I’m posting this week’s write-up a bit late since this week was basically spent furiously packing and then on the road, moving from Bloomington, Indiana all the way to Boise, Idaho! This week we’ve got photos of that trip, plus reflections on a book I read before the trip.
Here’s a few of the photos I took along the way. We had time to take a northern route from the midwest, so we drove: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Wyoming again (for a corner of Yellowstone), and then into Idaho! Along with getting to see the college(-ish) towns of Grinnell, Rapid City, and Bozeman, this means that I’m down to only needing to visit 9 more states before I’ll have been to each of them.
Here’s a few of the photos:
Before leaving Bloomington, I finished an e-book I’d been reading through IU’s Wells Library: Luciano Floridi’s 2010 Information: A Very Short Introduction. There’s a slight chance I’ll go back and re-read it in order to write a more sustained “review” since I’m now just looking at reading notes from a few weeks back, but I’d be much more inclined to engage with his less introductory works, particularly on the topic of information ethics. For now, here are some reflections on my first, admittedly somewhat scattered reading of it.
I was motivated to read Floridi’s work because I’d like to find a good introductory read to suggest to friends & family who ask what it means that I study “information”—and to re-visit myself when looking for a mental “reset button.” I’m ultimately glad I read this book, but I’m going to keep searching for an introductory text. Each of Floridi’s chapters feels like an adaptation of a different week’s seminar or set of lectures. He usefully gives definitions, but his discussion of these occasionally leaps between ideas that could benefit from more explicit linkage. If you were already considering reading it, it’s worth your time—it’s a reasonably quick read for anyone already familiar with the topics and works well considering the substantial constraints of producing a “very short” introductory work to the topics. I certainly don’t envy the task of producing a work so short it’ll inevitably disappoint your most interested readers!
One main reason I’m considering re-reading this—or more likely, other works by him—is his treatment of “the ethics of information.” At IU I had enrolled in an “information ethics” seminar that was ultimately cancelled due to low enrollment—a too-frequent occurrence for non-required courses offered over summer—and was hoping that this would touch on some #critlib-style ideas. Instead, he presents something that reminds me of Bill Brown’s “thing theory”, in that Floridi’s ethics seeks to grant agency and ethical consideration to information on its own terms, rather than in particular relation to humans. However, Brown’s theory seems to primarily concern encounters between humans and things, whereas Floridi describes information existing on its own. Coming largely from a cultural & media studies background, it’s difficult for me not to immediately think “Reification! Information ethics treats objects like they’re people, man!” However, much like with the thing theory I’ve encountered, I’m intrigued enough not to dismiss the idea outright. As with almost everything, the causes for my reservations would be ironed out in practice rather than guaranteed beforehand. While it’s been about five years since I really engaged with Brown, his theory’s turn to materiality certainly appeals to me. Floridi’s assertion that we should grant information & information-bearing constructs ethical consideration does not worry me as a move in itself, but rather I’m concerned that it would likely distract from more urgent questions about determining how to best produce ethical distribution and access to information for humans.
In other words, on first blush, my concern is not so much “this is wrong,” but rather, “is this really a question we should devote our efforts to right now?” To me, it’s certainly not a question of “whether” information-bearing objects should be granted ethical standing (in a binary, all-or-nothing sense) but a question of how much ethical consideration they should bear when compared to those of humans (in a graduated, exists-on-a-spectrum sense). On this, I’m pretty sure that Floridi and I would agree. To his credit, Floridi’s definition of information ethics frequently includes the words “minimal” and “overridable” when talking about the types of moral claims attendant to anything understood informationaly:
This ontological equality principle means that any form of reality (any instance of information/being), simply for the fact of being what it is, enjoys a minimal, initial, overridable, equal right to exist and develop in a way which is appropriate to its nature. The conscious recognition of the ontological equality principle presupposes a disinterested judgement of the moral situation from an objective perspective, i.e. a perspective which is as non-anthropocentric as possible. (p. 113)
I certainly appreciate this attempt to enlarge the scope of what bears ethical consideration, but the main sticking point for me is that I’m having difficulty squaring my poststructuralist suspicion of words like “essence” with Floridi’s phrasing of what constitutes an informational entity: “information ethics holds that every entity, as an expression of being, has a dignity, constituted by its mode of existence and essence (the collection of all the elementary proprieties that constitute it for what it is), which deserve to be respected (at least in a minimal and overridable sense), and hence place moral claims on the interacting agent and ought to contribute to the constraint and guidance of his ethical decisions and behaviour” (p. 113, emphasis added).
If I haven’t already passed it a while back, this is probably the point at which this reflection threatens to turn from an overview to a full-on critique or “proper review,” so I’ll stop now.
As I said before, I appreciate Floridi’s book and encourage anyone who was already considering reading it to do so. You might also consider reading it if you’re looking for a solid, although occasionally slightly rushed, overview of information. It’s provoked some unexpected thoughts on my part, which I always like. If someone has a thirst for similar readings from a more #critlib perspective, I’d be inclined to suggest something by Lawrence Grossberg on communication, perhaps his 1979 “Interpreting the ‘Crisis’ of Culture in Communications Theory,” which is also collected in his 1997 Bringing It All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies. For anyone looking for a longer read on information, I’m currently about 2/3 through Ronald E. Day’s 2001 The Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, and Power and profoundly appreciating it. Of course, if you have a candidate for a better introduction or “reset button” read than Floridi’s, please let me know!