Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why a librarian’s perspective? The rebirth of metaphysics

The most disappointing thing about my undergraduate survey philosophy class was the lecture where I was informed that that Kant effectively ended metaphysics in the 18th century by defining the limits of what could be know. Essentially, all of the interesting metaphysical questions were unknowable (i.e., what is the nature of God, man and the universe, etc?), at least from the perspective of the acceptable epistemologies. Consequently, why bother?

I rediscovered metaphysics a decade years later as a graduate student in library and information science. The rebirth of metaphysics can be found in the question: What is information? Is it property? Is it like fire? How is different from knowledge? From data? What is its relation to the mind? Is it confined to a physical medium? Information has many strange properties. It can be replicated exactly, making it possible to share indefinitely without diminishment of use of the original. It leaks almost as if it had a life of its own—after all, DNA is coded information and is self-replicating. In the words of Harla Clevland:

Information is diffusive. It tends to leak; the more it leaks the more we have and the more of us have it. Information is aggressive, even imperialistic, in striving to break out of unnatural bonds of secrecy in which thing-minded people try to imprison it. Like a virus (itself a tiny information system), information tries to affect the organisms around it, whether by over-the-fence gossip or satellite broadcasting. The straitjackets of public secrecy, intellectual property rights, and confidentially of all kinds fit very loosely with this restless resource. . . . . [T]he leakage of information is wholesale, pervasive, and continuous. And the technologies of the leak are gaining fast on the pitiful efforts to bottle up information. . . . The Knowledge Dynamic, in THE KNOWLEDGE EXECUTIVE 32-33 (1985) 

The modern approach (from Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver) is quite utilitarian. It defines information in terms of “that which reduces uncertainty” and considered in context of information channels—all we need to do is optimize the channel and we can solve the problem of “what we have here is a failure to communicate” or control (e.g., Cool Hand Luke). It has been connected to anxiety (eg.Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety). Perhaps, information is the valium of the modern age, although it performs its task, without euphoria, but through providing order. If information reduces uncertainty, it plays a similar role to law—“the law must be stable, but it cannot stand still.”

An earlier definition of information is quite different. The Latin informare means “the action of forming matter, such as stone, wood, leather, etc.,” or, with respect to informing humans, “the action of informing; formation or molding of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching; communication of instructive knowledge.” In this definition, information is transformative, but the modern definition, based on anxiety, is utilitarian. In an article on the subject, I pointed out that the modern definition has caused society (including legal institutions) to consider information as something to be minded, harvested, collected, controlled, monetized, commoditized, restricted, etc. Legal information has lost its transformative sense and instead is the basis for instrumentalism. It facilitates the skeptical view that there is enough law to make any argument necessary for victory in our adversarial legal system. This viewpoint has not always been predominate, especially in other cultures, and earlier in American legal history. See Law and Heidegger's Question Concerning Technology: A Prolegomenon to Future Law Librarianship, 99 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL, 285-305 (2007).

The nature of information is important in current events. Is it property that is most effectively allocated in the market through copyright and licensing? Is the “right to information” so important that Wikileaks’ disclosure of classified US documents is to be applauded as necessary for government accountability or condemned because of the risk to international security? What is its connection to human rights, such as privacy? Should the definition of cyberware in international law, include ideological warfare by means of providing or encouraging access to differing viewpoints (e.g. Voice of America Radio and Twitter, per Iran), ideas, and values (sometimes in conflict by the ruling rĂ©gime)? Is information ever corrosive (such as pornography)? Does freer access encourage the development of culture and good citizenship or cause its decay (e.g. violent lyrics or the function of radio in the Rwandan genocide)?

I could go on, but I’ve been taught that too many questions in a “no-no” in good writing. Any way my argument is that such questions suggest there is ample justification for philosophical consideration of the nature of information and legal information. This is one reason, among many others, why we need philosophers in the library.


  1. If you are looking for a new metaphysics, why not focus more on the relationship between information and narrative. You seem to dance around it in this post, but never quite come to it: information flows to narrative the way water seeks the easiest route to the lowest point. That may be why it is said to "leak." Apt analogy. Narrative is a created act of order, presumably with purpose or meaning or intent (even if subconscious). Between information and narrative we might ask which is God and which is man and what then of the universe? Have you encountered Hayden White at your end of the academic pool? He was radical in the 60s and 70s, but not a household word, part of the pablum we spoon feed undergrads over here in the House of History. He and others have a lot to say about the origins of (historical) narrative. Does it originate in the documentation (information?) or in the historian himself? I tend to think that it originates in the historian. We create narrative. We can do nothing or think or feel nothing that we hope to understand without creating narrative. All information must be placed in narrative in order to be understood. There is no Truth without narrative, nor Falsehood either. You will not even be able to deny what I'm saying (if you should be so inclined) without creating a narrative in which to do it. We cannot make sense of any experience or data without the framework of a narrative. It is why we need more historians in the library, too.