Information age

I certainly found Hayles more comprehensible than Haraway (which brought me much pleasure in itself…). I ‘ve just highlighted a few points that struck me:

  • The concept of information as disembodied. I’d never thought about this before, particularly to the extreme that Shannon suggested. I think if someone had presented me with this view outside of this context, there’s a 50-50 chance I would have completely accepted it (either in a simplistic way, because info isn’t tactile, or in a semantic way, because it’s only interpretation that makes the various 1s and 0s that form an Excel spreadsheet, for example, ‘informative’–which seems relevant to McKay’s argument); I could have rejected it just as easily on the grounds that Hayles discusses, or because I don’t know enough about neuroscience or computers to decide for myself whether ideas or data files are material or not…! And I think my ambiguity betrays a pervasive cultural attitude about information, whether it’s a both/and idea (sometimes information is material, sometimes it’s not), a typology (this type of information is material, that type is not) or, again, a semantic riddle (e.g. is it only ‘information’ when it is material, but something else when it’s not?).
  • The body as incidental to consciousness. This is of course connected to the first point, but is interesting as a possible link between humanism and posthumanism (p. 4); is Hayles implying toward the end that this is a skeuomorph–a strangely significant leftover from an older philosophy? It doesn’t seem to me that this disembodiment factors into Haraway’s cyborg or Pickering’s posthuman…rather the reverse…
  • The experience of an information/material duality is a culturally limited phenomenon. Hayles points this out clearly, and I think we could take it further to say that much information is only information (I know I’m playing the ‘meaning’ card again, but it seems to keep resurfacing) if it can be translated materially. Impoverished people could be given access to the world’s data on disease cures, agricultural techniques, manufacturing processes…insider stock market tips, my PIN and internet banking password, the PM’s private email address…but without the material objects to make use of this information, or to offer it to people who can, it really is just a collection of blots of ink, 0s and 1s, vibrations of air molecules.
  • But what does all this have to do with education? After blagging my way through an explanation of what I’d been reading this past week, I was confronted by this question. The answer that I pulled agilely out of the hat was that it gives pause to our usual ways of perceiving the entire learning process. To be fair, this goes back to IDEL discussions, and the example of Aristotle’s concern that writing things down spelled (so to speak) the end of good education. But what I pulled from Haraway, Hayles and Pickering was that not only does the typical education process artificially separate fields of study which are really all intertwined, but it presupposes that both these subjects and the students themselves are (as far as learning is concerned) disembodied–Platonic forms of information that can be exchanged and compared, decontextualised, to each other. Examples could range from a spelling test to an economics seminar discussion on stock market fluctuations. In the first case, the actual knowledge being tested is decontextualised, but a part of the cyborg (the dictionary or spell checker) has also been amputated. In the second case, the seminar leader may expect the students to look at socio-cultural factors, the psychology of traders, the history of market economies, etc.–but only in a distilled form in line with the learning outcomes of the course…and, in a live seminar situation, all from the students’ own heads. The simpler version of this is nothing new: would you rather have a doctor who was good at cramming for an exam, or who knew where to look for the latest information?
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The World of Tomorrow

I don’t advocate watching this whole video (regardless of what a smaller member of my household might say), but for about three minutes starting here: The World of Yesterday; it’s interesting to see a few ideas that have become ubiquitous in science fiction to the extent that they can be casually referenced in a rather innocuous children’s show.

Apart from the cyborg children, robot guards and time machine, what I’m interested in is the off-hand reference to the ‘information age’. Somehow from the perspective of the future, this seems to beg the question: was there less information in the past? is it just that access to the information was limited, and/or that the information was dispersed? is information manufactured (i.e., does this follow on from the ages of machines and technology?), or is it rather collected? what comes after the ‘information age’?

The manufacturing versus collecting, I think, is particularly pertinent to Hayles’ discussion of the nature of information–did the shopping habits of Tesco customers always exist as as unused information, or did the information only come into being when it was collected via clubcards? And was it always material in the form of the products individuals bought, or did it only take material form when recorded in a computer…or printed out for the marketing department?

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