Harlan Cleveland – Properties of Information Revisited

One positive thing to be said about our national deciders is that they have a healthy regard for the power of information. In the old days we library types naively waved banners touting “Information Power!” The idea of capitalizing on information as a powerful, if abstract, force for positive change was refreshing – smart people, good information, wise decisions. There was an implicit theme about “Power to the People.” Something along the lines of Jefferson and Madison.
In the early 80’s Harlan Cleveland, best known in these parts for his tenure at the helm of the Humphrey Institute, laid out a framework for thinking about information as a resource with unique properties that don’t fit the grid. Cleveland’s piece, “Information as a Resource” first appeared in 1982 in The Futurist.(1) In it, Cleveland first tackles basic definitions, including the definition of information. He starts by quoting T.S. Eliot’s hierarchy, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” He invokes his U of M colleague, Yi-Fu Tuan, who observes that “the difference is one of order of complexity. Information is horizontal, knowledge is structured and hierarchical, wisdom is organismic and flexible.”(2)

Focusing on the information as a resource, Cleveland argues that a society based on information will look very different than one based on raw materials and heavy manufacturing. The uniqueness of information as a resource lies in that fact that it is
expandable without any obvious limits;
compressible for easier handling;
transportable at least at the speed of light;
substitutable for capital, labor, or physical materials;
shared among people;
not a drain on our resources;
diffusive and hard to contain; and finally
information shared is information expanded ( like a kiss, he tells us.)
Twenty five years hence, we laud the clarity and optimism of Cleveland’s thesis. At the same time, we struggle as individuals and as a society with the dark side of information – permutations, misinformation, information stifled, skewed, bought, warped, subverted, choked and turned against the voting public. Though information as a resource is unique, it is not benign; rather we live in world in which information is created, shaped, spread, collected and twisted to serve the interests of a power structure that is only too well “armed for action.”(2) Although we are witnessing an explosion in the amount of and access to both data and information, real knowledge eludes us.

Citizens of virtually every democratic nation operate on the assumption that information relates in some substantive way to truth. In reality, it’s a treacherous route from information to knowledge to wisdom. Bombarded as we are by information presented in every possible format, replete with color, sound, texture, action, and now olfactory attributes, we remain vulnerable, as much victim as master of information. We lack the time, the experience, and perhaps the will, to probe those basic characteristics of information profiled by Cleveland.

Still the struggle with information may be a necessary, if insufficient, first step. It may be folly to grapple with the philosophical concept of “truth” absent some exploration of its information component. One place to start is with the mundane queries posed by a paranoid – or a prepared – electorate.

Who pays? Monitors? Reviews? Sets the information agenda?
What didn’t get out? What wasn’t asked? Who was excluded?
What is the connection between the medium and the message? between the message and the delivery system?
Where are the filters? Who operates those filters – and who pays them?
Where do informed citizens hone essential information skills?
If information is so important, who is paying attention to information per se?

These thoughts percolate as a cadre of unreconstructed information veterans prepares for Freedom of Information Day and Sunshine Week 2007 – a little hokey for sophisticates, but an honest effort to shed light on the unique characteristics of this most ubiquitous of all resources.

(1) Harlan Cleveland, “Information as Resource,” The Futurist, December 1982, 34-39
(2) Ibid, p. 34.
(3) Early in the 80’s when Joan Durrance wrote the primer on the topic, Armed for Action, her innocent subtitle was “Library response to citizen information needs.”)

One response to “Harlan Cleveland – Properties of Information Revisited

  1. Pingback: In the digital age the question remains: Whadya need? | Poking Around with Mary

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