Monday, 3 March 2014

The problem with information that "connects"

In our computer age we tend to think of information as ‘stuff’: letters on a screen, signals down a wire, codes in the genome, etc. Information is all "screens and switches", on tap – something to be accessed, recorded, played back, absorbed, analysed. Moreover, our experience tells us that information is the join between a state of "not knowing" and knowing. Information is directed at us for a purpose, it is to be made operational - it points to the way of learning. We hope and expect from teachers that they point us towards information. Indeed, in recent educational discourse, it is not uncommon to find the idea of teachers as ‘brokers’ of access to information, where learning itself can be gained purely from immersion in an information environment. Yet, as our discourse has increasingly embraced this kind of approach, supporting our technological infrastructure, the word information is used in a way where it masks what is being talked about rather than reveals it. Technology has changed the way we think. Our discourse is about individual processing of available information, freedom of personal choice, goal achievement: everything which is about the linear connections between states. This way of thinking about information we might call ‘connecting information’.

We have to give, after all, some kind of label to the thing that happens when people talk together. There are words which are exchanged in text messages and emails: what else would you call it? "Information" will surely do. The problem might be that rather than simply accept this label as a label for the connection between people, we then imbue it with causal powers in its own right. At this point, information becomes an actor. Our “information society” is no longer about people, but about the stuff that exists between people. The “knowledge economy” is about the capacity of individuals and corporations to participation in the creation of information. Universities are particularly guilty of this way of thinking. The problem with this is that it stops us asking an obvious question. What does it mean for people to be connected to one another?

Before the information revolution of the 20th century, connectedness was not a way in which people thought. Rights and responsibilities, positions, roles and duties were incumbent upon a person in their society. The connectivity mantra may have emancipated many in society by giving them choice as to which rights and responsibilities they are subject to because they can effectively choose which communities they associate with. But it may well have enslaved them to a technocratic society at the same time. The challenge in thinking about information is to think beyond the connection.

I've been looking very closely at the work of Luciano Floridi recently (I've written about this before). Floridi's work, it strikes me, is very much about 'connection'. He holds to a Theory of Strongly Semantic Information, where information is presented as a mapping function between questions and answers. Floridi wants to connect truth to information: Am I writing this blog? Yes I am! (but 'no, I'm not' wouldn't be information) What's curious about this, however, is that the further Floridi goes in justifying his connection model, the more he is driven towards having to produce a model of agency. Indeed, I'm thinking that his theory isn't a theory of information at all, it is a theory of agency. Of course, this may be an excellent model of agency, but I wonder about the criteria for deciding if its any good or not. Might it be that the criteria for deciding this depends on the coherence of the model of agency with the theory of information? Where does that leave real experience?

Floridi has yet to produce a theory of learning. He may not believe one is needed. Yet in terms of real experience, the capabilities of individuals to make sense of available information appear to be widely divergent. This has real consequences, not least in the economic and political domain. The domain of yes/no questions and answers is no doubt an important aspect of information (Luhmann agrees with this too). But there is so much more to our agency.

Life processes are morphogenetic. If the information in the genome is the same kind of stuff as the information on the computer screen, then we can say that the biological information plays a fundamental role in morphogenesis of the organism. We don't know exactly how. Indeed, the 'field theories' of morphogenesis which predate the discovery of DNA have better explanatory power than the genome sequencing nonsense that we are surrounded by today. But moreover, the images on the computer screen also play a role in the morphogenesis of society. Once again, we don't know how.

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