Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Information Agency... or the Agency of Information

The monk sits on a stool beside a row of dusty shelves scratching his bald pate. He's a bit lost. What was the old Aristotelian 'Position' section is now the new-fangled 'Geometry' section. Damn those students with their trivium and quadrivium! It didn't make much of a difference anyways, he supposed. He couldn't actually see the titles of the books since they were chained to the shelves with their spines facing in. Hopefully this university fad will fade...

Our current models of information still seem to be rooted in our monk's dusty past. Buckland (1991) informs us that "information systems can deal directly only with "information-as-thing." Preferably, dusty books chained to a shelf. Buckland does provide us with an alternative with his "information-as-process" which is rooted firmly in the Shannon-Weaver model of information. Unfortunately we can still hear the clinking of dusty chains in this entirely mathematical model. Instead of books, however, we deal with packets of ones and zeros marching in file. Shannon adds another mysterious twist to his model: it seems that some our marching packets can dissappear á la Schroedinger's cat while at other times they can reappear and procreate... oddly familiar in our age of mechanical reproduction.

After completing the readings I have one nagging question: where does the information need come from? Wilson (1981) gives us some hints: "...the processes of planning and decision-making, will be the principal generators of cognitive needs; while the nature of the organization, coupled with the individual's personality structure, will create affective needs such as the need for achievement, for self expression and self-actualization." Wilson's explanation is a tautology. Planning and decision-making involve the use and production of information and organizations have been described as sense making and information processing machines by several commentators (Weick 1995, Choo 1998).

Reducing the information need ad absurdum we can try to understand why our monk is sitting in his dusty medieval library--for planning reasons? Because of his organization? Possibly. Let's reduce the problem further. Would Buckland's wild antelope have a need for information? Would an antelope pregnant with twins seek information from its chiropracter?[1] Not likely. I contend that the need for information is a phenomenon of technology. Without technology the problem just goes away. This condition becomes clear with Knorr Cetina and Bruegger's (2002) recent investigation of individuals who work with nothing but information: professional equity traders. They maintain that technology--the trader's computer screen-- is not just a conduit but the crucible for information:

"In a sense, the screen is a building site on which a whole economic and epistemological world is erected. It is not simply a 'medium' for the transmission of other interactions." (pg. 167)

In describing how the traders interact with this world of information, Knorr Cetina maintains that the information is a dynamic thing. She compares it to the weather. The traders themselves, however, claim that the information is a living and breathing thing; it gives them riches; it makes them poor; it requires tending and above all--it can be dangerous. For the traders, information has agency. Knorr Cetina and Bruegger reinforce this notion by invoking Lacan's belief that we only realize our needs and shortcomings through what we observe around us. In this case it is the agency of information and what information has revealed of itself that guides the traders' information needs.

The concept that information has agency may seem a bit far fetched and possibly paranoid. The sociologist of science Andrew Pickering, however, maintains that a similar concept operates in modern science. In The Mangle of Practice (1995) Pickering states that science is developed through the interaction of various actors including scientists, materials, machines, and documents. To the people he assigns human agency and to the rest he assigns "material agency". And they're all equal partners. The noted absence of "information agency" may just have been an oversight.

Now we're left with a different concept of information: something with agency that exists only as an artifact of technology. Rather than Buckland's concept of "information-as-thing" which fills buckets and syringes, information has become the bucket that decides what to fill itself with. Furthermore, the buckets float around as if enchanted by the magician's apprentice. Through our struggles to deal with these ever-increasing buckets, we realize our own information needs.

How does this model of information stack up against Belkin's stringent criteria (1978): Is it relevant? Can it be operationalized? [2]

By relegating inter-personal communication to a function that is initiated through the agency of information and what information chooses to reveal of itself, the definition becomes exceedingly relevant using Belkin's criteria. Indeed, it makes most of the criteria moot.

The operational criteria maintain that a definition for information should extend beyond the individual case (Criteria 7), and should offer a means of predicting the effects of information (Criteria 8). Again, the model clearly accounts for criteria seven and eliminates criteria eight completely; By definition, an entity with agency can not be entirely predictable.

What's missing from this definition is a sense of teleology. If information has agency, what exactly is it up to? What do the monk, the pregnant antelope, and the equity trader have in common? This question is considerably harder to answer. One thing is clear however: since the monk's time both information and technology have become more prevalent. If one were to believe in a sort of operant mimetics, information has been very successful at reproducing and populating the earth. Where will it go next?



1. Note that an antelope in a museum that was pregnant with
twins would certainly be provided with extensive expert council from specialists.
Its need for this information, however, is still unclear.

2. I have to wonder how Belkin determined these criteria to
judge the existing theories. Are they based on a particular Common Law of information
science or some sort of Napoleonic Code? Or are they based on Belkin's use of
"literary warrant" (pg. 65).



Belkin, N. J. (1978). Information concepts for information science. Journal
of Documentation
, 34(1), 55-85.

Buckland, M. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society
for Information Science
, 42, 351-360.

Choo, C. W. (1998). The knowing organization: How organizations use information
to construct meaning, create knowledge, and make decisions. New York: Oxford
University Press.

Knorr Cetina, K., & Bruegger, U. (2002). Traders' engagement with markets
- A postsocial relationship. Theory Culture & Society, 19(5-6), 161-189.

Pickering, A. (1995). The Mangle of Practice : Time, Agency, and Science.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wieck, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. New York: Sage.

Wilson, T. D. (1981). On user studies and information needs. Journal of
, 37, 3-15..