icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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Brace brace: there are no pilots for the infosphere!

About theories, or philosophies, of information

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). Brace brace: there are no pilots for the infosphere! About theories, or philosophies, of information . icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 10.5 (May). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-5.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). Brace brace: there are no pilots for the infosphere! About theories, or philosophies, of information. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 10.5 (May). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-5.html

London, 13 August 2021 - Talking about human computer interaction and the work I was used to do in information design, I remembered during the past months something I promoted and wrote about almost twenty years ago. It is what I called at the end of the 1990s the digital librarian or cybrarian as "pilot of the ideas in cyberspace". What a funny and naive idea it appears this now whilst I was light-heartedly, but seriously and even pompously presenting it at the time at conferences and through articles on how to shape continuous professional development programmes at academic level (1).

The truth is that I used the idea to design a programme of short training courses. The concept was then stretched for marketing and presentations to clients and colleagues with the straightforward aim of promoting my own training agency.

In the 1990s there wasn't any particular author I could quote to make my proposals appearing more important and I did not have any sponsor, academic baron or politician to help me out. Those were days of great scepticism and resistance to anything digital or with the word "internet" in it - that sounds now terribly ridiculous. I just ended up saying that we did not have an universal theory of information we could rely on, but if we concentrated on the sectors or continents in which the cybrarian would operate we could notice from the skill shortage how much demand there was for such a unifying theory!

I do not want to discuss this proposition here. I just want to make an apology. It was a contort and clever way to turn the attention of my stakeholders and especially of prospect clients on the practical side of things, saying we needed to elevate the information science discipline (or disciplines) and the status of library and information professionals altogether whereas just saying people had to acquire new skills and competences to work with digital services and products - while there was still huge organisation resistance on digital themes - would not work so well.

The metaphor may be still appear and in truth it can be surely useful today to identify skills needed in order to handle various categories of processes of and for:

  1. information literacy
  2. knowledge management
  3. virtual communities
  4. reference on line
  5. e-learning (teaching / learning on line with the mediation of human interactions)

These five areas, I elaborated at the time, are the sectors in which the cybrarian as pilot of ideas should have agency to lead innovations and new technical systems, from metadata to online interactions, creating new intermediaries roles.

Although it may be perceived today as preposterous and even ridicule, the idea had immediately some influence on policy stances of professional bodies and unions, very politicised. Now we tend to conceive and to manage processes of data information and knowledge gatekeeping with a completely different approach compared to the pre-internet or pre-digital era, based on more participation, engagements, iterative policies and controls that incorporate continuous change and improvements and problem solving.

The metaphor of the intermediary as "pilot of ideas" should have not be taken literally, believing that librarians as well as journalists or training specialists needed to become... the aviators of the digital economy, tracing routes amid the digital clouds for everybody else to follow!

However, believe it or not, respectable authors of various nationalities for the last two decades have produced theoretical essays in the direction of those phantasy, speculating about a very much needed unified theory or philosophy of information.

Time has come for me to say I believe there is no actual need nor actual space for a multifaceted professional role like the one I had imagined and named "pilot of ideas in cyberspace". But perhaps it was not my fault entirely!

At the end of the 1990s and early 2000s there were speculations from various disciplinary corners - physics as well as philosophy - for a unified theory of information: my notion of a pilot of ideas was influenced by those vision of a possible, common and solid foundation for all the disciplines dealing with data, information and knowledge in all forms.

Of course, scholars may want to keep on looking for or speculating about a unified philosophy or theory of information: this will increase the perception that it actually exists or that it is somewhere needed.

It will also grow an already abundant production of literature, journals, research and PhD programs, awards, blogs, conferences providing some sort of backdrop, of high level justification for the entire sector of studies in digital humanities, network science, data science and so on and so forth. But, outside the perimeter of a fascinating intellectual and academic exercise, there is an equivalent large evidence that knowledge and information work does not need to rely on a unified theory of information at all. It is very likely that, in practice, we will all continue to ignore the speculative or theoretical side of things simply because we do not need a unified philosophy or theory of information at all for the foreseeable future.

Roles in libraries, archives, museums as well as in newspapers and magazines or in education, in public policy offices or in corporate libraries show that everybody has his or her own context based values, quality criteria and performance indicators to comply with all related with a certain outcome, result, operation, process and not at all determined by a common theory of information.

It is just out of this world to assume that the basic education and continuous professional development of so many diverse roles need to be defined by a unique philosophy or theory of information - although this may become - who knows! - a... pedagogical dream.

The fact that I saw failing my construct like a sand castle doesn't mean others will be discouraged to try to bridge theory and practices. In any case what is true and valid now as it was twenty years ago is that ICT and digital skills are required for any sort of employment, self employment, business development or entrepreneurial career: you cannot even think of becoming or remaining part of the active workforce without having familiarity with and a grasp of digital technologies, although these are unlikely to create more jobs and opportunities as we were used to believe.

On my side, I came to the conclusion that if we can think of a practical discipline like library and information science as a branch of ontology - a category of abstract knowledge -that... does not mean at all that, in practice, there is a convenience to do so.

Such thinking relates to the practical organisation of libraries and data collections as red herring relates to physics. And we can possibly say the same about data librarianship, data science or data engineering (fascinating subjects in which the main professional point is indeed how to manage change effectively at all times): I see these as pretty much close edifices of different height in the same ward and I look forward to research and practices that investigate the subtle similarities and distances among them in the next future.

In fact, the ordinary truth of the digital economy emerged during the last two decades is that when we work in those five continents I imagined long ago, mentioned above, we do not actually care about the semantic content of the collections of data and documents we inherited from the past and we create in the present, even when it seems we do! Neither our main purpose is to put in place approaches and solutions systematically interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary, although everybody declared they long for them.

We actually disregard as unprofessional and totally out of practical remit and technical scope the preoccupation if books, databases, websites, archives of documents or datasets, newspapers articles, training courses, syllabi and handouts etc etc contain truth or falsehood, great ideas or common lies - although it is in our mission that we contribute to define the usages, the purposes of the products and services and the collections we create and curate with quality lenses and with an overwhelming tension towards values of truth and trustworthiness, honesty, accuracy, consistency. But it will be in the remit of others (the historian, the mathematician, the philosopher, the politician, the scientist, the engineer) to "care" about the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the data they use, in their contexts, in their time and at their pace.

When we have to make decisions about including or excluding items from a story, from a course, a catalog or to classify them in manners that make them more or less accessible and useful to others (that is the heart of any curation effort) we do it accordingly to criteria that are hopefully predictable, external to the semantic content of the collection. We look deeply into the semantic content of a collection only when we have to sort it according to some internal criteria that we will then extract for the purpose of creating some new classification or organisational device, such a special taxonomy or an index, particularly meaningful for some groups of people and less for others (I mentioned this powerful classification hint in another article, Where there is dirt there is a system. About connecting invisible parts for data (systems) engineering).

As knowledge workers, managers, journalists, tutors or librarians or data-someone, what we really care about most of the times is the responsible usage of information by other human beings, groups and organisations: we aim at making possible new usages of data, information and knowledge that first of all do not harm anybody, do not cause disrespect and violation of human rights and do not conflict or (openly incite to break) the rule of law - but there is always a case, from time to time, in which we need to choose between the right of people to say new and difficult things and the current rule of law and we tend to privilege the first - possibly covertly or without upsetting anybody.

In sum, we curate the physical and cognitive accessibility and usability of the data collections and the information we produce, making sure there are no prejudices of sex, religion or ethnic and political nature in our choices and hopefully no unconscious bias. That's all what really counts working with data, even if it sounds... very dull.

We curate the data, the information, the knowledge we deal with, but we do not care. We do not need to derive justifications about the existence of processes and places institutionally devoted to the treatment of data and documents, either public or private, from a foundational theory or philosophy of information, information ethics or knowledge credo or data religion.

In conclusion I do not regret my "pilot of ideas" metaphor after all because it was useful at the time and it gave so much joy of learning and exploring new territories of professional practice and data engineering but, once again, I want to apology for not having had the opportunity to say clearly, before now, that it was not and it is not to be taken literally.

The "pilot of ideas" metaphor helps in some ways to think we need to expand and strengthen the metacognition efforts required by the digital economy - to think about the way we think is perhaps the most important competence we need at many levels in different contexts to develop data science.

Perhaps one day there will be a common curriculum for all those journeys in the different continents of the infosphere. And somebody will employ me to work on it! Would it be this the greatest of all my pilot's ideas -excuse the wit? But for now, we'd better leave the idea of the pilots of ideas in cyberspace to onto-genies and concentrate on what has to be done in this world to make people work and remain active for a very much needed lifelong working society.

Notes

I put forward my metaphorical suggestion of a new professional cybrarian role as change agent of the existing ones and "pilot of ideas" in cyberspace in various articles and conferences papers (in Italian) between 1998 and 2007 including:
- (2003) La formazione del cybrarian tra competenze e credenziali, in AIDAventi. Vent'anni di AIDA: la documentazione fra teoria e applicazioni. Atti del 7. Convegno Nazionale AIDA. Roma, CNR, 2-3 ottobre 2003, a cura di C. Basili e D. Bogliolo. Roma : AIDA.
- (2004) Il metodo delle competenze. In "Biblioteche oggi", 22 (2004), n. 1, p. 7-22.
- (2004) Le competenze del cybrarian. In "Biblioteche oggi", 22 (2004), n. 3, aprile, p.13-21.