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A world falling to bits

What’s in a job title?

[T]he library at the University of Illinois is one of the largest in the country, a vast storehouse with more than ten million volumes and twenty-two million items and materials in all formats […] But the university’s Chief Information Officer manages not the books and journals of this massive library, but the school’s computers and networks. ((Dennis Baron, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford, 2009), p236.))

As the author gently points out, it is a surprising taxonomy whereby ten million books do not count as information, but intrafaculty email does. Yet it seems possible that this was a deliberate and clever rhetorical decision by the university. I have written elsewhere about the contemporary rhetorical cyber-philistinism according to which all the value of the best that has been thought and said in the arts and sciences is supposed to reside in its information. ((Between 1387 and 1813, says the HTOED, information could mean education; no longer.)) Maybe the university is quietly arguing, too, that its vast storehouse of books is something else — learning? knowledge? — and that mere information is the domain of technicians. ((There is, in fact, a warlike heritage to the title “Information Officer”, as it is first recorded by OED in a 1918 Dictionary of Military Terms — but it would be hopeless to try to demilitarize our entire language now (if it ever would not have been).))

A distinction between information and knowledge can be drawn polemically widely, or it can be a subtler matter, of tone and nuance. An interesting case is the comparison in political speech between the terms the information economy (apparently dating from the early 1960s) ((This OECD paper [pdf] offers the unimprovably barbarous opening line: “Human capital is a key policy area in the information economy, as it is required for innovation and growth.”)) and the knowledge economy (first seen by Google in 1989). ((My second edition of OED records only its precursors “knowledge factory” (1928) and “knowledge industry” (1962). Interestingly, it defines the latter, knowledge industry, as a “term applied fancifully or pejoratively to the development and use of knowledge, spec. in universities, polytechnics, etc.” What once seemed fanciful grows to seem normal and even noble.)) They have often been used simply interchangeably; but according to Google’s timelines (1, 2), use of information economy peaked in 2000 and has been declining ever since, while knowledge economy saw a strong upsurge around the same time and is still going strong. Perhaps it began to be felt, in the early 2000s, that information economy carried unfortunate echoes of the dotcom crash, and so people chose instead to speak of the knowledge economy, a phrase that conveniently Unspeaks the unreliable history of information technology, while conveying a comforting sense of human certainty in the face of intractable or unpredictable forces.

  1. 1  Roger Migently  December 3, 2009, 8:45 am 

    I like “knowledge” better. It’s 9 letters but only two syllables, so it’s butch and meaty and chunky, and it’s got a strong-looking K in it, while “information”‘s 11 letters and 4 syllables takes longer to say. It’s, like, intellectual and it sounds so whiny and geeky. Only swots would prefer “information”. And “knowledge” is nice and definite, no uncertainty, unlike “information”. How about “fact economy”?

  2. 2  ejh  December 6, 2009, 11:24 pm 

    My MA (UNN, 2001) is in Information And Library Management. One would assume from its prominence that the first of the nouns is more important than the second. I suspect though that neither is quite so important as “Management”, given that we spent most of our first term watching Tom Peters videos….

  3. 3  Steven  December 7, 2009, 6:56 pm 

    Srsly? Wow. But the title of your master’s seems ambiguous: is it in the Management of both Information and Libraries, or in Information and the Management of Libraries?

  4. 4  richard  December 8, 2009, 5:50 pm 

    “information” was the sinister answer the bad guys gave to “What do you want?” in the 60s Prisoner: if they’d responded “knowledge” the whole thing probably would have taken on a more metaphysical cast.

    I suspect the expansion of the internet has something to do with information’s loss of prestige vs knowledge: isn’t the latter what you process information into, in order to make it a useful basis for action, while an excess of the former is what we “drown in,” when we can’t find the best result from google instantaneously? I anticipate that we may soon hear about “information threats” or something similar – a definite recasting of simple information as a negative. In this regard, at least, intra-faculty email would seem to be information: of ephemeral importance, potentially useful but fundamentally unusable in its present form.

  5. 5  ejh  December 12, 2009, 8:52 pm 

    Oddly it had never occurred to me that there was any ambiguity: I’d assumed the first, and given the profile of library work in the course generally (very low indeed*) we can assume the second wasn’t meant.

    [* Mind you, it didn’t play much of a role in my thesis either, this being Moving Too Fast? Aspects of information overload and the study of opening theory in chess.]

  6. 6  Steven  December 13, 2009, 12:25 am 

    Great thesis title!

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