Continuing a file from sabb

A few things I wrote to Bryan:

Assessing campus information ecology:

We have to rescue this important concept from buzzword status, and situate it so that it can be used by the people who need it. I just couldn't agree more that this is vitally important, and the Preparing for the Revolution thing lends considerable authority to that.

A campus needs a toolkit and a procedural menu for assessing the health of its information ecology, and I don't think I've seen such things laid out anywhere.

For basal metabolism of the _electronic_ side of campus information ecology, what's needed is a simple app that provides for a suite of easily-gathered and continuous measures of system health and function (overall measures of use, speed, penetration into user community, traffic in-and-out across the membrane) which can be continuously monitored and logged --W&L has such a representation: evidently built on . This is finger-on-the-pulse, good for getting a read on flux over time (diurnal, seasonal, etc.) and identifying new events (viz. the arrival and spread of a new p2p client among students), but it's basically a system administrator's tool, and not much use for assessing how people are actually USING the infrastructure provided, or how use is evolving, or how well or poorly people understand the alternatives they choose amongst.

Participant-observation or 'fieldwork' is an essential part of capturing what people actually do (and of course what they _say_ they do, and maybe getting at what they think they are doing...), though it has the drawbacks of being slow and being subjective. If I ran the circus I'd mount a course for the purpose of gathering relevant information --turn students into researchers (it's anthropology and environmental studies, innit?) and challenge them to create a Webspace to put the Problem before the community.... oh jeez there I go again, thinking of more courses to teach...

from Nardi and O'Day Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart (MIT Press 1999)

For all our readers, what we hope to accomplish is a shift in perception... (15)

The issue is not whether we will use technologies, but which we will choose and whether we will use them well. The challenge now is to introduce some critical sensibilities into our evaluation and use of technology, and beyond that, to make a real impact on the kinds of technology that will be available to us in the future. (22)

It is dangerous, disempowering, and self-limiting to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it [technology] will go away if we don't look. (23)

In our research studies, we have seen examples of responsible, informed, engaged interactions among people and advanced information technologies. We think of the settings where we have seen these interactions as flourishing information ecologies. (24)

...technologies are not neutral --at the very least, they invoke in us certain kinds of responses. These responses are not always pleasurable or advertised features of the technology, but they belong to that technology nevertheless. They are intrinsic features, not results that arise incidentally from use. (38)

When we add new technologies to our own information ecologies, we sometimes try to work in the absence of essential keystone species. Often such species are skilled people whose presence is necessary to support the effective use of technology. (53)

Mediators --people who build bridges across institutional boundaries and translate across disciplines-- are a keystone species in information ecologies. Ironically, their contributions are often unofficial, unrecognized, and seemingly peripheral to the most obvious productive functions of the workplace. Although the success of new tools may rely on the facilitation of mediators who can shape the tools to fit local circumstances, technology is too often designed and introduced without regard to the roles these people play. (54)

Healthy information ecologies are characterized by technology use in a social matrix consisting of services, norms, and conventions. These establish appropriate usage, core values, support, and a growth path for users that helps them become more competent with technology over time if they so choose. These social practices are an important element of diversity in an information ecology, providing not just the actual technologies themselves, but ways to use them. (67)

Information ecologies are systems of parts that fit together well --and the idea of "fit" must be understood in terms of social values and policies, as well as tools and activities. If the practices that evolve in a sociotechnical system are efficient and productive but fail to uphold the ideals or ethics of the people involved, the system will be subject to considerable stress. (68)

Paying attention means deliberately evaluating whether a practice or technology has merit, and if so, what this merit consists of --what does it mean within a particular information ecology? It is tremendously valuable to wonder about why things are the way they are. It is even more valuable to reflect aloud about what has been noticed so that others can take part in the discussion. (69)

Who are gardeners? They are people who like to tinker with computers. They learn the software a little better than everyone else around the office, they're often good at configuring hardware. and they troubleshoot and solve problems when others are stumped. Gardeners like to help other people with technical tasks, as well as learn about computational things on their own. (140)

Gardeners are people who can translate concepts and mechanisms back and forth between the domain of the work and the technology itself. They occupy a special niche in information ecologies, because they bridge the specifics of the domain, with its unique problems and challenges, and the capabilities of the tools used in the domain... They are insiders --active professionals... Gardeners know the work, and they know their fellow workers and their problems and frustrations. Gardeners work right alongside everyone else, performing many duties in addition to gardening. This gives them the ability to respond to local needs with sensitivity and understanding. (141)

In general, gardeners take on the responsibility of customizing software tools for local conditions and assisting their co-workers in using the tools. (141)

Central ideas of ecology that I'd like to see expressed in Information Ecology: flows
webs ==> networks
interdependence ==> connections among entities/objects
redundancy/ redundant pathways
keystone species

John Perry Barlow speaks of Information as a "life form"... is the metaphor stretched too far?

"Information is an activity. Information is a life form. Information is a relationship." This conceptualization of information leads him to conclude that, to the extent information is considered property, information in digital form must change the nature of property and the laws developed to protect it: "In the absence of the old containers, almost everything we think we know about intellectual property is wrong. We're going to have to unlearn it. We're going to have to look at information as though we'd never seen the stuff before" (Barlow, 1996).
cf The Economy of Ideas (Wired March 1994)
From Growing a knowledge economy (Alan McCluskey)
As a starting point, let's look at what Barlow means when he talks about "information". He sees information as an active, living relationship in which data takes form and meaning in how we receive and make sense of it in our own context. Without people to receive it, information doesn't make any sense. Seen from such an angle, information is an on-going process rather than a fixed product. It differs from person to person and changes with time. He also stresses that information needs to circulate. It gains in value as it circulates and multiplies. There is likely to be some confusion using the word "information" in such a dynamic way as I suspect that most people don't think of information as a relationship. Despite this fact much can be gained by following Barlow and exploring the idea of a knowledge economy based on relationships.