An information society?

Lorcan 3 min read

Some media experiences in the last day or two:
A TV ad: a driver is rung up and asked if he would like to schedule an oil change for his BMW. How did they know it was due? Why the car had communicated it to them directly.
Another TV ad: a truck is lost – the boxes on it say so. How do they know? RFID. An ad for IBM. (I have fuzzy memories of this one – it did not have my full attention 😉
There was a story in Tuesday’s Guardian about how the UK Supermarket chain Tesco is building up a data resource on every household in the UK, based on data from various sources including its own card loyalty program.

Tesco is quietly building a profile of you, along with every individual in the country – a map of personality, travel habits, shopping preferences and even how charitable and eco-friendly you are. A subsidiary of the supermarket chain has set up a database, called Crucible, that is collating detailed information on every household in the UK, whether they choose to shop at the retailer or not. [Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | Tesco stocks up on inside knowledge of shoppers’ lives]

These are all examples of how, increasingly, services are reflexively adapted based on tracking and usage data.
They are a part of what we mean when we say that we are living in an information society. `Informationalization’ is a word coined by Manuel Castells on the model of ‘industrialisation’. Informational activities are activities where productivity is maximised through the use of knowledge, gathered and diffused through information technologies. ‘Informationalisation’ is visible at all levels: doors open automatically, money is disappearing; the flow of materials is monitored by satellite tracking systems; domestic and office environments will become intelligent buildings; distribution chains, the disposition of goods around retail floors, investment decisions, these and others will be driven by the movement of figures; corporations and other organizations manage deep databases about customers, products, relationships, transactions. Complex webs of data are built up around our lives as patients, as students, as customers, as clients. Increasingly, flows of people and materials follow the flows of data as organizations depend for operation on the management and flow of greater amounts of data.
Increasingly, when I think of ‘information’ this is what I think of – the particular type of information – or intelligence – that makes things work in the modern world. A range of activities is increasingly data-driven.
At the same time, we live in the world of Google where a growing resource is immediately available to the consumer.
This is one reason why I responded warmly to Bob Martin’s repeated assertion that libraries were not about the management of, and access to, information during his incumbency at IMLS.

We often hear it said that libraries (and librarians) select, organize, retrieve, and transmit information or knowledge. That is true. But those are the activities, not the mission, of the library. Certainly we perform those activities, but the important question is: “To what purpose?” We do not do those things by and for themselves. We do them in order to address an important and continuing need of the society we seek to serve. In short, we do it to support learning. [IMLS: What’s New: Current News]

Libraries support learning, and learning is an important political and institutional value. Interestingly, the British Library (‘the world’s knowledge’) emphasizes its role in support of research in its recently published Redefining the Library: The British Library’s strategy 2005 – 2008. Indeed, one of its 6 strategic priorities is to Build the digital research environment. The emphasis in on providing information at the point of need within the research life cycle – whether this is in a corporate, academic, or library environment.
Libraries support research and learning. They manage the records and documents that support argument, education, scholarship and debate. We need better ways of talking about their value than in purely ‘information’ terms.
Talking about them as central agencies of the knowledge economy or the information society is not a good direction to take. Information is everywhere, and lots of people manage it.
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