Over the last year, I have been reading loads of books in and on Information Science, paying special attention to key texts in the (pre)history of the discipline. Fritz Machlup and Una Mansfield’s monumental anthology The Study of Information (Wiley & Sons, 1983) has been a pleasure to read and there are several passages in the foreword that merit a little commentary. I have always wondered why Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication from 1948 has been such a reference point in the discipline I started out in, communication science. Talking about purely technological problems and pumped with formulas than very, very few social science scholars could make sense of, the whole things seems like a misunderstanding. The simplicity and clearness of the schema on page two – which has been built into the canonical sender-receiver model – cannot be the only reason for the exceptional (mostly second or third hand) reception the text has enjoyed. In Machlup & Mansfield’s foreword one can find some strong words on the question of why a work on engineering problems that excludes even the slightest reference to matters of human understanding came to be cited in probably every single introduction to communication science:

“When scholars were chiefly interested in cognitive information, why did they accept a supposedly scientific definition of ‘information apart from meaning’? One possible explanation is the fact that they were impressed by a definition that provided for measurement. To be sure, measurement was needed for the engineering purposes at hand; but how could anybody believe that Shannon’s formula would also measure information in the sense of what one person tells another by word of mouth, in writing, or in print?
We suspect that the failure to find, and perhaps impossibility of finding, any ways of measuring information in this ordinary sense has induced many to accept measurable signal transmission, channel capacity, or selection rate, misnamed amount of information, as a substitute or proxy for information. The impressive slogan, coined by Lord Kelvin, that ‘science is measurement’ has persuaded many researchers who were anxious to qualify as scientists to start measuring things that cannot be measured. As if under a compulsion, they looked for an operational definition of some aspect of communication or information that stipulated quantifiable operations. Shannon’s formula did exactly that; here was something related to information that was objectively measurable. Many users of the definition were smart enough to realize that the proposed measure – perfectly suited for electrical engineering and telecommunication – did not really fit their purposes; but the compulsion to measure was stronger than their courage to admit that they were not operating sensibly.” (p. 52)

For Machlup & Manfield – who, as trained (neoclassical) economists, should not be deemed closet postmodernists – this compulsion to measure is connected to implicit hierarchies in academia where mathematical rationality reigns supreme.  A couple of pages further, the authors’ judgment becomes particularly harsh:

“This extension of information theory, as developed for communication engineering, to other quite different fields has been a methodological disaster – though the overenthusiastic extenders did not see it, and some of them, who now know that it was an aberration, still believe that they have learned a great deal from it. In actual fact, the theory of signal transmission or activating impulses has little or nothing to teach that could be extended of applied to human communication, social behavior, or psychology, theoretical or experimental.” (p. 56)

Shannon himself avoided the term “information theory” and his conception of communication obviously had nothing to do with what the term has come to mean in the social sciences and general discourse. But the need to show that the social sciences could be “real” sciences in search of laws formulated in mathematical terms proved stronger than the somewhat obvious epistemological mismatch.

Like many classic texts, Machlup & Manfield’s work offers a critique that is not based on dismissal or handbag relativism but on deep engagement with the complexities of the subject matter and long experience  with interdisciplinary work, which, necessarily, makes one bump into unfamiliar concepts, methods, ontological preconceptions, modes of reasoning, vectors of explanation and epistemological urges (what is your knowledge itch? how do you want to scratch it?). The Study of Information is a pleasure to read because it brings together very different fields without proposing some kind of unifying meta-concept or imperialist definition of what science – the quest for knowledge – should look like.

Post filed under epistemolgy, mathematics.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post; I knew of Machlup’s Production and Distribution of Knowledge but wasn’t aware of this anthology. Any other recommendations from your “loads of books in and on Information Science”?

    By the way, if you haven’t read them yet you really ought to read Patrick Wilson’s Two Kinds of Power and Second-hand Knowledge.

  2. bernhard says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks a lot for the references! I’ve stumbled across Wilson’s Two Kinds of Power but I haven’t been able to get my hands on it. I’ll try to check out Second-hand Knowledge!

    Concerning my reading I’ve been on the lookout for canonical materials, trying to get into the “mind” of Information Science. I’ve found the Key Papers in Information Science series very useful – got the 1980 book (edited by Belver Griffith) for a cool $2.50. ASIS&T has several really great anthologies on the history of IS, here and here (lucky is she who knows how to rip GB ,-).
    Also, some of the early papers on information retrieval by Luhn, Ohlman, Salton, Codd, and others float around the Web… I’m mostly interested in primary sources on information processing, trying to do some historical/conceptual work…

    best,
    B.

    PS: William Petty! Incredible stuff!

  3. Thanks for the additional pointers. My advisor edited that 2nd ASIS&T anthology! Incidentally, he is also chair of the ASIST SIGHFIS, which might be a venue for you to get some feedback on your historical/conceptual work…

    Cheers,
    Ryan

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