May 6, 2005

Duguid Talks On Information Age

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For a generation submerged in information, where the scoop on the latest celebrity hookup or the finding from the latest Mars Rover mission pops up at the click of a mouse, Paul Duguid’s lecture yesterday morning in Clark Hall was right on target.

Duguid, an independent scholar with affiliations to University of California at Berkeley, Santa Clara University and Copenhagen Business School, began by observing that on a normal weekday, The New York Times contains more information within its pages than anyone living in Shakespeare’s time would have acquired in a lifetime.

This deluge of information is causing anxiety and confusion in some people while raising pertinent questions of authenticity and trustworthiness, the scholar said. In his talk “Questions of Quality: Wisdom in the Age of Digital Information,” Duguid presented current issues surrounding information to a crowded room of University librarians, Cornell Wisdom Project members and faculty and students in departments such as information science and communication.

After observing America’s rate of information output, “a flood of people from Europe and Asia felt [they] didn’t produce enough information,” Duguid said as an example of information anxiety. According to him, however, the classical assumption that “more information reduces uncertainty” may no longer hold as people “stop thinking so much about quantity” and “start thinking more about the issue of quality.”

Indeed, Duguid recalled that after a New York Times article mentioned that he was teaching a class on information quality, “[his] inbox just exploded … people out there know something about quality that is making them anxious.”

Part of the remedy to this anxiety, Duguid said, is information literacy.

However, he continued, “I’m not going to try to define today what is knowledge, what is information.” People today can analyze past information problems to gleam new insight, he suggested.

Fundamentalism — the idea that information is a fundamental particle and makes up knowledge, which in turn makes up wisdom — is problematic, according to Duguid. Citing Socrates and Plato, the scholar countered the notion of fundamentalism and argued instead that “in some sense, it’s information we end up with.”

Wisdom precedes knowledge, which precedes information, he said. “I’m trying to invert the standard hierarchy.”

Duguid also extracted lessons from Pygmalion, the male protagonist of Ovid’s Metamorphoses who creates a statue of a woman and falls in love with her. Fortunately for him, the goddess of love brings the statue to life.

According to the scholar, the story today is similar except “we don’t have that God at the end. Information is something we create, not something we find as substance in the world.” Many people also fall in love with it, he added.

Duguid further warned that “information lacks that self-referential property check … [it] needs warranty from somewhere else.” For example, a person handing someone a check cannot scribble “good” across the check to certify its value. “That’s the trap we get into — we tend to assume this stuff can speak for its own validity,” he said.

“Amazon works because it’s backed by 500 years of book institution … Linux has all of AT&T and Unix behind it. Even Slashdot begins with a reference, almost always, to a printed article in the world,” Duguid said.

The role of institutions is evident when considering highly respected practitioners like doctors and professors. When a student asks to study Herotodus with a particular Cornell professor, it is doubtful that this particular professor is the wisest person in the world about Herotodus. More likely, Duguid suggested, the brand of Cornell University signals to the student that this professor is an authority on the subject.

“In some sense we do mark knowledge,” he said and later on made this point more explicit by saying, “information comes with a brand.”

Although authors own rights to the information in their books, “we give [publishers] our intellectual property because they’re giving us their brand in exchange,” he said.

He also observed, “… where you say authority lies is not some static or natural category.”

Companies like Dell, Intel and Pentium that manufacture computer parts going into the same machine all want their name to be what sells the final product, Duguid said. “People who are in the same supply chain fight with each other as well as cooperate.”

The assumption that authority lies with the information’s author many times does not hold true. In movie production, the identity of scriptwriters is barely known while names of directors and actors can sell the movie. When browsing reference books, readers look for Oxford or Harvard on the cover rather than the author’s name.

Duguid also discussed the implications of Google Print, a book digitization project and site that allow users to research the contents of books directly, and Google News, a news search engine that links to headlines around the world.

“What’s so good about Google is that it didn’t try to order information … [it] found order elsewhere,” the scholar said in praise of Google Print. He reminded the audience, however, “What it’s doing is barreling sideways into books. It’s because books have front covers and order that this works.”

Google Print relies on the authority and wisdom of traditional libraries to establish its credibility, Duguid said.

He urged libraries to be cautious of other people borrowing their brands.

“Are they [Google print] selling the public domain back to us? Are they selling the quality we’ve created back to us?” he asked audience members.

Likewise, he encouraged libraries to “push back against the easy assertion that Project Gutenberg is a library.”

Project Gutenberg is an online collection of public domain writings.

“We know those assertions are, on the one hand, fundamentally wrong and on the other hand, easily seductive,” he said.

“That whole talk was so fantastic,” Prof. Phoebe Sengers, information science, said after Duguid’s lecture. For her, the scholar’s idea that “information is actually wisdom and knowledge distilled and, to some extent, lost” was a novel one.

Prof. Tarleton Gillespie, communication, called Duguid’s use of the word “brand” within the context of information “a bold move, a deliberately bold move.” Duguid is taking the idea of brands from the commercial arena and putting it in a space where people don’t like to think about it, Gillespie said.

He added, “Paul’s probably one of the smartest people right now thinking about information. ”

Sarah Thomas, University librarian, found Duguid’s talk particularly relevant.

“We’re very much interested in the issue of quality of information,” Thomas said. “University libraries sit very squarely on that theme … we are taking traditional resources and services and adapting them to the informational age.”

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Editor