some way, for example in writing, we may still learn from and experience their experiences across time and space.

So, I understand information to be that part of the persons knowledge that he or she chooses to share our with others, and which he or she will represent using a language of their choice, which may be spoken language, or dance or art or mathematics, for example. Our understanding of the message will depend upon our ability to decode their language: we must be able to interpret the symbolic representation of their ideas. Knowledge is, as previously stated the sum total of the accumulation of ideas and experiences that we individually possess. Data culturally or socially constructed symbols; they may be numbers or figures, or statements: in either case, there are embedded in a particular contextual understanding and represent nearly what is believed to be true at a particular moment and in particular space (which is why I am able to refer to the ideas of Aristotle and Plato).

Finally, I will say that to extend this understanding of data, information and knowledge, (DIK) I further believe that  information is represented in language, and rerepresented in writing–symbols that represent spoken language– which can  be recorded on a material which may or may not be more less durable, and that material constitutes a “document”.  Thus, a document can be understood to be a container of information. Some documents provide evidence of a business transaction, and these documents known as “records”.

I look forward to your analysis, critique, and commentary on these ideas.

All the best, Sue