When matters relating to information policy or practice rise to the palpable public agenda, it’s usually because complex issues have been over-simplified – good guys and bad guys pitted against each other – a mighty struggle between the forces of access vs individual privacy, free speech vs producer/performer/author rights, or another version of the confrontation between forces deeply rooted in history and philosophy – like good and evil.
The problem with this bifurcation of powers is that it isn’t that simple. The Information Age is fundamentally unlike the industrial age or any of its antecedents. The Information Age in which we are marinating is substantively new in deep-seated, gut-level ways — the rules of the game are clearly “not even new yet”, the law is woefully inadequate, crafted and administered as it is by mere mortals. The players, no matter their position, seem stuck in a bygone day. Rules, fiscal negotiations, rights of all parties concerned are running full-speed ahead into a barrier constructed by trying to fit today into yesterday’s ill-fitting vessels.
It’s time to revisit the insights of a 20th Century intellectual giant Harlan Cleveland whose thoughts I invoke whenever information battles rage in the public arena.
Cleveland, who was neither predictive nor pedantic, simply reminded us that information, the resource itself, possesses characteristics that are inherently other than the stuff we know how to manage. Information, a resource of inestimable value, just does not conform to the rules we know, the rules we try so hard to impose.
Time to take a deep breath and re-think the characteristics of information, that ubiquitous, fluid, quixotic, perplexing, immensely powerful force about which and from which we have so much to learn.
Here’s a quote from something I wrote about Cleveland five years ago. (Cleveland’s words are more eloquent; mine more spare.)
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…)
The mighty quiet imposed by the Wikipedia shutdown, offers a chance to dust off the reference shelf or to seize the moment to reflect. Cleveland’s prescient observations on the challenges presented by the very properties of information per se offer a worthy starting point. We live in complex times that deserve more thought and than unenlightened self-interest.