In the modern age of the internet, computers and smartphones, we have access to incredible amounts of information. However, often what we seek from this information is knowledge, which can be expressed as raw information that has been reproduced and curated. Professor Steve Fuller discussed this divide at the 2016 ASIS&T Annual Lecture at Napier University on November 30. Fuller discusses the idea that raw information must be curated and edited in order to express actual knowledge, but in the act of reproducing the information for this purpose, data can become distorted and omitted. Fuller cites Wikileaks as a source of raw information that was handed to media outlets to edit and present as knowledge. Wikipedia is another domain that has become one of the most cited centers of knowledge, but allows anyone to curate information and remains unstudied as a whole.
2016 ASIS&T Annual Lecture at Napier University
by Kirsty Pitkin
The Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University in the United Kingdom hosted the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) Annual Lecture on November 30, 2016. Professor Hazel Hall of Edinburgh Napier University opened the event; Dr. Diane Pennington of Strathclyde University chaired the question and answer session at the end. The talk itself was delivered by Professor Steve Fuller, sociologist from the University of Warwick; it attracted an audience of some 100 people, the majority of whom were from Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. A drinks reception followed the talk.
In this era of smartphones and endless connectivity, we can’t seem to get too much information. Yet many academics and pundits have long warned of information overload.
In the ASIST Annual Lecture 2016, Steve Fuller argued that the polarity is itself not new. Indeed, what we value in information as knowledge has always required a selective reproduction process, in which information is systematically discarded and altered. Fuller is considered one of the founders of social epistemology, which is about the social foundations of knowledge, including the ways people relate to information, how this changes information itself and what, if anything, can be called knowledge.
In this lecture, Fuller considered the problem in the context of the production of information and the reproduction of information. He began by citing Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who coined the catchphrase “knowledge wants to be free.” However, Fuller argued that this approach, if taken literally, could lead to a problem of information overload. He highlighted the example of Wikileaks, which he argued is an example of an attempt to make knowledge free in a similar – if not more radical – spirit. The Wikileaks documents are put out in a pure information form, which is then mediated by media outlets, such as The Guardian, who curate and edit the documents for the purposes of publication. In this process, the only way the material begins to have any impact is through a process of curation and editing.
Fuller suggested that this shifts the problem from access to information to reproduction of knowledge: information becomes knowledge only when it has been reproduced. The terms information and knowledge are often used interchangeably, but in this kind of situation Fuller argued that we may want to define knowledge as a product of reproduction.
This leads to the question of what gets reproduced. This has been a long running concern, captured in Ann Blair’s book Too Much to Know. Blair highlights the plight of authors in the Middle Ages, who had an awareness of the enormous amount of information available, and the scarcity of people reproducing that information. Authors had to reproduce everything that had gone before in their text, as there was no guarantee that readers would encounter any other publication. As a result, an enormous amount of power was wielded by reproducers, who could add their own spin that would go undetected.
Here Fuller paused to discuss the original meaning of authorship, defining it as a process of authorization. However, as copyright and intellectual property law developed with the arrival of the printing press in the early 17th century, there was a disentanglement of the role of the editor from the role of the author. A role emerged for expert readers who could make authoritative judgments on published material, moving the authorizing role from the author to critics.
Fuller described his influences on his thinking in this area, including Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom says that poets essentially reproduce the work of their predecessors, but with a twist or bias. This twist could be viewed as a moment of error, where the poet tries to copy an earlier poet and fails, or as a moment of originality. Bloom notes that the difference between error and originality is a matter of interpretation, and this can change over time. It is quite common for a poet to be condemned in one era and viewed as an originator in another. However, the poet is always being evaluated in terms of his or her relationship to previous poets.
Fuller argued that this principle applies across the board to all forms of knowledge reproduction. Knowledge is generally evaluated by its ability to keep within the established rhythms of its discipline, following in line with dominant theories. Criticism is the gatekeeper about what passes. The alternative is to throw all of the raw information out to the market and crowdsource your criticism. This model has been made increasingly plausible with the advent of information technology.
Fuller moved on to consider the difference between distortion and clarification as part of this process. Reproduction of knowledge is a process that happens over time, and the people who have to understand knowledge at different times come with different backgrounds. It is therefore important to consider what they need to take forward and what they can leave behind. This leads to curating and editing, which opens you up to questions of clarification or distortion. Fuller highlighted the field of science which, as a progressive exercise, has to have a strong connection to the past. However, he argued that science masks the process of reproduction of knowledge, describing the past as a streamlined, continuous process. Some information is lost in this process, in the name of producing knowledge, which could give rise to the accusation of distortion.
Fuller concluded by relating these issues to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an example of a collaborative, collective form of ongoing knowledge reproduction, which presents itself as self-critical and is increasingly treated as an authoritative source of knowledge. The U.S. Supreme Court cites Wikipedia more often than the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, Wikipedia remains relatively unstudied. Fuller argued that we are sleepwalking into Wikipedia becoming the primary mode of knowledge reproduction in the world. In a world awash with information, some of which we want to have constituted as knowledge, Wikipedia is ahead of the game. Fuller concluded by issuing a challenge to those in the information sciences to study the micro-practices of Wikipedia in more detail and engage with it as an important piece in this picture.
For Further Reading
https://storify.com/eventamplifier/asist-al16 for a Storify of the event
https://youtu.be/rQCjgrZM3Uo for video footage
Kirsty Pitkin is a professional event amplifier at TConsult who spends her time between events researching better ways to amplify conferences and workshops to a wider audience using the professional and social networks of the participants. Kirsty Pitkin can be reached at kirsty<at>eventamplifier.com