The Flood and canon-less context

Gleick’s book has an epilogue entitled “The Return of Meaning,” expressing the concerns of people who feel alienated from the prevailing scientific culture. The enormous success of information theory came from Shannon’s decision to separate information from meaning. His central dogma, “Meaning is irrelevant,” declared that information could be handled with greater freedom if it was treated as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness. –Freeman Dyson’s review of Glieck‘s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

The idea that information is something that can free of meaning works against the goals of information literacy. It makes me think of art. The only way to “get” it is by one of two ways: read up on it, or go see a lot of it. These are not bad things in themselves, but they require more time and effort than a lot of folks have. At Art Fag City, Paddy Johnson makes the case that in a culture where intellectual default is institutionalized deconstruction paired with populist leanings, “it’s worth mentioning that one of the few ways we afford expertise in a culture that rejects the canon is by demonstrating that we have more work experience than others.” To Johnson, the result is an emphasis on consuming a high volume of art as a marker of expertise over having a good eye for quality, although she and everyone knows that volume only goes so far, regardless. What volume does get you, above and beyond anything else, is context in he absence of an official canon.

Information literacy should be the art of helping students build up a context. What strikes me as odd about the ACRL information literacy standards is how little they discuss an understanding of context (especially the student’s own) before jumping into the “determination of extents of information,” perhaps it would be wise to back up and ask students to examine the whole field in front of them, even the small parts they already know. The resulting context gives them a chance to develop their taste for information, whereas a contextless search leaves them floundering with the results. In this case, meaning is highly relevant in the information retrieved because it anchors everything in a context: a ongoing conversation that envelops research. By founding information literacy outside of context, we strip the most important part from true literacy: meaning.