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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 13. Classic and neo- information (editorial)

You've undoubtedly noticed that the pace of cultural change has given rise to new uses to the word "classic": classic rock, Classic Coke, classic cars.  When new things replace old things, the new things usually lack something that we didn't appreciate before it was missing.  What is missing from the new then gives a new value to the old thing that can be indicated with the word "classic."  (The word "retro," by contrast, is trivializing.)  I think that this is sometimes more than simple nostalgia; it is part of how our culture is dealing with the fact that change, or even what is commonly thought of as "progress," is not exactly the same thing as improvement.  (This is true even if you don't prefer classic rock).

This editorial is concerned with the way a new concept of information, which I will call neo-information, has replaced the old, which I will call classic information. Understanding this conceptual change is essential for understanding the "information age."  It is also important in thinking about the role of libraries in an "information society." (The idea I am sketching out here needs to be worked out further at a later date. If you want to help me think about it, please contact me at Roryat .)

Classic information is knowledge about facts or events or the communication of that knowledge.  Libraries provide classic information in the sense that they provide access to reference materials and the facts contained therein. Classic information, is, in a sense, that which is "about" reality.  Long before the information age, libraries provided the classic information that is contained in almanacs, directories, dictionaries, etc.  Libraries also provided access to literature, but literature was not information or something that information could contain; it was a different category. Classic information is a much more limited concept than neo-information.

What I call neo-information is the concept of information created by Shannon and Weaver, and is the accidental development that, in my opinion, gives their work its social significance.  Shannon and Weaver created a special definition of information for use in their theory - it became that which could be carried by a signal in the process of electronic communication.  Electronic signals now primarily carry images and sounds; thus, images and sounds are now also information (neo-information).

Neo-information is also "that which is about reality", but in a new way: in the sense that it is form abstracted from substance or that which gives order and pattern to physical matter.  Thus, your DNA contains the information that gives order to the protein molecules that make up your body.  The TV signal contains the information that gives order to the electrons that hit the phosphorescent screen. There are machines, used by engineers to create models, that take three-dimensional maps or designs created on computers and turn them into three-dimensional objects. And, a TCP/IP stream might contain the information that makes up Sartre's Nausea, thus making literature a subset of neo-information.

In a sense, neo-information is just overgrown classic information: nothing more than very extensive knowledge (whether in someone's mind or only in a device) of facts and events - the facts and events that make up reality.  But in becoming so ubiquitous it has become something new as well. Perhaps the main feature of the contemporary age is the way in which the images and information with which we are surrounded have become our reality.  Where Jean Baudrillard speaks of simulacra, he could just as easily speak of neo-information (or the mediated world we create through our use of neo-information). Where information was originally "about" reality, in the age of neo-information it has become the substance of "reality" itself.

This characteristic of neo-information is what reveals the value of classic information.  Where neo-information creates a new reality that is dependent upon it for existence, classic information is dependent on the real world which it is "about" and privileges that reality. Classic information, therefore, has the potential of maintaining our connection to the real world and authentic existence, while neo-information offers a connection to itself via images, and privileges abstraction.

Today, classic information and neo-information exist side by side under the same name ("information"), and that is the source of a problem, in that neo-information borrows from the moral authority of classic information.  Classic information is related to truth telling, investigative journalism, critical reflection and sworn testimony; the practices which bind us to reality as a group.  Thus we have the moral weight of the saying, "information wants to be free" and the traditional values of librarianship (equity of access to information, intellectual freedom). Because it falls under the same title of "information," neo-information borrows from the value of classic information and uses it to support its own form of non-connection to reality.  

This is evidenced in legal protection for the crappiest corporate entertainment, commercial billboards, and the other junk that makes up our mental environment, and their presence in libraries.

Drawing a distinction between classic information and neo-information is important for thinking about library services in the information age.  In an age where the majority of our experience throughout the day is taken up by "information," how can we begin to think about the future of an institution we understand as being based on "information provision?" With information so ubiquitous, how can we have any claim to being "information professionals" any more than a graphic artist who uses Photoshop or a television producer is an "information professional?"

The answer is to conceive of information as it relates to libraries in terms of classic information and not neo-information.

Shannon and Weaver have been nothing if not a source of   confusion for our profession.

Rory Litwin

Rory is the editor of
Librray Juice,
& an activist within the
Progresive Librarians Guild


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