I am not by nature what you would call an early adopter of technology. So it was only a few months ago, quite a while after Apple introduced the latest version of their operating system, that I obeyed the little light on my iPad and upgraded.
And got rather a nasty shock.
Nor was I alone. If you don’t believe me, search for “IoS 7 nasty”, “IoS 7 ugly”, “IoS abominable” or similar. “Too white, too bright and just horrible” was one typical opinion from the negative end. In fairness, polls have shown that at least half Apple’s users liked the new version; but a lot didn’t, and that included me.
There were several general complaints that I went along with. Most obviously, the depth cues have been removed, and replaced with a parallax effect that some users claimed gave them migraines or seasickness: I didn’t try it enough to see if I had that effect, but I certainly didn’t like it. The new design, interface and apps, features lots (and lots) of bright white space, which I find at best serves no purpose, and at worst makes things difficult to read. Wallpaper and icons have been changed to a look which one commentator, reasonably in my view, described as ‘kindergarten garish’. On at least some devices, customised wallpaper and images are distorted out of recognition. I could go on, but you get the idea.
What made it all worse is that Apple is the company that thinks it always knows best. So, no you can’t customise any of look and feel, as you can on other tablets; and, no, once you’ve upgraded you can’t go back. This caused a lot of angst among Apple fans, who’d always trusted that Apple really did know best, and couldn’t feel that way anymore. Not a few suggested that Steve Jobs would never have allowed it, if he’d still been with us. And some sadly said that they didn’t love their iPads any more.
I felt that way for a short while, and then decided to fight back. So, for anyone in this situation, I modestly offer these solutions; they work on the iPad mini, I can’t say about other devices.
First, damage limitation. Turn off ‘motion’ in settings; this removes the migraine/seasickness threat. Then remove all Apple wallpapers, and replace them with something dark-toned and fairly abstract to avoid distortion; star-fields and seascapes work well. Delete the garish icons, and move any that can’t be deleted off pages you use.
Then we can start to get more positive. Consider replacing any Apple or third party apps that have the unpleasing new look by alternatives. My real find here was the Coast browser: designed specifically for the iPad, this is a lovely piece of software, and finding it was worth the temporary unpleasantness. Apple’s notes and the Twitter app were both rendered largely unusable for me by the amount of extraneous white space, and I replaced them by Sticky, SimpleMind and Echofon.
So now I’m happy again with my iPad for now. But I share the views of those who feel wary about Apple products, in a way they didn’t in the past. I’m not sure how much longer Apple can stick to offering take-it-or-leave-it interfaces, when such a significant number of their users are inclined to leave it. It may not be a coincidence that Apple have dropped from 2nd to 14th in a popularity table of British brands, below Microsoft and Google. It seems the days when any company, however, well-regarded can refuse to allow interface personalisation, or at least a choice of theme, are gone.
One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries (AA Milne)
Some of us naturally have tidy desks. Others of us, including myself, do not. And we in the latter camp have traditionally been made to feel inadequate, if not slovenly.
This is, of course, grossly unfair. It has been known anecdotally for many years that messy desk owners can locate known items just as quickly as tidy desk people, as well as having the advantage of always being surprised by new things and new connections. But still the stigma has persisted.
Now, at last, the balance is being redressed. Loughborough University researchers have established that a messy desk represents a sophisticated approach to information storage and retrieval, which offers lessons for digital retrieval systems.
Furthermore, a recent study from the Minnesota Carlson School of Management showed that a disordered environment produced more creativity than one with excessive order, the latter merely promoting generosity and healthy choices. This is confirmed by researchers at NorthWestern University, who find that a messy environment is more conducive to some types of problem solving than an orderly one.
So let us have no more criticism of we messy desk people; for were we not right all along?
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? (Albert Einstein)
As I have written in an earlier post, my undergraduate degree was in organic chemistry. For my dissertation, I elected to do an experimental study (the only time I had a serious relationship with the practical aspects of science) in support of a rather abstruse argument within theoretical organic chemistry in which my supervisor was engaged. This was all to do with whether a reacting molecule did, or did not, pass though a ‘non-classical ion’ intermediate stage, with a different kind of chemical bonding than that allowed by normal theory.
One school of thought, led by the eminent American chemist Saul Winstein, argued that it did. Another, led by the equally eminent H.C. Brown, argued that it did not. (For aficionados, this is to do with solvolysis of terpenes of the nonbornyl kind.) The feud, for it can be called nothing else, was long-lasting, and became distinctly personal in nature.
My supervisor introduced me to this controversy in our introductory project discussion. “You must understand”, he said, “that there are two kinds of men in physical organic chemistry. There are Brown men and there are Winstein men. Now, I am a Winstein man. And therefore, for the duration of this project, you also will be a Winstein man.” (Winstein, I later came to realize, had died some years previously, but this did not affect his status as team leader; indeed, papers with his name on them continued to emerge for a long while thereafter.) ‘Being a Winstein man’ meant accepting wholeheartedly, without conclusive experimental evidence, the ontological reality of non-classical ions, and being rude about people who thought otherwise. It was my first insight to the fact that science is not always the impersonal and disinterested search for truth that I had been led to believe.
So, as a fully committed member of #teamwinstein, I studied reaction rates of transforming terpenes for six months. I contributed my small brick to the scientific edifice, by producing some negative results, which I was told were just as valuable as positive ones, got my degree, and moved on to other things. I have kept an eye on the progress of the controversy as it has rumbled on through the decades. I gather my team is winning, as recent crystallographic and other studies do fairly unequivocally show the non-classical structure, although the other side hasn’t quite conceded defeat.
An interesting new article by William Goodwin in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science now examines this whole topic from the perspective of the history and philosophy of science, as an example of a scientific controversy, and how such controversies can throw light on what we mean by scientific knowledge and progress. I must admit that it is rather chastening to find that something which I had mentally filed away as ‘what I was involved with a little while ago’ is now officially history.
Appealing to ideas from social epistemology, Goodwin argues that such controversies, however personal and not-totally-rational in nature, may be understood in a way which does not deny the rational development of scientific knowledge. This makes me, as a good Popperian, more comfortable about my minor part in the Brown-Winstein feud.
Goodwin also makes the point that physical organic chemistry has made great progress by reliance on ‘soft’ theory, relying on concepts and analogies. “Theoretical explanations in [organic chemistry] are often produced after the fact to rationalize results, and it is often not possible to make numerical predictions about the behaviour of novel reactions. Those explanations that are produced are frequently qualitative”. The situations being analysed, certainly including these terpene reactions, are very complicated, and it is often not possible to predict how the effects of multiple structural features of the molecules involved will interact. As a result “organic chemists have made a trade-off: they have de-emphasized quantitative prediction and unambiguous explanation for something much more useful, given their pragmatic goals: a theory that helps them make plausible, but often qualitative or relative, assessments of the chemical behaviour of novel, complex compounds.”
All of which sounds very much like the kind of theory we deal with in the information sciences. Perhaps this is one reason why I, and numerous others, found the move from chemistry to the information sciences so appealing and productive.
This is an adaption of an editorial to appear in Journal of Documentation, jointly written by myself and Lyn Robinson
Ever since Rolf Landauer famously announced that “information is physical”, there has been an increasing tendency by scientists including David Deutsch, Seth Lloyd and Anton Zellinger to claim a place for information as a fundamental constituent of the universe. Information concepts have also infiltrated several aspects of biology, to the extent that it is now commonly claimed that biology is an information science. Some scholars, such as Tom Stonier and Marcia Bates, have investigated the idea of a unified conception of information, with links from the physical and biological realms to the social realm of meaningful communication, and to the concerns of the library/information sciences.
This approach has been criticized from the LIS standpoint by writers such as Birger Hjørland and Ian Cornelius, who argue that only contextualised and subjective information is of relevance to our discipline, and from science by authors like David Wallace, who writes of the idea that information is the fundamental constituent of the world, “I confess that insofar as they mean it literally and not metaphorically, I do not understand what they are talking about. It seems to be in the nature of ‘information’ that it is information about something: how can it make sense to regard the world itself as just information?” (Wallace 2012, p. 31).
A recent book by the scientific commentator Jim Baggott brings a new and interesting perspective to this debate, which is worth quoting in full (Baggott 2013, p.238-9):
“What does ‘information is physical’ really mean? I believe that there are two ways in which we can interpret this statement. One is scientific, the second is metaphysical.
The scientific explanation acknowledges that information is not much different from other physical quantities . But, as such, it is a secondary quantity. It relies on the properties of physical objects, such as photons with different polarization states or electrons with different spin orientations. In this sense it is like heat or temperature, which is a secondary quantity determined by the motions of physical objects. ‘Information is physical’ means that information must be embodied in a physical system of some kind and processing information therefore has physical consequences. Take the physical system away, and there can be no information. I obviously have no issue with this.
The metaphysical interpretation suggests that information exists independently of the physical system, that it is a primary quality, the ultimate manifestation of an independent reality. ‘Information is physical’ then acknowledges that in our empirical reality of observation and measurement, information becomes dressed in a clothing of physical properties. This is a bit like suggesting that heat or temperature are the ultimate reality, existing independently but projected into our empirical world of experience in terms of the motions of physical objects.
I have no real issue with this either, as long as we don’t pretend that it is science.”
Our approach (Bawden and Robinson 2013, Robinson and Bawden 2013) has been to argue that it is worthwhile studying the relations between concepts of information in various domains, since – even if no valid unified conception of information is found – much useful insight is likely to be obtained. Taking Luciano Floridi’s appealing picture of the nature of information as an archipelago, where each island amounts to information in one domain, we think it worthwhile to study the bridges, tunnels and ferry services in the information archipelago. We also strongly agree with Jonathan Furner (2013) that the concepts of information derived in LIS may have great value for other disciplines.
So, should be concerned that Baggott has outed us as potential metaphysicians? We think not. It is for physical science to decide on its best conception of information, and these subjects may be moving in a more metaphysical direction than in the past; Baggot’s denunciation of “fairly tale physics” covers far more than just information physics. From the philosophical direction, the ontology of ‘informational structural realism’ (Floridi 2011) seems quite close to Baggott’s metaphysics. Perhaps a unified conception of information, if a convincing one is to be found, will draw as much from the philosophical as the physical; for the LIS disciplines, multiple perspectives are surely needed.
Baggot, J. (2013), Farewell to reality: how fairytale physics betrays the search for scientific truth, London: Constable
Bawden, D. and Robinson, L. (2013), “Deep down things”: in what ways is information physical, and why does it matter for LIS?, Information Research, 18(3), paper C03 [online], available at http://InformationR.net/ir/18-3/colis/paperC03.html
Floridi, L. (2011), The Philosophy of Information, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Furner, J. (2013), Information without information studies, in Ibekwe-SanJuan, F. and Dousa, T. (eds.), Theories of information, communication and knowledge: a multidisciplinary approach, Berlin: Springer, pp 143-180
Robinson, L. and Bawden, D. (2013), Mind the gap: transitions between concepts of information in varied domains, in Ibekwe-SanJuan, F. and Dousa, T. (eds.), Theories of information, communication and knowledge: a multidisciplinary approach, Berlin: Springer, pp 121-141
Wallace, D. (2012), The emergent multiverse: quantum theory according to the Everett interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press
The eight in the series of CoLIS (Conceptions of Library and Information Science) conferences was held this month in Copenhagen. The splendidly efficient organization was provided by the Royal School of Librarianship and Information Science, the Danish iSchool, now being incorporated into the University of Copenhagen’s Arts faculty.
As always with CoLIS, the topics covered were very varied, with an emphasis on theoretical and conceptual issues; this continues to make CoLIS a unique forum in the library/information science (LIS) area. This time there was an increased focus on cultural heritage, practice theory and humanities perspectives, although information literacy and knowledge organization were also well represented. It will be interesting to see if this move to a cultural paradigm is continued in future CoLIS meetings, though not, it is to be hoped, at the expense of other themes and perspectives.
For me, the highpoint of the conference was the panel discussion on the philosophy of information, and Luciano Floridi’s contribution in particular, a wide-ranging examination of epistemological and ethical issues around information in an age of ‘hyper-history’. Following pre-history, in which there were no information and communication technologies (ICTs), and the age of history in which society uses ICTs from the advent from writing to the late twentieth century, a hyper-historical society is entirely reliant on ICTs. I also very much liked Floridi’s concept, appropriate to the conference location on one of the many islands of which much of Denmark is composed, of the idea of information as an archipelago, with various answers to the question “what is information’ relating to the different islands. Having said that, I admit to feeling most comfortable with Birger Hjørland’s reiteration that LIS is primarily concerned with information instantiated in documents, with that term understood very widely. There papers, together with a variety of other perspectives on the nature of information will appear later this year in an issue of Cybernetics and human knowing.
In a new departure for CoLIS, and indeed any other information conference I have attended, Theresa Anderson built on her studies of the value of ‘pausing’ and ‘playing’ in complex, pressurized information environments, to offer a space for, among other things, guided meditation and the composing of Zen poetry.
The full proceedings may be found here, and papers from them will appear in September in Information Research. My own paper, jointly written with Lyn Robinson, on the ways in which information can be considered physical, and why this might matter for LIS, can be found here.
Isto Huvila has written reports of aspects of CoLIS on his blog, and other thoughts and musings on the conference can be found on Twitter, with the hashtags #colis8 and #colis2013.
The next Colis conference will be held in June 2016 in Uppsalla, Sweden, organized jointly by the Departments of Archive, Library and Museum Studies at Uppsala and Lund Universities. Updates will be on Twitter, with hashtag colis2016.
“AltaVista”, you will say, if you are an Internet user of a certain age; “ah yes, I used to use it before Google came along”. The news of the demise of the venerable – in Web terms at least, since it’s been around since 1995 – search engine will not cause many ripples in the Internet pond; it had too few remaining active users for that. But it’s worth taking a moment to muse why it, and almost all the other early web search engines, have gone, superseded by the system whose name is now a synonym for online searching.
We could look for the explanation in the poor support provided by its succession of owners, lack of development of the initially highly original product, poor marketing, confused vision of its purpose. All these factors, and more, are set out in Danny Sullivan’s eulogy for AltaVista in Search Engine Land. But perhaps the answer is more to do with what we want from information systems.
When it first appeared, AltaVista was undeniably the best of the web search engines. It had a dramatically larger coverage of web material then the others, at least for the days when we thought two million web pages was a lot. It also had facilities for quite advanced and sensitive searching, allowing precise specification of exactly what you wanted – if you knew how to use it to best effect. And therein lies the problem. Because at that time there were a number of search engines beside AltaVista: Lycos, Excite, Yahoo, Infoseek, Hotbot and more. They all had different searching functions, and were better for different types of material. People like me ran courses on how to get the best out of them. There was even a book, Search Engines for the World Wide Web, written by Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner in 1998, which covered them all, and advised that we had to learn to strengths and weaknesses of each one, after first mastering the idiosyncrasies of them all.
And then Google came along and changed everything. Not because it was necessarily a better system; it wasn’t at the start. But it covered all kinds of web material, and gave a reasonably good result most of the time. And crucially, it was quick to learn and easy to use. One of our students, Jan Brophy, in a dissertation project later written up as a journal article, established that it took several days of study and practice to get best use out of complex search engines (like AltaVista), and similar databases and catalogues; for Google, it took about three hours. And, crucially, improving searching expertise was essential for getting acceptably good results from ‘library sources’, but not from Google. This is not to say that there are not clever tricks to Google searching; there are, and in some special cases knowing them can be essential for getting good results. But most of the time they’re not needed. And one of the few things that we know with certainty about the use of information systems and services is that those which perform reasonably well all the time, and is quick and easy to use, will always be preferred to something objectively ‘better’. The phenomenon even has its own name – ‘satisficing’; the preference for the good enough, found by simple and familiar means. So Google was always going to do well. And when people starting calling any search box a ‘Google box’, the competition was over; we didn’t need to wait for the new English verb ‘to Google’.
So farewell, AltaVista, victim of the iron law of satisficing. Hopefully, designers of more successful systems will give some attention to the points which once made it the best search engine in town.
An interesting recent paper by Luciano Floridi, doyen of the philosophy of information, and his colleagues Min Chen and Rita Borgo asks what information visualization, one of the hottest topics in the information sciences over recent years in really for. Their answer is an intriguing one; it is not, as most visualization enthusiasts would have us believe about “gaining insight”; rather it is about saving time. As they cogently argue, an expert, given a set of relevant data, will find the interesting patterns in it sooner or later; appropriate visualization just helps them to do it more quickly and efficiently. This seems very good sense; but were I an information visualizer, I might feel a little deflated. Surely my expertise is about finding new knowledge and understanding in the data, not just about speeding the process up a bit.
However, I fancy I see an analogy here, perhaps even an interesting one. ‘Saving time’ has been a major justification for information systems and services for all kinds: from the use of expert ‘information professionals’ to the provision of collections, datasets and interfaces of all kinds. The claim here is not that the ‘end user’ (as we used to call them) would be necessarily unable to find what they need themselves; rather than someone with a particular expertise and efficiency in searching, or in providing and customizing the necessary tools, will be able to get the task achieved much more quickly. Time saving has been claimed as a major impact in recent studies of health information services, special libraries, and academic libraries, but its importance has been recognized for many decades. ‘Save the time of the reader’ is Ranganathan’s Fourth Law, after all.
Although I have been happy enough myself to use ‘time saving’ as a measure of success in studies of the value and impact of information systems and services, I have always felt a little ambivalent about it. Surely that’s not all there is to information specialism; is it even the main thing? I have always liked the idea of information systems and services as providing insight and understanding, promoting creativity and stimulating innovation; not just saving a bit of time.
However, we can learn further lessons from the visualization example. Floridi and his colleagues point out that ‘insight’ is rather difficult to define and to measure; time saved is much readily quantifiable. And the argument that a system ‘will save you time’ is more likely to be accepted by experts on the data in question that suggestion that it “will give you ideas you had not though of’.
So perhaps this is the best strategy from information service providers in general; promote time saving as an objective metric for the value of information services, and one which will not provoke skepticism in the way that claims for ‘promoting innovation’ may do. But, quietly, do not give up on the idea that the main role for the information sciences is the promotion of understanding and insight, however difficult to measure these may be.
“Research is concerned with discovery”, Christopher Pressler tells us in his introduction to Scala Publishing’s splendid new book on the University of London’s Senate House Library, “Libraries are the essential mode of travel.” The centrality of collections of documents in an organized space is the intellectual theme to what might (wrongly) be dismissed as a pleasing coffee-table book.
The book opens with an account of the history of the library, opened in 1877 as the intellectual heart of the University of London, constituted of a number of federated colleges. It includes sixty short essays on selected documents from the collection, written by expert contributors. The documents include books, manuscripts, photographs, prints, diaries, legal documents, letters, notebooks, and all the variety of print materials expected in a great research library. They are beautifully illustrated by copious and well-produced images, typical of books from this publisher, and the text is authoritative and accessible for the non-specialist. So, this is a very nice volume for lovers of books and libraries; but also a valuable resource for students of book history, library history and the nature of collections and information spaces.The book brings out clearly the relations between documents, the collections in which they are incorporated, and the spaces in which those collections are housed. This is brought out in a variety of ways. Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that the building itself, London’s first skyscraper is literally supported by its collections: the bookshelves are welded immovably into its girder structure. The purpose of the building, says Pressler, was “made physical” by its designer, Charles Holden, who Art Deco design did not copy previous libraries, but provided a space of modernist simplicity to support the sharing of knowledge. Despite its size, with several million items, it is a specialist institution, focusing on the humanities. And, crucially, it is very much a collection of collections, from the collection of the old London Institute to the mathematical library of Augustus de Morgan, and from the Sterling collection of first editions of English literature, to Harry Price’s library of magical literature: each of these giving an extra context to the documents of which they are comprised. It also emphasized the essential role of the experts who organize such collections: developing from the dire state of 1903 when “there is no Librarian, and it is purely a matter of chance whether any book asked for can be unearthed” to the happy times when “expert custodianship” went alongside adequate shelf and study space as good reasons for bequeathing collections to the Library.
The publishers, Scala, seem to have made a speciality of producing books which are, at the same time, very pleasing objects in their own right as well as genuine contributions to the scholarship of documents and collections. Another example is David Pearson’s book, with an admirable use of documents, in the broadest sense to include artifacts of many kinds, from the collections of the City of London to show the history of that city. The learned journals of the information sciences have published numerous papers on the nature of documents and of collections, and of the information spaces in which they can best be used. Books of this sort can give a background in which these questions can be addressed, and do it in a particularly pleasing way.
A blog post giving an illustrated summary of the book can be found here.
Until quite recently, the world of recorded information was physical: print-on-paper, plus the paper card ‘machinery’ well described by Marcus Krajewski’s book Paper Machines. Mechanised documentation – punched cards, edge-notched cards, and the like – added some automation, but were still very much physical objects. Then the information world became a bit digital, with computer databases and online searching, and then very digital, with the internet and all that flowed from it. And at the same time, the rest of the world of documents, in the broadest sense, and collectable things – books, music, photographs, movies, art and museum objects – also became partly of wholly digital.
And so we became accustomed to the idea of a hybrid information world, and perhaps a hybrid world in general, a world of ‘physical plus digital’. And there seemed to be an assumption that the world, or at least the information and communication parts of it, was moving inexorably towards an all-digital condition.
Well, perhaps not. There has always been a realization among those who study these things, and – perhaps ironically – among those who are best versed in digital matters, that we are likely to end up with a balance. I recall seeing, quiet a few years ago, an exhibition mounted by Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company who made their name with their work on the first Star Wars films. One of the exhibition’s tag lines was ‘Digital plus Physical equals the Future’. I recall thinking at the time that they ought to know,
And now Embracing Analog, a report from JWT Intelligence, a division of J Walter Thompson the best-known advertising agency in the world, looks at the issue afresh. The report, by the way, was brought to my attention by one of more informative tweeters, Lena Rowland.
In true adman style, the report’s subtitle tells us that “physical is hot”. Its author, Frank Rose, finds that although there is still enthusiasm for digital, in many aspects of life people are seeking out, and valuing, physical equivalents. While speed, convenience and low cost are powerful motivators for seeking digital materials, physical items have an emotional resonance, an authenticity, and a pleasing imperfection, which is driving increased purchases of physical books, music, pictures and films, and even writing paper and traditional-style wristwatches. We are aware of the resurgence of vinyl records, but Rose reminds us that even cassette tapes are making something of a come back.
Quite what this means for the communication of information, and the concerns of information specialists, is not easy to tell. Certainly not a return to library stacks of printed journals, nor to card catalogues. But we should not assume that the information world, any more than any other part of the world, is going to be inexorably all-digital; the digital-plus-physical balance is likely to be more subtle than that. And much more interesting.
It is some consolation to me, as editor of Journal of Documentation, that Paul (himself an editorial board member) excludes this journal from the worst of his criticism, allowing that “Journal of Documentation, for instance, consistently publishes an exciting mix of material with many different approaches to LIS”. Nonetheless, his criticisms will give pause for thought to anyone involved in library/information research or education, or who cares about the relation between research and practice in our subject.
His basic contention is that much information research lacks imagination, which he associates with openness, unpredictability, making connections, exploring unlikely looking possibilities, and a willingness to stretch, or even break, norms and rules. What it not suffice is “hard work [and] the following of a set of rules obtained from a textbook on research technique”; there is sometimes “such a slavish respect for rules and conventions that excellent work is sadly predictable”.
These trenchant criticisms are expanded and exemplified by analysis of five aspects of the LIS research literature. There is a disappointing lack of imagination and ambition in the topics chosen: students choosing dissertation topics, in particular, are all too often “frighteningly conventional”. Whenever possible, a researcher should ask “is there a question I really want to answer?” and use this as a basis for topic choice. Theory is sometimes wrongly used or over-used, and can lead to unnecessary obscurity; research results should be accessible to a wide audience, though this is certainly not a reason for avoiding theories and models. Research should be grounded in a wide reading of the literature, and not only the library/information literature. Imagination is needed in the choice of appropriate methods; the over-use of questionnaire surveys in information research amounts to a form of “slavery”. And findings need to go beyond an identification of what is interesting, to show what is significant, and why. This involves time and imagination, both of which may be short as deadlines for the end of the research approach.
This splendid article should be made compulsory reading for all novice researchers, especially for students embarking on masters dissertations and doctoral theses, and also for jaded old hands. As for Journal of Documentation, we will try to live up to Paul’s commendation, and continue with as much of a novel and imagination mix of material as we can.