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.

5 thoughts on “The Flood and canon-less context

  1. It sounds like Gleick hasn’t even read Shannon: Shannon never said “meaning is irrelevant”, he said the “semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.” That’s quite a difference.

  2. So the engineer is not obliged to care?

    By contrasting Kelly’s techno-triumphalism with the continental critique of Technik, Morozov points up the moral and intellectual vacuum at work in the Wired founder’s book:

    Invariably, the result of Kelly’s theorizing is that deeply political and value-laden questions of power and ideology are recast in the apolitical language of technology. In some sense, Kelly’s theory suffers from the same problem that Marxist critics long ago identified in Jacques Ellul’s work on the autonomy of technology: it exonerates capitalism, and absolves powerful political and economic structures from the scrutiny they deserve. But there is also a crucial difference between Ellul and Kelly: the former was on a quest to recast the debate about the technological society in moral terms, while the latter is entirely satisfied with the technological vocabulary and seeks only to expand it with a few terms from biology. Ellul’s theory did not resolve any of the major controversies surrounding modern technology, but it was useful in highlighting the ethical void in the technological morality that was gradually replacing natural morality. Ellul did not challenge the fact that technology was making our life more comfortable and longer, but he thought that the price we pay for it was higher than commonly assumed. “We cannot believe that Technique brings us nothing; but we must not think that what it brings it brings free of charge,” he wrote in 1962.

    I think Shannon brings that into the information world. If we’re “engineers of information,” we ought to care what we provide. I guess that’s more my point? The pdf is awesome, by the by.

    • It’s not the engineer isn’t obliged to care, it’s just that the technical aspect of transmitting bits of data is neutral with respect to meaning. Shannon wasn’t concerned with whether “meaning” was transmitted, only with whether you could input data in one end and have the same data come out the other. The meaning part is something else; Shannon was concerned with the actual electrons in wires, so to speak. If anything, I think this sort of genetic neutrality is a virtue. But, I certainly don’t see it as the kind of technological determinism or techno-political bias that Morozov sees.

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