Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Studying Information

Since starting my PhD program in Information at the University of Toronto (iSchool), I keep getting asked what this exactly is. Or they comment that I'm really studying "Information management", "Information technology", or "Library studies" which isn't my case (although it does apply to others). I answer by talking about my research interests (online interface design, usability, user experience, online participatory culture). But I didn't have a good sense of the overall field to share.

Having completed most of my first year of my PhD in Information at I now feel I have a good understanding of the field. Prior to coming to iSchool I researched particular faculty members and found that there were a few that were pursuing the type of reserach I wanted to, but I didn't have a sense of the field. To add to the (my) confusion, the program is interdisciplinary so there are overlaps (at times bewildering) with other departments, such as computer science, sociology, education, communication, and political science.

First, I don't like the term "Information Science" as there are a lot of problematic assumptions that go along with the term science, such as a belief in the supremacy of the scientific method, a bias towards quantative research, a philosohical outlook on the nature of knowledge (postivist). I'm fine with the term "Information Studies", but my faculty is moving just to "Information" as I presume the studies is extraneous for a university program.

The next challenge is defining information. There doesn't appear to be a strong consensus on this and some definitions complicate the concept more than necessary. I believe information is a simple as data communicated and understood. Data may take the form of letters, symbols, numbers, and images. It can be communicated via verbal messages, printed words, visual signals, body language, live music, radio waves, binary code, etc. It becomes information when it has been transmitted from a soruce or sender to a human or animal receiver who perceives the data and understands the significance.

If it isn't understood it remains data or is misinformation. If I don't speak the language of others and they are talking to me, their intent might be to give me information but I receive gibberish. Similarly, if a book collects dust in the recesses of a collection forever unread, the potential for it to offer information is lost. I don't think computers can pass information to each other as they can't yet really understand it, they just follow existing rules and commands. I also don't like definitions that focus on its human role as animals clearly communicate information to each other and to humans.

We are surrounded by information throughout our daily life. Often we are unaware that we are perceiving information, it's just part of our routines and environment:

Alarm clocks. Hungry, pawing cats. Whistling kettles. Hollering children. Traffic signals. Talk radio. Elevator buttons. Overloaded email. Conference calls. Monotonous meetings. Revealing yawns. Secret texting. Watercooler gossip. Trade magazines. Intranet news. Abysmal filing systems. Clock watching. Transit delay messages. Omnipresent advertising. Microwave beeps. Intrusive telemarketers. Escapist entertainment. Facebook updates. Snoring spouses.

The components of information may not always be evident, as we tend to focus on the content of messages and not the message structure or its supporting infrastructure. It is the task of those studying information to examine the components that affect the transmission, storage, and comprehension of information.

To uncover these components information scholars examine the physical environment, social conditions, cognitive patterns, and design implications of the information ecosystem. From this study, we can then better understand how information is produced, recorded, organized, shared, retrieved, and stored. We thus learn how to improve information practices and behaviours or how to design better information technology or systems.

This is my take on the field. I'm still a newbie, so I'm sure I still need a lot more information about information.

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