Information &c.

Boell, Sebastian K. 2016. Information: Fundamental positions and their implications for information systems research, education and practice. Information and Organization 27: 1-6.

Information is an important concept for the "information age", the "information society" and the discipline of Information Systems (IS). However, different conceptions of information often make incommensurate assumptions about what information is. This essay introduces a 'consequential framework' revealing different assumptions made about the nature of information and the consequences following from these assumptions. According to this consequential framework four stances on the existence of inormation can be distinguished: (1) A first stance assumes information to exist independently of humans as part of the physical world, for instance, in the structure of the universe or the transmission of signals; (2) a second stance assumes that information exists in signs but in an observer independent way, such as in objective facts about things; (3) a third stance sasumes that information exists only in relation to a subject, so that the same document, report or data will convey different information to different individuals; (4) a fourth stance assumes information to exist within a sociocultural setting, as lawyers, doctors or accountants differ in what is information to them. Each of these four stances makes vastly different assumptions about how information can be accessed and used by humans. (Boell 2016: 1)

Finally someone articulates the difficulty with the concept of information. I recall arguments about whether books left unread in a library repository contain "information" if no one reads them (i.e. the third stance here).

Academic fields require shared agreement about concepts that are central to their research as they provide the "theoretical glue" that helps different branches of a field to relate to each other and form a coherent whole (Whetten 1989). [...] In order to overcome the lack of thorough conceptual engagement with information, IS researchers require greater conceptual clarity as to the range of existing conceptions of information, how conceptions differ from each other in their assumptions about what information is, and subsequently what conceptions are useful for different research purposes. [...] Proper engagement with existing conceptions of information is thus essential for developing conceptual clarity (Lee 2010). Moreover, understanding how conceptions differ is necessary for identifying approaches to information that are appropriate and promising for advancing engagement with different IS research problems. [...] Instead of defining one 'correct' or 'best' conception for understanding information the framework introduced here equips IS researchers with meta understanding of the information concept in order to support them in the development of new and diverse conceptions to information for IS. (Boell 2016: 1)

This is what's missing from phatic studies - the central concept is understood in wildly different ways, even within single disciplines.

Secondly, revealing that each of the four stances makes different assumptions about the nature and existence of information the essay discusses consequences following from each of the four different stances. That is, different stances on information have implications for understanding other important IS concepts such as data, knowledge, signs, human beings, social context, and technology. (Boell 2016: 2)

In the three primary lines of phatic thinking, the consequences follow from the linguistic units under discussion and the "representative anecdote" of the definition. What's somewhat problematic is that each actually has more than one representative anecdote but some are preferred more than others.

The first conception understands information as data that is processed. In a survey of the current use of the information concept in IS research McKinney and Yoos (2010) argue that most IS research adopts a ‘token view’ of information according to which information is an “undifferentiated commodity of data bits that are processed” (McKinney & Yoos, 2010, p. 331). (Boell 2016: 2)

Since information content is such a lofty topic in phatic studies, I'll note that the prevalent interpretation is that phatic expressions are meaningless exactly in the sense that they are perfunctory tokens that aren't supposed to contain any actionable information. The form itself should serve as a cue for the proper ritual routine.

There are literally thousands of publications discussing information on a theoretical and conceptual level across IS and its reference disciplines (c.f. Bates, 2010; Zaliwski, 2011). Relevant literature on information was thus reviewed in a way that ensured appropriate breadth in the coverage of the broad range of existing conceptions of information, while also ensuring depth in covering particular conceptions of information that are of interest to IS. (Boell 2016: 3)

Reference groups and reference disciplines?

Based on careful reading and thorough assessment of the whole range of different conceptions of information four criteria for distinguishing individual approaches to information were established: (1) A conception of information was allocated to the ‘physical stance’ on information if the conception relates information to physical concepts or the physical world in general. (2) A conception of information was allocated to the ‘objective stance’ on information if, the conception relates information to human understanding and signs where information is understood as existing objectively independently of a recipient. (3) A conception of information was allocated to the ‘subject-centered stance’ on information if the conception requires the appropriation of information by a subject. And (4) a conception of information was allocated to the ‘sociocultural stance’ on information if information is conceptualized as dependent on a wider sociocultural dimension. (Boell 2016: 4)

The labels for these stances were missing from the abstract.

Importantly, Shannon himself noted, as he was interested in the accurate reproduction of the signals that were initially sent, the question of whether a transmitted message is actually meaningful, relevant or useful is irrelevant as such concerns are not part of his theory (Shannon, 1948, p. 379) (Boell 2016: 6)

Shannon was an accidental phaticist?

The objective stance on information therefore encompasses conceptions that understand information as contained in signs in an observer-independent way. Authors use different approaches to argue for an objective stance on information in relation to signs. Some argue that information is objective as it is contained observer independently in sign-vehicles. Others seek to differentiate information from meaning, or to define meaning as something that is independent of a subject. (Boell 2016: 6)

Interestingly, thus far the receiver's side is dealt with (Peirce is quoted, etc.) but no mention yet of the sender. I would have thought that the difference between physical and objective stance is the distinction between an inanimate and animate source of information.

The subject-centered stance on information understand information in relation to a subject. Information depends on a subject as they regard different messages as relevant or comprehensible and therefore as information to them. Subject-centered conceptions therefore commonly argue that information is something that is appropriated by a subject, which makes information something that can only exist in relation to a subject. (Boell 2016: 7)

This poses two issues for phatic communion: on the one hand phatic expressions may be considered irrelevant or incomprehensible, but still informing them of something.

A second group of conceptions describes information as an internal shaping of a subject. Yet other conceptions link information with knowledge, where knowledge is understood as something that is bound to a subject. One move is then to understand information as a subject's change in knowledge. Another move is to define information as a subset of knowledge that is relevant in a specific situation to a particular subject. (Boell 2016: 7)

This is akin to the Relevance Theory approach to phatic communication, which does look at "internal shaping" of implicatures, for example.

Furthermore what also follows is what MacKay (1969) called ‘conditional readiness’ or ‘state of conditional readiness’ (SCR), namely that an informee's predispositions will determine their ability to be informed by particular messages. Accordingly what is regarded as information will depend on an informees prior knowledge and understanding. (Boell 2016: 8)

This would include "thesic affections" and other kinds of anticipations.

The reason for this is that while IS professionals generally deal with IT they also differ markedly in their orientation towards technology. For instance, practitioners dealing with IT in terms of signal processing and algorithmic aspects generally share a scientific orientation towards information as physically measurable bits and bytes. System analysts and conceptual modeling professionals assume that processes objectively exist in the world and thus objective information about them can be discovered, captured and made available independently of individual users. In contrast, practitioners interested in the implementation and adoption of IT share a psychological conception of information according to which users, depending on their backgrounds, attitudes, and expectations, derive different information from the output provided by an IT system. Finally, practitioners managing IT infrastructure such as social media engage with IT as enabler of “real” organizational change and strategy, understand information as dependent on social processes, the culture of an organization and broader technological and societal changes. (Boell 2016: 12)

The third general iteration of these distinctions solidifies it, for sure. I'm personally situated in the psychological and sociocultural frameworks.

Mingers, J. C. 1996. An Evaluation of Theories of Information with Regard to the Semantic and Pragmatic Aspects of Information Systems. Systems Practice 9(3): 187-209.

Broadly, two views of information can be discerned. The most common suggestion is that information is data that has been processed in some way to make it useful. Philosophically, this involves an implicit assumption that data and information are objective, that is, independent entities with their own structures. An alternative view emphasises the subjective nature of information - the idea that different observers may generate different information from the same data given their differing values, beliefs, and expectations (Lewis 1993). (Mingers 1996: 187)

The previous paper, it turns out, added the extremes - the physical and sociocultural, which respectively stretch these two out further into either independence or interdependence.

Finally, and of lesser importance, is the extent to which a particular concept of information matches our daily, commonsense usage of the term. If other criteria are equivalent, it would seem better to adopt a theory which fits in with our intuitive notions than one which does not. For instance, some theories maintain that information is the change in expectations in a particular person caused by a particular message. In this interpretation, reference books and railway timetables contain no information at all except when they are read, and then only in the head of the reader. Derr (1985) has produced an analysis of the concept of information as used in ordinary language. (Mingers 1996: 192)

This is pretty much the library repository books case. According to this view, phatic communication lacks information because it does not defy expectations, normally.

Nauta (1972) and Artandi (1973) do bring in the actual state of knowledge of a receiver. Nauta (1972: 179) describes pragmatic information as "that which removes the doubt, restricts the uncertainty, reduces the ignorance, curtails the variance." This clearly makes information strictly relative to the receiver. The more prior knowledge that the receiver has, the less information that a message can provide. Indeed, a message that is repeated must convey zero information since it is already known by the recipient. Conversely, the message must be comprehensible to the receiver for it to reduce uncertainty, so messages in unknown languages or unfamiliar symbolic systems also convey no information for particular people. Nauta (1972: 222) also clarifies the pragmatic nature of information by making it clear that the uncertainty to be reduced is always relative to particular purposes or goals. (Mingers 1996: 197)

This might prove valuable for the pragmatic re-interpretation of Malinowski's "language as a mode of action". It's been over half a decade since I first read Nauta.

Luhmann takes Mackay's idea that meaning is not primarily content, but a function for selection. Meaning functions at two levels - the psychic (individual), where it frames or orders our experiences, and the social (society), where it makes possible intersubjective experience and communication. Meaning, in fact, connects these two levels and makes possible their differentiation. (Mingers 1996: 200)

So, you can find meaning in both intrapersonal and interpersonal communication.

Meaning is a relation between what is selected (presenced) and what is not. What is selected is only as it is by virtue of its difference from what it is not. Meaning connects present actuality to future possibility. It is the way the present is selected, and is the connection to the next instant's selection. It can be characterised by differences, or rather negations (what is not selected), in three domains - factuality, what is selected, sociality, who is selected, and temporality, when in terms of before/now/after. The particular selections made depend on our individual preexisting set of readiness or expectations, but the resulting experiences may, in turn, change our expectations. It is the change that Luhmann terms information - the surprisal value of a meaning complex for the structure of expectations. As before, information is always relative to the receiver while meaning is not. Thus the same message or event will produce different information for different people depending on the extent to which it accords with their prior expectations. And a repeated message retains its meaning but loses its information. (Mingers 1996: 201)

Very reminiscent of Peircean "futurity", though without interpretants, growth and habits. The definition of inormation and meaning here is pretty much that of cultural semiotics. MacKay could be a common source for Lotman and Luhmann.

Machines, such as televisions or computers, transmit all the information they receive, but cognitive systems such as brains can be selective - they exhibit intentionality. That is, out of the large amount of available (nested) information, only some is selected and passed on as a belief or message. Dretske calls this the semantic content of the signal and it is equivalent to meaning. Dretske terms this process of selection a digitalization of the analog. Signals in the world and our perceptions of them are generally analog - they are rich in information. Our nervous system processes these perceptions to focus on some particular aspect of the scene which becomes our conscious experience of it - its meaning for us. (Mingers 1996: 203)

What of quasi-selection, i.e. selection brought about without intention, or even contrary to intent? The latter part is also dubious on the face of it - is meaning simply conscious experience?

Schwarz, Andrew; Manjari Mehta, Norman Johnson and Wynne W. Chin 2007. Understanding Frameworks and Reviews: A Commentary to Assist us in Moving Our Field Forward by Analyzing Our Past. ACM SIGMIS Database: the DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems 38(3): 29-50.

Our findings suggest that, among other things, a "good" framework article should offer a clear guideline (indicating possible problems that can be examined within the stated framework), consist of a parsimonious set of elements, and have a clearly defined boundary. On the other hand, a good review article should advance the field as a result of consolidating prior research, identify and propose testable hypotheses, and focus on simplifying past results. We also found that both framework and review articles can be characterized according to their stated objective, comprehensiveness, relationship to research boundaries, temporal focus, and content focus. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 29)

Review is past-oriented, framework future-oriented? Review simplifies, framework reduces?

Triangulation, a validity procedure used by researchers to search for convergence among multiple sources of information and methods of data collection and analysis. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 30)

"Triangulation" works for my review aims, as I have three main authorities to review.

Review articles from Annual Review of Psychology and Annual Review of Sociology were retained despite their casual one-time usage of these terms, because they were indeed 'review' articles, albeit without a framework to structure their review. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 31)

I'm afraid my review portion is heavily conditioned by framework, and vice versa, but this appears okay since the latter portion of the paper says that a framework should grow out of a review.

To summarize the assumptions of a research stream. A framework article can examine the literature to uncover the philosophical and epistemological assumptions that underpin a given research domain. While philosophical positions can not necessarily be reconciled with one another, a framework article unifies the views by finding an underlying structure and then illuminating how those differences manifest themselves within the literature. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 33)

Exactly what I'm trying to do, though hampered by the fact that the philosophical and epistemological assumptions of 20th century phatics are very superficial and the ones from 19th century are indecipherable, having to do with then current moral philosophy.

To summarize prior research. While a framework seeks to integrate past research, review articles do not share this objective - rather, a review is a reflective presentation of prior research in a condensed form. Using prior research as the "data" (similar to a framework), a review articles [sic] does not seek unification, but to describe what has been studied before in a condensed version. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 35)

The problem here is the sheer amount of previous research, and the difficulty of staying up to date with even current ones (there are some 300+ Google Scholar Alerts reports in my inbox).

The objectie of framework articles is to either integrate, or summarize, or conceptualize, whereas the objective of review articles is to consolidate. While a framework article focuses on unification (e.g. the key words of integrate, summarize, synthesize), a review article is concerned with critical consolidation (e.g. the key words of critical examination, explain, and reconcile). (Schwarz et al. 2007: 39)

Unification vs. consolidation. Aren't these near-synonyms?

Framework articles need not be comprehensive, but it is critical that review articles are comprehensive. Because the objective of review articles is to consolidate, it is essential that these articles comprehensively examine all of the prior literature to be effective, while a framework only needs to examine that portion of the literature necessary to adequately unify the particular research streams being considered. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 39)

In a word, I would have to be comprehensive in a review paper but not in a framework paper. In the first case it would be advisable to jam in as much relevant information as possible, whereas the second could do with a smaller selection of sources releant for unification.

Framework articles define boundaries, whereas review articles are centered on or constrained by pre-defined boundaries. Extending our argument about the need for a framework to present a cohesive and comprehensive theoretical system, a framework defines what does (and does not) constitute the boundary of the stream, while a review operates within the pre-defined boundary and summarizes the prior work that has been created within those limits. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 39)

A review paper of phatic studies would have to follow disciplinary lines (anthropology, linguistics, sociolinguistics, social media studies, etc.) but a framework article can draw new boundaries between different approaches, unifying some and dispensing with others.

Framework articles tend to have a prospective focus, whereas review articles have a retrospective focus. A review article is retrospective and focused upon the contributions of past research, while a framework article can be grounded in the past (e.g. to integrate), in the present (e.g. to aid in the analysis of data), or in the future (e.g. to provide a new focus for researchers). Therefore, the time orientation between framework and reniew articles is different, in that a review is more historical (or descriptive of the past), while a framework can be more prescriptive of defining what lies ahead. (Schwarz et al. 2007: 39)

Here arises a minor issue: the framework I'm intending to propose is heavily based on historical data, and aims to go even beyond (further backwards in time) from the first authoritative (historical) studies. So, while Malinowski, La Barre and Jakobson do represent lines along which unification can be undertaken, their core arguments are better represented by older 19th century literature.


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