Sunday, August 22, 2004

Some thoughts on information and artifacts

Our discipline has focused on "information". The definition of this term, however, is a bit fuzzy. Some authors (Frohmann for example) claim that we should shift our focus to the study of documents as "information" is a bankrupt concept. A document-centric notion of information, however, fails to account for some of those other valuable information-related concepts we have developed that demonstrate that infomrmation is a social thing (e.g., Fisher's--nee Pettigrew's--concept of "information grounds"). Others (Talja, etc.) claim that we should focus on a more constructivist conception of information.

The tension between information as document and information as ephemeral/social thing is tantamount and has to be bridged.

One possible approach is to recognize that explicit information is a type of technology and that technology is inherently bound up in social practices. A number of authors have posited that we need to explore the relationship between humans, technology, and social systems as an integrated system. Dobres, for example, warns that breaking our object of study into a diagram of entities linked by fine lines leads to a study of the arbitrarily drawn lines rather than of the inidividual entities or of the diagram as a whole.

Dobres explains: "If one accepts this position, that technologies are meaningful acts of social engagement with the material world, then it is both artificial and inappropriate to tease apart 'the social' from 'the symbolic' from 'the material' in an effort to identify the separate contribution each makes to that whole. If the 'whole' of technology rests with the simultaneously symbolic, social, and material experience of being-in-the-world, then disengaging these dynamics from each other, even for heuristic convenience, does that whole a terrible disservice." (98)

So I now have to ask myself how our most popular research methodologies fit into all of this. Dervin's sense-making approach ("methodology"? capitalize?), for example, expressly ignores the document; the material is removed completely. Instead, we introduce a new type of materiality in the form of "gaps", "needs", and "uses". Do these sorts of imposed materialities form a similar kind of "terrible disserice"?

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