Harlan Cleveland’s Characterization of Information As a Resource

Recent reflections on Mulford Q. Sibley drew me like a mental magnet to thoughts about another of our information age visionaries, Harlan Cleveland.  Diplomat and Statesman, founding Dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, information age pioneer and thinker.  It was in his role as teacher that Cleveland launched many of us on a path of thinking in new ways about information.  Information, in Cleveland construct, is a force, a renewable resource of inestimable value that can be described in graphic terms.  Though I never knew Harlan Cleveland his prescient thoughts on the properties of information still remind and inspire.

When Cleveland died in 2008 I thought and wrote about him and about the impact he had on my world view and on society’s understanding of information as a resource.  Though for the most part I wrote for myself, my recollection is that the essay was published by the Minnesota Independent Scholars.  [Note 1]

It seems somehow appropriate to resurrect those words now, not on the merits of text but because the tribute offers a quick synopsis of Cleveland’s basic principles.  Cleveland’s cogent definitions and descriptions provide a lay person’s guide to principles that deserve a reread;  his simple but elegant sound bites provide a framework for addressing today’s intractable information challenges.

Following is my humble – if dated – effort to honor Cleveland and to share his thoughts:

It’s a sad and sobering irony to reflect on the recent death of Harlan Cleveland midst the energy and hope that reign at the Media Reform Conference going full steam this weekend at the Minneapolis Convention Center.  For decades Harlan Cleveland has been my guiding star in a turbulent information era.

Twenty-five years ago I was involved with a conference bearing the irresistible title “A Question of Balance: Public Sector, Private Sector Interaction in the Delivery of Information Services.  The conference was a typically Minnesotan response to a report from the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science — from whence we derived the catchy subtle.  With prescient naiveté we gathered journalists, media moguls, access advocates and gangs of librarians for two days of weighing the issues raised in the report, a report that one speaker accurately described  as “pernicious.”

[The gathering was not without its lively moments – most notably the spectacle of Paul Zurkowski, head of the Information Industry Association, storming down the aisle, pointing his cane as he snarled “Poppycock! at the elegant visionary Anita Schiller.]

The keynote speaker at that event – and my all-time Information Hero – was Harlan Cleveland.  He spoke, as he frequently wrote, about the characteristics of information “as a resource, “the basic, yet abstract information.”   Cleveland lamented that “we have carried over into our thinking about information (which is to say symbols) concepts development for the management of things – concepts such as property, depletion, depreciation, monopoly, market economics, the class struggle, and top-down leadership.”  It might help, he opined, “if we stop treating information as just another thing, and look hard at what makes it so special.”

In Cleveland’s 21st Century construct, information as a resource possesses these unique characteristics: 

  • Information is expandable – “The facts are never all in – and facts are available in such profusion that uncertainty becomes the most important planning factor.”  Thus, “the further a society moves toward making its living from the manipulation of information, the more its citizens will be caught up in a continual struggle to reduce the  information overload on their desks and in the lives in order to reduce the uncertainty about what to do.”
  • Information is compressible — “Though it’s infinitely expandable, information can be concentrated, integrated, summarized… for easy handling.”
  • Information is substitutable — It can replace capital, labor or physical materials.
  • Information is transportable — “In less than a century, we have been witness to a major dimensional change in both the speed and volume of human activity.”
  • Information is diffusive — It tends to leak – and the more it leaks the more we have. 
  • Information is shareable — Information by nature cannot give rise to exchange transactions, only to sharing transactions.  Things are exchanged.   “If I give you a fact or tell you a story, it’s like a good kiss: in sharing the thrill, you enhance it.”

Cleveland would relish the exuberant exchanges echoing through the Minneapolis Convention Center this weekend — snippets of conversations involving 3000 reform advocates talking about knowledge, wisdom, informed citizens and their role in a democracy, transparency in government, media ownership, network neutrality.  Many of these attendees may not know the name Harland Cleveland, but they understand  – intuitively and empirically — that information is a resource that is expandable, compressible, substitutable, transportable, diffusive and, most important, shareable — like a kiss! [Note 2]

Note 1 – This text is from the files of the author.

Note 2 – A national conference on media reform was progress in Minneapolis at this writing.

Note 3 –One of the earliest iterations of Cleveland’s thoughts on information as a resource is found in the December 1982 issue of The Futurist. Check the site for much more about Harlan Cleveland’s life as well as numerous articles written by Cleveland through the years.

Elected officials boast and voters of this day eschew the thoughts of the old guys, much less those who have gone before, it’s worth noting that, even in a digital age where communication is all about social media, words and ideas outlast the moment – at times to the peril of the source….Fortunately, the words and ideas are profound and preserved.  The expressed thoughts of Sibley and Cleveland are profound, preserved and provocative, now more than ever.



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