Here is a short, personal account of our panel (27th March) at the iConference, held in Sheffield 26th-28th March 2018.
Philosophy, in its concern with ontology, epistemology and ethics, is of fundamental relevance to library & information science (LIS). Our panel posited four provocations, from which to debate the value of Floridi’s philosphy of information (PI), as a foundational philosophy for LIS.
LIS can be defined as the study of the processes of the information communication chain, and the interactions between them.
I first wrote about the usefulness of the communication chain model as a framework for LIS in 2009, and over the ensuing decade, I have updated the processes to include those shown below.
Definition of Library & Information Science, Robinson 2018
The processes and associated interactions are affected by changes in society: new technologies, contemporary politics, economics, and socio-cultural behaviour. There is a need for continual study of informational processes, so that we can anticipate and understand the consquences and impact of drivers for change on how information can be accessed and used to enable a fair and prosperous society to flourish.
Within the field of LIS, we understand information as being instantiated as documents. Documents, assuming the widest possible definition, are the means by which LIS performs its stewardship of the record of humankind.
Much of our world is now living hyperhistorically (Floridi, 2014, p4), where ICTs are not only required to record and transmit our transactions, but are essential for maintenance and further growth of society, welfare and wellbeing.
Following Floridi’s keynote presentation: “What human project should be pursued by a mature information society?”, our interactive panel, organised by David Bawden, debated the value and potential Floridi’s philosophy of information (PI) as a foundation for LIS. The panel members, of which I was one, are listed below, alongside a summary of their provocations:
David Bawden (City, University of London)
Luciano Floridi (Oxford Internet Institute)
Jonathan Furner (UCLA)
A little bit about (what I perceive to be) a difference between philosophy of information (as a branch of philosophy, like philosophy of mind or epistemology) and Floridi’s Philosophy of Information (as a philosophical position, like realism or naturalism), and about the implications of making that distinction
Ken Herold (Adelphi University, New York)
A brief note on my own discovery of PI in 1999 and the process of deriving the PI literature within LIS through my Library Trends issues, with observations regarding an applied philosophy using the example of the philosophy of time/computation.
Lyn Robinson (City, University of London)
A short reflection on the move to on-life as a once-only transition in the life of a civilisation (Floridi 2018), and the response of LIS.
Betsy van der Veer Martens (Oklahoma) (contributing remotely)
A brief note on the concept of “ontic trust” as it might expand LIS’s remit beyond our interests in information collection (well described by Richard Fyffe, 2015) and into the collective interests of the infosphere (well described by Massimo Durante, 2017).
What is (Library &) Information Science?
The first point of discussion revisited the well known debate surrounding the relationship of information science to library & information science, and the perceived lack of agreed definition for either. The question was whether such a lack of agreement meant it was difficult to debate the value of PI.
A similar question raised the issue of if, and how, PI applied to archives and records management.
Whilst the different approaches taken between UK/Europe and the US to information science are understood, I believe that the information communication chain model offers those of us who lean towards the documentation movement to explicate and define information science, an entirely suitable framework for linking not only library and information science, but all the information sciences, including archives and records management.
All of the information sciences are concerned with the processes of information communication, which can be regarded as a spectrum of activities. Whether research and practice may be termed library science, information science, archival work or records managment, depends entirely upon from where within the communication chain the viewpoint arises. Library related activities focus on processes associated with collections and services; information science may focus on technological solutions to information retrieval, or analysis of data; whilst archival practice may focus on the authority, provenance and access for a given set of documents. All are encompassed by the categories comprising the information communication chain.
In this case, there is no difficulty in considering the value and potential of PI to the collective disciplinary range.
What Kind of Philosophy is the Philosophy of Information?
A second point of discussion considered at which level Floridi’s philosophy of information was to be understood; as a branch of philosophy, PI, at the same level as epistemology, or as a philosophical position, pi, akin to realism, for example.
Floridi responded that it was not an important distinction. My suggestion would be that it is useful to view Floridi’s philosophy of information from the principles set out below:
Floridi describes PI as a philosophia prima:
‘PI asks what is the nature of information?’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)
‘PI, like philosophy of mathematics, is phenomenologically biased. It is primarily concerned with the whole domain of first-order phenonema represented by the world of information, computation, and the information society, although it addresses its problems by starting from the vantage point represented by the methodologies and theories offered by ICS (information and computational sciences) and can be seen to incline towards a metatheoretical approach in so far as it is methodologically critical towards its own source.’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)
‘PI: The philosophy of information (PI) is the philosophical field concerned with a) the critical investigation of the conceptual nature and basic principles of information, including its dynamics, utilization, and sciences; and b) the elaboration and application of information-theoretic and computational methodologies to philosophical problems.’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)
Further, he goes on to elaborate that:
‘… its task is to develop …. an integrated family of theories that analyse, evaluate and explain the various principles and concepts of information, their dynamics and utilization…’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)
‘Dynamics of information’ includes:
‘information life cycles, i.e. the series of various stages in form and functional activity, through which information can pass, from its initial occurrence to its final utilization and possible disappearance;’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)
In the footnote, ‘a typical lifecycle’ is said to include the following phases:
‘occurring (discovering, designing, authoring, etc.), processing and managing (collecting, validating, modifying, organizing, indexing, classifying, filtering, updating, sorting, storing, networking, distributing, accessing, retrieving, transmitting, etc.), and using (monitoring, modelling, analysing, explaining, planning, forecasting, decision-making, instructing, educating, learning, etc.).’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)
The information lifecycle is readily recognised as a more fine-grained description of the processes of the information communication chain.
It would follow therefore, that PI is of relevance to LIS as a first philosophy, which investigates the nature of information, to subsequently address the problems of information communication.
The philosophy of information does not relate exclusively to LIS however, and PI should be understood to address the overarching nature of information and the information society.
“PI can explain and guide the purposeful construction of our intellectual environment, and provide the sytematic treatment of the conceptual foundations of contemporary society.” (Floridi 2011, p 25)
Whilst Floridi states that the task of PI is not to develop a unified theory of information, an examination of the ways in which the semantic information of LIS is understood in relation to the concepts held by different domains, is certainly of value, and in a small contribution to this wider remit, David Bawden and I have considered the ways in which different disciplines understand the concept of information, attempting to draw out unifying threads (Robinson and Bawden, 2013). For more work on information within different disciplines and domains, see also Floridi 2016).
A Retrospective Fit
The third issue acknowledged that we were applying the philosophy of information to LIS retrospectively, and asked whether this was ever really possible or appropriate. Is it a requirement for underlying philosophies to exist before the discipline for which they provide the building blocks, or is it feasible to apply a philosophical foundation after the event, as a discipline develops?
The outcome from the ensuing discussion was that it is acceptable, and often valuable to apply a philosophical position to a discipline retrospectively. Indeed this often happens in the case of recently emerged fields such as media studies, or new branches of medical science. The question of whether a given philosophical position is appropriate or valuable to a discipline still remains however.
A Response from LIS
My provocation was to give a response from LIS as to whether Floridi’s philosophy of information has value for LIS. The short answer, I believe, is that is does, furnishing us with a more holistic foundation than those offered by alternative philosophical writings such as social epistemology or Popper’s three worlds (Bawden and Robinson, 2018).
All disciplines require a philosophical foundation, although often such stances may be implicit rather than explicit in the literature. As LIS can be described as the study of information communication processes, a philosophical underpinning focused on information would seem desirable to provide the conceptual basis for our disciplinary activities.
LIS has been connected with technologies of communication since written record keeping emerged around 5.500 BCE. It is agreed within the discipline that technological development is the most significant force driving activities within the LIS field.
‘Although a very old concept, information has finally acquired the nature of a primary phenomenon only thanks to the sciences and technologies of computation and ICT.’ (Floridi 2011, p 15)
The contemporary significance of this is further described succinctly by Floridi, in drawing attention to the fact that we live in a unique time, as the more senior amonst us are what remains of the last generation which will have known a completely analogue world. (Floridi, 2018). With the move to our hybrid environment, incorporating Floridi’s concepts of the 4th revolution, the infosphere, hyperhistory and onlife, LIS transitions from stewardship of the physical record to stewardship of the infosphere.
Floridi’s philosophy of information seems to be the most helpful foundation to date, in its alignment with and consideration of concepts relation to data, information, socio-technological and ethical concerns.
A question often asked by LIS students in my classes, arises, I think, from a difficulty in relating the somewhat abstract study of the nature of information, to concrete tools that can be used to form answers to the questions which are important to LIS. At the end of my slides, I am usually asked ‘ – but what is the philosophy of information?’
Floridi sets out the central problems that the philosophy of information seeks to address, in five areas:
‘problems in the analysis of the concept of information, in semantics, in the study of intelligence, in the relation between information and nature, and in the investigation of values.’ (Floridi 2011, p 26)
LIS, regarded as the applied philosophy of information, aligns itself well with these concerns.
At the risk of oversimplification, I offer the students a list of selected ideas from Floridi’s work which we can use to build our understanding of information, and the information society, and thus act as points of reference for the wider study of the nature of information. I would be grateful for any comments from which to further develop this answer – indeed it is likely to be of wider interest, not only to students, but also to practitioners and researchers.
General Definition of Information (GDI)
OVerall, the discussion and debate emphasised a need for more widespread agreement on the terminologies relating to philosophy, (branches of philosophy vs positions for example) and identified a gap for further work on the identification, description and examination of philosophical viewpoints as they relate to LIS. We also need a basic framework from which to critique philosophical literature as it relates to our discipline and practice.
During the panel, in addition to Floridi’s philosophy of information, Egan and Shera’s social epistemology was mentioned, as was Popper’s three worlds and open society. All have affinity with LIS, but their applicability is not as well investigated and documented as might be, so that despite its critical role within our society, LIS fails to benefit fully from a firm conceptual and philosophical basis.
The panel concluded with a show of hands, indicating a strong (25+ people) interest in further exploration of the distinctions and interrelationships between philosophies, paradigms and theories within, and as they relate to LIS – this is an area that is hard for students (and researchers) to comprehend, and one where there is little consensus of an agreed framework of understanding for the concepts themselves.
As library & information science transitions from stewardship of the record to curation of the infosphere, we look forward to further exploration and understanding of the philosophy of information, to enable our committment to ensuring that the record of humankind persists.
Floridi L (2011). The Philosophy of Information. Oxford.
Floridi L (2014). The 4th Revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford.
Florid L (Editor) (2016). The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information. Routledge.
Floridi L (2018). Soft ethics and the Governance of the Digital. Philos. Technol. vol 31(1) https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-018-0303-9
Bawden D and Robinson L (2018). Curating the infosphere: Luciano Floridi’s Philosophy of Information as the foundation for Library and Information Science. Journal of Documentation, Vol 74 (1) 2-17 https://doi.org/10.1108/JD-07-2017-0096 http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/17713/
Robinson L (2009). Information Science: the information chain and domain analysis. Journal of Documentation, Vol 65(4), 578-591.
Robinson L and Bawden D (2013). Mind the gap: transitions between concepts of information in varied domains. In: Theories of information, communication and knowledge. A multidisciplinary approach. Ibekwe-SanJuan F and Dousa T. (Eds.) Springer. http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/6446/