Ecology of Information

[retrieved from the boneyard via Wayback Machine, June 2005]

29 July 1998
For want of anything else to call the general topic of what's going on with changes in library use, computer behavior, etc. More than simply a buzzword?

Genesis of this weblet: backsplash from a conversation with Skip Williams, which began with ruminating about the forces at work behind the decline in book circulation. Skip noted a general trend of expansion of demand for skills in education, at the expense (in terms of time allocated, among other things) of the sorts of reflective and analytical intellectual content that have been the traditional long suit of colleges and universities. This led me to thinking about how to summarize the broad questions, and provoked the phrase 'ecology of information' --hardly a new coinage, but it seemed like an appropriate general heading.

Of course that led to a quick AltaVista search... Some links, just collected and plunked down for further study:

30 July
I'm not sure whether I should devote much time to this subject --on the one hand, there's some basic thinking-through that seems like it wants to get done to clarify the problems that give librarians the fantods of the moment (declining circulation, and what-all it betokens and foredooms), and that seem to connect with wider problems in college teaching. On the other hand, the buzzwordy trendiness of 'information ecology' might not be worth house room, especially if my thinking-through doesn't lead to some pretty substantial solutions or suggestions for new directions.

It does seem pretty clear to me that 'declining circulation' is an epiphenomenon, a symptom of processes elsewhere that produce effects in quite a variety of realms: libraries, classrooms, deans' offices, etc. And so it's probably worth trying to define and describe the overarching 'environment' in which these processes are unfolding, and locate libraries within that landscape. It's convenient to think of an information landscape, including all sorts of communications media (print, electronic, visual, aural, subliminal...). Some elements of this landscape are fixed in space, others are aetherial; some are broadcast, some are narrowcast, some are never 'cast' at all. Over the last century this landscape has changed (evolved, developed, articulated, complexified) dizzyingly: radio, television, talkies, personal recording capability for sound and video, radar, computer networking, ubiquitous telephony, remote sensing, electronic microscopy, NMR... each of these media changes what it is possible for a person to access, to experience, to know; and each has required the development of new skills for producers and consumers alike.

Educational institutions are inextricably linked to these information media, awash in interdigitated technologies, invested in systems that evolve more and more rapidly, choking on obsolescent hardware, and dependent on priesthoods of technomavens for maintenance and advice on what to do next. Information specialists in schools and universities (including librarians, teachers, computing center staff, software engineers, among others) see and cope with facets of this complexity, but have no viewpoint from which to survey the whole, and generally are limited to reactive responses to unanticipated situations. Insofar as the future is predictable, it seems to promise and demand more: more and faster computers, greater bandwidth, increased necessity for technical skills, broader distribution, more interlinkage.

The specific 'problem' of declining library (book) circulation might be seen as a sign of success of a sort --the "digital library of the future" is becoming a reality before our eyes, but not in quite the way we expected it would. Our expectation is/was probably based more in the print-on-paper model than is justified by the proclivities of the people who are actual users of this "digital library" --we may think of more distributable forms of books, of archives of knowledge of the past which seekers will mine with ever more glorious searching tools, but we retain the image of users as readers. That may not be how they see themselves. We should entertain the notion that printed books are a medium in transition --not that they are 'obsolete', but that some of the uses for which they have been primary are now being assumed by other forms of access and presentation. Getting at the contents of books without reading every word has always presented problems, not fully solved by indexes and tables of contents; by comparison, the phrase-searching capability of such engines as AltaVista offers greatly improved access but does require that the searcher do comparative evaluation of the several documents retrieved by a phrase search. Evaluation of retrieved documents is often identified as "the problem" of web richness, and students are generally seen by professors as lazy or casual, but in any case deficient in evaluative skills.

To get back to Skip's insight about the increasing salience of skills in education: realities of the marketplace and of technological progress make it essential that students learn how to do things (and generally that means using machines and devices) that enable them to write, calculate, find information they need, carry out laboratory exercises. Library instruction is more and more oriented toward skills of tool use --navigating interfaces, decoding metainformation, capturing the results of searches-- and necessarily less oriented toward the mental and intellectual processes that make use of what the tools retrieve. Classroom instruction has been pushed in the same direction in many disciplines. John Blackburn summarizes the situation eloquently:

...graduates are thrown into an increasingly dynamic information ecology (a frontier; a Proustian forest of symbols, media, zeros and ones...). And while they have better tools (GPS, satellite photos, say) for navigating the information landscape, they have less and less idea what to do, where to go, how to evaluate what they find. Simply put: better tools, but sloppier work; more information, less thinking.

(more to follow here, of course)

(and from here on it's pretty sketchy)

Data extraction and data visualization technologies loom on the horizon --and necessitate yet more skill-development (yes, we have the means to handle vast quantities of data, to extract the patterns sleeping within, but the skills required of an extractor are not trivial, nor are the skills of interpreters and presenters of the results) which will become essential for workers in "knowledge management" industries.

Practical things to do to better understand W&L's own ecology of information: broaden the definition considerably, including such gauges as *photocopier use in Leyburn and Science (at least a proxy for photocopying of journal articles), *logins and login time for student computer users, *faculty signouts of journals from Science Library. Point is to try to get more points of triangulation on "information use".

A few words about use and misuse of 'ecology': H.G. Andrewartha's characterization of ecology as the study of "the numbers and distribution" of organisms has appealed to me for its economy ever since I first encountered it. Underlying the observable "numbers and distribution" are inter- and intraspecies relations of various sorts, energy flows summarized as trophic webs, and "the environment" in which the observed activity takes place. Modern biological ecology emphasizes testability and prediction, and demands a rigorous identification of variables embodied in models of behavior that accord with what organisms actually do. The common lay usage of 'ecology' (which "information ecology" has most in common with) pays more attention to description of interrelationships than to modeling and prediction, and is often accompanied by normative prescriptions for the systems under investigation. Hard-nosed biological ecologists have little patience with such flaccid dilettantism.

5 August
John Blackburn's suggestion for a framework for information literacy includes these elements:

A quick scan for sites featuring approaches to 'information literacy' turns up quite a few. Some possibly useful examples:

This should link up with a list of resources I worked on a few months ago.

6 August
Thinking about John Blackburn's 'Information Architecture/Modes of Communication' rubric, I chanced to look up "Shannon and Weaver" via Alta Vista and found some useful summaries:

Also found What happens to writing when texts in "a world on paper" are replaced by messages in "virtual space?" (Finn Bostad)

and Little Machines: rearticulating hypertext users (Johndan Johnson-Eilola)

and Human Communication Theory course from Colorado (Bob Craig)

Not so very far afield is this gem: The Automatic Confession Machine: a Catholic Turing Test (Greg Garvey), which I got to via a search for "Gutenburg near indulgences":

Printed with the high technology of the Gutenburg press, indulgences were a kind of junk bond of the late middle ages that established a monetary valuation on repentance for sins committed. Those who could afford it paid for the remission of temporal punishments i.e. reduced time in purgatory. This system not only allowed the rich to leverage their sin debt but also was a fund raising issue for the Vatican to finance wars and other projects.

Once again I'm inclined to emphasize the extraordinary importance of reading --of searching for and finding seemingly relevant materials, looking through them, keeping track of the process and its products. Despite their enormous importance, these are not skills that get [or could be?] taught in the ordinary run of pedagogy, and I think they're in fact skills that get learned only when people become conscious of the necessity to turn their minds to the personal effort to learn them by doing. This is so obvious that you'd think everybody would have thought of it...