Keywords and information

Lorcan 3 min read

Steven Johnson – who has featured in these pages before – has an interesting piece in the New York Times Book Review.
He plays on the senses of ‘Key words’. He notes the well-known work by Raymond Williams called Keywords (first edition in 1976, revised and expanded in 1983) as an example of intellectual engagement around a set of issues and the words which are used in talking about them. Williams characterizes it this way:

It is not a series of footnotes to dictionary histories or definitions of a number of words. It is, rather, the record of an enquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions in English, of the practices and institutions which we group as culture and society. [Raymond Williams. Keywords. Fontana Paperbacks: London, 1983. p. 15]

Now, ‘key words’ has a different connotation, one formed by our experience of search and the search engines. Given the shaping influence of Google on what is said and thought, Johnson suggests that those interested in issues and the words which we use to discuss them should focus attention on the search engines and on Wikipedia.

If key words truly do matter the way Williams believed them to, then I think it’s inevitable that intellectuals who are interested in speaking to a wider audience will orient their work around Google’s rising influence. That doesn’t mean scholarly publications are irrelevant in this new world: the physicists don’t stop talking to one another simply because most people have a watered down version ofrelativity in their heads. It just means that for the mainstream understanding of complex issues, Google (and Wikipedia, whose entries often rank near the top of Google searches) are quickly becoming central authorities. So the question is whether intellectuals are going to mope about this shift — or whether they’ll see it as an opportunity to shape popular opinion.And if they make that shift, they’ll take their cues from the spammers and charlatans, the drug pushers and the pornographers. They’ll realize that it’s not just the marketplace of ideas they should be worried about. It’s also the database. [Own Your Own Words – Books – Review – New York Times]

This is a complex issue and I don’t plan to say any more about it here, except to note that, in our own little field, how often one sees web conversations shape others. And it is also pertinent to note also that Gwydion Madawc Williams, Raymond Williams’ son, has been active in creating the Raymond Williams Wikipedia entry.
Williams’ work with Keywords was a sort of intellectual archaeology, a historical tracing influenced by his own interpretation of cultural and social patterns. I was always interested that it did not contain information as one of its keywords, or knowledge, despite his influential work with communications and media.
These words do occur in New Keywords: a revised vocabulary of culture and society a recent updating of Williams’ work. New Keywords has several editors and a long list of contributors. It is an altogether different work than Williams’, influenced less by historical use and more, maybe, by recent academic argument. This means that it is of rather less interest.
Frank Webster, author of the useful Theories of the information society, writes the entry on information. Here is a paragraph:

There appears to be a broad consensus that the expansion and ubiquity of information, in its many forms, is a distinguishing feature of contemporary societies (Lash, 2002). One may think here of the growth of media technologies (video, cable, television, satellite), or advertising (campaigns, posters, placements), of news and entertainment services (from CNN to Al-Jazeera, from DVD movies to computer games), of fashion, image, and style, of information-intensive occupations (teaching, accountancy, and design, for example), and of the development of education systems around the world. A problem is that the term “information” here may be overextended, having to cover too many areas that, it is suggested, share a common feature. It is questionable whether such activities can be seen legitimately in these homogeneous ways. The extraordinary range and differences among things so encompassed – from an increase in the economic salience of information, a remarkable extension of media, and the increased provision of education to technological innovations in computers and communication – may not fit in a single category. [Frank Webster. New Keywords, p. 188]

This very general use of information is one reason why I occasionally wonder why the library community emphasises so heavily information and information management as its distinctive characteristic. Lots of professions believe that they manage information.
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