The Art of Information

The Art of Information


James Richard Brett

James R. Brett   is the Director of University Research, California State University, Long Beach.

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Consider that a reasonable percentage of professional people enter their jobs with a component of idealism. This component is theirs; it is aside from, but hopefully congruent with their job description or the expectations of them wherever their expectations may come from: the AMA, the President, the owner, the fans, etc. Their idealism is their own feeling and understanding about "what they can do with this job," how they can develop, how they can be of consequence in the arena they have chosen. They bring it to the job; it is not something instilled in them after they get there, although I recognize that in some jobs, like soldiering, apprentices of all kinds, jobs for teenagers, etc., there is often considerable effort put into the development of a work ethic based on both the values of individuals in an individualistic society and on group or social values. I believe that esprit de corps is not necessarily idealism.

Job descriptions are institutional and systematic in that they are conceived of as being descriptions of needs within a system related to the good or service produced by the enterprise, whether it be laws, Frisbees, dentistry, courses, aspirins, or baseball games. So, I have just implied that there is a difference, an immediate disjunction, between job descriptions and people's idealisms. Anyone who has hired or fired someone knows this is true; you just never get what you wrote down on that piece of paper. Often you get much more than you expected; employees are often gold mines of information and enthusiasm. And, since you hired someone to fill a vacant function, we can presume that you could not (or could no longer) do it yourself, although you may know quite a bit about the function or virtually nothing at all.

Well, this is not about the division of labor, it is about the what happens when an employee, complete with prejudices, habits of mind, perspectives, data, information, knowledge, and even some wisdom, is confronted with a job to do. We are interested to know how these people actually operate so that the people who have assumed the responsibility to make sure that the announced products and services are actually produced and dispensed can better understand how to interact with get the best results. We are admitting that we have not actually spent that much time studying the interior of the employee, although we do recognize those general sorts of things about (if not within) employees like careers, aspirations, families, misfortunes, education, etc.

In every job, whether it is Assistant Under-Secretary of the Department of Education, a fifth-grade teacher, Senior Controller for IBM, Programmer II at Microsoft Corporation, or master brick mason, there is an information component. There are also skills components and knowledge components, all of which are dynamic with the information component. This is an important and interesting point: one's knowledge and skills are conditioned by the way relevant information is made available and used. We believe that what holds true for employees with respect to information will quickly affect our clients.

My supposition is that people at work actively collect data and, from their perspective, with their habits of mind, and filtered through their prejudices, they produce information for themselves to use on and off the job. This is not to trivialize the idea of information. Not at all! What is intended here is an out-of-the-box view of what people are actually doing during the work day. Supervisors are finding out how many of the journeyman masons and bricklayers showed up for work that day; they are finding out how the other trades are coming along on their parts of the project; they are determining stocks of bricks and mortar, they are always looking for a competitive price for the materials they consume; they are noticing that person X is showing signs of leadership and that person Y is showing signs of illness or fatigue. In the first hour on a job, the person has collected a huge amount of data and generated a great deal of information.

Another of my suppositions is that there are people who are self-consciously aware that they collect data and produce information from it. Generally these people put a higher priority and value on information than do people who are either unaware of their own data-collecting and information-creating activities or who believe themselves to be much less information oriented.

One of the priorities for many of the "information class" is to have as much information as possible, especially in a tactical sense to avoid any of the standard sorts of things that make for "bad days" for the lack of information. In the previous sentence he verb infinitive was deliberately chosen to be "to have" rather than "to keep" or "to hoard" or any other anality devised to establish an information differential. This will become an important distinction.

We assume that information is often treated as a commodity by most people who use and produce it, and therefore presumably a person or organization can create a scarcity of information on one side of the interface of their enterprise (or within it). The purpose of the information in this essay is to show you that while information can be treated as a commodity, it is not necessarily the best metaphor or strategy for accomplishing the work and goals of an enterprise.

One of the most interesting analysts of society in the twentieth century is Friedrich August von Hayek (1899- ). In The Counterrevolution of Science he says that we must look to the price system as the mechanism for communicating information if we are to understand its real function. This statement backs into an idea I believe is at least partly in error. Hayek's statement was prescient in the sense that he foresaw that information would become intrinsically and publicly valuable, that a good deal of time and energy (work) are expended to create it, and that, increasingly, the productive sectors of civilization could be viewed as information sectors. I would not want to stretch you too far on this just yet, for while agriculture, for instance, is productive of information, its products are richer in other vocabularies, like "nutrition," for instance.

I wonder whether Hayek clearly understood that his remark leads from "price" to "market" and thence to the consequences of holding and not using information, the supposition that information being collectable means that it is also "bankable." I pose, therefore, a compound question leading to our hypothesis: Is the value of information to be found in the measures of its creation (the work of authorship in the context of the author, Brecht having a bit more cash value than Brett), or in its husbandry and dispensing? Perhaps a tighter framing of the question would be: Is there an added value to information accruing from the holding of it or from the dispensing of it; would these values be of the same kind and commensurable in the same terms? Or, as I wish to show, is the value heavily weighted toward creativity, the "art of information," and away from what one might call with appropriate entendre "the craft of information?"

I am strongly in favor of the idea that the creating of information is the essential valuable act. I do not dismiss the idea of the time value of information, but I believe that the time value—the worth of it that comes from simply holding on to it but not using it—is extremely limited, stock market ticker-tapes notwithstanding. Similarly, I do not dismiss the idea that the cost of dispensing information is measurable in terms of the dispensing infrastructure, whether it be simply by the dropping of a hint by word-of -mouth, by complex satellite rebroadcast systems, by the mastering of CD's, or by the printed word on the side of a cereal box. I believe that recent innovations and developments in information technology provide us with examples of  this perspective. The following story, which is based on the experience of  a real person, illustrates this point well.

Susan is a program officer in the National Institutes for Health, she is assigned to the Institute having the mission to understand and develop cures for cancer, The National Cancer Institute. She has a Ph.D. in cell biology from the University of California at Los Angeles, a family of her own, an older sister with the sad experience of a radical mastectomy, a condominium in Montgomery County in the State of Maryland, and a variety of other things, experiences, conditions, and beliefs which dynamically frame her view of the world each day. When she came to NCI she was bent on achieving a better expenditure of the national resources toward the prevention and cure of breast cancer. A part of her belief system included the idea that some cancer researchers were barking up useless and irrelevant trees, but that their research continued to be funded because of reputations established ten and twenty years ago. Susan was very interested to find new researchers with new ideas, people well educated but thinking outside of the box. When she found these people she was going to do her damnedest to get them appropriate funding. It was 1990.

Susan soon learned the lessons of working around the infamous Beltway and found herself spending a great deal of time preparing "out year" budgets for the unit now under her responsibility. When she was not planning funding ceilings for years two and five years hence, she found herself on the phone with colleagues across the country, answering questions about future years' funding levels. Knowing this would be important to their decisions to continue their work on cancer or start looking for ways to switch to AIDS or to take a sabbatical; that is, knowing it helped them judge the personal risks involved in their commitments of time toward writing research proposals. But, most of the time Susan found herself answering e-mail and telephone questions about the kinds of programs under her administration or recommending other programs for these inquirers to address. In fact, in the first year of work at NCI Susan found not one single person thinking outside the box, largely because she was so inundated with the aforementioned work that she did not develop the ear she needed to identify out-of-the-box people when they did call or write to her.

A few years later Susan heard of the World Wide Web and six months later yet heard that NIH was going to have a serious presence "on-line." She groaned at the losses to the overall budget that would be entailed in this latest boondoggle. She set her teeth, lowered her chin, and began looking at the on-line version of the Chronicle of Higher Education for job opportunities in nearby universities. What the hell, she said to herself, if the damned bureaucracy was intent on spending all this money and time frivolously, at least she could get her hand back in and maybe do something out-of-the-box herself. Appreciation of irony was never one of Susan's strong suits.

One day a colleague down the hallway beckoned her into his office where, glowing in the corner, was an IBM clone computer's monitor's color screen with the NIH Seal in mid-screen and a bunch of button-like things below it. Watch, he said. He found his mouse, clicked on "National Cancer Institute" and (presto) up came a screen full of directions to various kinds of information, including a statement by the Director of the NCI, a link to an epistle on re-inventing government which she later discovered had a picture of and statement by Al Gore, and a button indicating that women's cancer issues were represented by several programs all of which were named there for perhaps the first time in history. He clicked on that one. The screen lit up with a list of program deadlines, program officers, program information, and a way to send e-mail to any of the people mentioned. She looked on in astonishment, wondering how it was they managed to get all of that put together so rapidly and why they had not asked her about it. She was a little miffed, but slowly she became a little proud of the fact that she, Susan, was "out there on the Web."

The information the nerds in the basement had gathered was the information that was put together by generations of Susans. It was her information because she now had responsibility for the program, but it was NCI information because it had been published time and time again on paper and sent out to any inquirer within a few weeks of a polite request. It was Federal information because the Federal government pays the bills at NIH. It was, therefore, information that belongs to the people of the United States, and now that it was on the Web the American people had it in their laps and had given it to the whole world (for free), so to speak.

What then happened evolved slowly, but by late 1993 it was discernible as a trend. Susan's work on the unit's budget seemed to become a bit more orderly. The reasons for this are quite interesting but are another matter. Her work with colleagues across the country changed. Susan found herself answering questions, not about funding, but about directions of lines of scientific inquiry, about the availability of results at large research institutions like Johns Hopkins where so many people worked it was difficult to keep track. She found herself answering fewer and fewer basic questions about program availability and program guidelines, but more and more time on issues that had originally concerned her. As a practical matter she could spend more "quality time" on each phone call listening, and she found three people in one month thinking outside the box. She got all three to submit proposals, and one of them was funded, one got encouraging reviews, and the other was too far out of the box for now.

I believe that this type of situation has taken place everywhere, but particularly within and because of universities where Web interest perked up early. Giving away information has made smarter readers and listeners. They ask more refined questions, evoking dormant enthusiasms and freeing up time for creating more information along the lines originally or hopefully intended. Information giving is a feed-forward system which produces qualitative change. Information restricting is actually the static system you might have thought it was in history class back in the eleventh grade. Information, despite what you have heard from Structuralists and all manner of academics mourning the poverty of their disciplines (and souls), is catalytic!

The process that takes place when information is freely given away has a very personal component as well. In so far as the essential value of information is in the creating of it, being relieved of the burden of maintaining and dispensing it frees up even more time for creating information. In addition, the neural nets that are kindled in the creative process begin to thrive and the nets devoted to the mechanical tasks of husbandry and dissemination begin to wither. One can observe in others and feel in oneself a brightening and surge of the "creative juices." I predict that the next generations will be imponderably advantaged by the decommodification of information and the emergence of an age of the art of information.

The verb "fill" is as infelicitous as you could find for modern parlance. We suffer enough at the hands of the large, impersonal corporation without being melted down and poured into some mold created n the HR department. No. We want to "live" our jobs, not fill them.