Jesse David Dinneen is a PhD student at McGill University‘s School of Information Studies (SIS) with a solid background in Philosophy. He convenes the Philosophy of Information reading group at SIS and is a Web 2.You 2013 speaker. Jesse generously shared his thoughts on some of the current topics in Information Studies.
Jesse, people outside of the Information Studies field get surprised to know that there is more than one definition of information. Many heard of Claude Shannon’s (1949) mathematical approach that treats information “like a physical quantity such as mass or energy” (p. 213). However, very few have heard about Luciano Floridi’s (2005) semantic definition of information. Floridi defines information as “well-formed, meaningful and truthful data” (p. 367). Why does Floridi’s qualitative approach to information appeal to you more than Shannon’s?
I believe it is desirable to have both qualitative and quantitative definitions of such important and often unclear concepts. A quantitative definition cannot be applied without some qualitative definition, which is often provided implicitly at the time of application. A qualitative definition alone may help to analyze a concept but cannot be used to measure items in the world. That said, I believe Floridi’s definition of information, in its general form, is most coherent and useful for Information Studies. I have recently been assessing the practical and theoretical usefulness of qualitative definitions, but I acknowledge the history and use of quantitative definitions generally and Shannon’s theory in particular. I believe the two can be complementary and perhaps synergistic when used in Information Studies, and so I’m soon turning my attention to demonstrating this.
In your recent paper, you present a compelling argument that we need a good definition of information for our multidisciplinary field of Information Studies. Are there any possible limitations to having the field-specific definition of information?
In general, this is not a major concern. Physicists and psychologists have two different definitions of information. This is either no problem or else is overcome by simply acknowledging the fact. For fields that tend to define information quite broadly, however, it would be unusual to have a definition of information that has no potential use elsewhere. Information Studies is one such field, I believe, and I argue that we should adopt the same definition that some philosophers use: Floridi’s General Definition of Information. That said, there may be exceptional cases in Information Studies where it is not the best definition for the job, but these remain to be demonstrated.
It is my understanding that you’ve also been studying certain aspects of Personal Information Management. What kinds of information specialists could this topic benefit and how?
As a field of study, Personal Information Management is concerned with how people manage information, why they do it, how these tasks can be supported, and which tasks are particularly effective. This concern covers not only contexts where massive amounts of digital information are managed, but even tasks as ubiquitous as maintaining a calendar or task list. General computer users therefore benefit indirectly from the efforts to improve software to support their information management tasks, but further, nearly everybody that interacts with information – digital or otherwise – could benefit from adopting effective information management strategies. So, information specialists may not only benefit from Personal Information Management research and practices, but are uniquely poised to understand, disseminate, implement, and teach these strategies.
You spoke about “The Unclear State of the Semantic Search” during the symposium in 2013. Did your interaction with the audience change your understanding of the topic?
My presentation was met with useful feedback. The audience members related their experiences of trying to find and use semantic search tools as they tried to see a perceivable difference in the results of semantically-enhanced search engines. But they either could not find such tools or were not sure about what they were looking at when reviewing the results. This helped me understand a greater context in which these tools exist: it is a point of frustration for the general public as much as for information specialists that these tools and the hype surrounding them are opaque.
Floridi, L. (2005). Is information meaningful data? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70(2), pp. 351–370.
Shannon, C. E. (1949). Information theory. In Shannon, C. E., Sloane, N. J. A., Wyner, A. D., & IEEE Information Theory Society (Ed.), Claude Elwood Shannon: Collected papers
(pp. 212-220). New York: IEEE Press.
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