On 30th November 2016 Edinburgh Napier University hosted the 2016 Annual Lecture of the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIST). The speaker was Professor Steve Fuller of the University of Warwick.
Kirsty Pitkin of TConsult Ltd provided event amplification for the evening. She broadcast the lecture live over Periscope and also recorded it for the Edinburgh Napier YouTube channel. Afterwards she created a Storify using some of the tweets around the event (tagged #ASIST_AL16), and produced the basis of the summary of Fuller’s key arguments posted below.
Thanks are also due to all those involved in organising this event: ASIST for sponsoring the talk and drinks reception that followed; the Edinburgh Napier staff who organised the venue, ticketing, technology and catering; the research students from the Centre for Social Informatics who helped set up the lecture theatre and acted as stewards on the day; and Dr Diane Pennington of Strathclyde University who – as Chair elect of the European Chapter of ASIST – chaired the Q&A at the end of the lecture and gave the vote of thanks.
What, if anything, makes knowledge an improvement over information? Professor Steve Fuller
Summary of the ASIST Annual Lecture 2016
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 2016 ASIST Annual Lecture Professor Steve Fuller set out to argue that this 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 considered this problem in the context of the production and reproduction of information. He began by citing Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog) who coined the catchphrase ‘knowledge wants to be free’. Fuller argued that this approach, if taken literally, could lead to a problem of information overload. He highlighted the example of Wikileaks. This, he explained, is an attempt to make knowledge free in a similar – if not more radical – spirit. The Wikileaks documents are put out as information. They are then mediated outlets such as The Guardian, which reproduce them in edited and curated form for publication. It is only through these two processes that the material begins to have any impact.
Fuller suggested that this shifts the problem from access to information to reproduction of knowledge. His stance is that information becomes knowledge through the processes of reproduction. He acknowledged that the terms ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ are often used interchangeably, but here argued that knowledge might be defined as an outcome of such reproduction.
This led Fuller to question the material this is reproduced. This has been a long-running concern, as discussed in Professor Ann Blair’s book Too much to know. Blair highlights the plight of authors in the Middle Ages. They had an awareness of the growing amount of information available, and the scarcity of people able to reproduce that information. Since there was no guarantee that their readers would have already encountered the ideas on which the few authors contributions were based, writers in this era were obliged to reproduce much more than modern writers. This also meant that much power lay with these reproducers: any ‘spin’ that they added to their work was likely to go undetected.
At this point of the lecture Fuller paused to discuss the original meaning of authorship, drawing attention to its roots in the concept of authorisation. He explained that copyright and intellectual property law developed following the invention of the printing press in the early 17th century, and how the roles of editor, editor and critic emerged. At this point expert readers who could make authoritative judgements on published material took on the role of authorisation as critics.
Fuller described the influences on his thinking in this area. Amongst these is the work of Professor Harold Bloom in The anxiety of influence. Bloom argues that poets reproduce the work of their predecessors with a twist or clinamen. 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. For example, it is common for a poet to be condemned at one point in history, yet viewed as an originator in another. However, all poets are evaluated in terms of their relationships to previous poets.
Fuller argued that this principle applies universally to all forms of knowledge reproduction. Knowledge is generally evaluated by its ability to keep within the established rhythms of its discipline, in line with dominant theories. Criticism serves the role of gatekeeper here.
Towards the end of his talk Fuller considered the difference between distortion and clarification as part of the process of reproduction. Since the reproduction of knowledge is a process that happens over time, and those who interact with this knowledge offer different perspectives in different eras, it is important to appreciate their agency in the choice of what is kept, edited, clarified, distorted, curated, and/or discarded. ‘Hard’ science, which has to have a strong connection to the past, is subject to this – especially when it seeks to describe scientific progress as a streamlined, continuous process. For example, some information is inevitably lost in this process and thus contributes to distortion.
Fuller concluded his talk by referring to Wikipedia as an example of a collaborative, collective form of ongoing knowledge reproduction. Wikipedia is presented as self-critical and is increasingly treated as an authoritative source of knowledge. However, Fuller cautioned against the drift towards viewing Wikipedia as the primary form of knowledge reproduction. He issued a challenge to those in Information Science to study in detail the micro-practices of Wikipedia and engage with it as an important feature of information and knowledge reproduction.