Info 218: Concepts of Information

School of Information, UC Berkeley, Spring 2011
Paul Duguid, Geoff Nunberg, instructors


Unless we ask otherwise, please work in pairs. If you want to form a larger work group for a particular assignment, ask us during the previous class when we go over the assignment. You will be expected to present your finding in class on the day of the discussion. Please send whatever digital documents you may need for presentations to us before the class so that we can load them onto a single machine. In assignments, ingenuity will be prized as highly as diligence.

Week 1
20 Jan: I-School information: Exercise/discussion

After reading the elevator stories the faculty provided in 2008, please prepare one of your own -- a prepackaged description of what exactly the program is about and why we're different from other faculties, which you might give to a vaguely interested friend, relative, or airline seat mate. This shouldn't take longer to recite than the length of an elevator ride -- the iSchool elevator! It shouldn't require a trip to Dubai. Submit it to Paul and Geoff by email before class.

  • Week 2
    27 Jan: History of "information": Exercise/discussion
  • Here is a list of the 150 words that most frequently appear immediately preceding or following 'information' in the academic subcorpus of the Corpus of Contemporary American English at BYU ( Some of these are collocates -- that is, more-or-less fixed expressions like "information access," "information literate," or "biographical information." Others are just frequent freely occurring Verb-N or Adj-N combinations etc. ("locate information," "incorrect information"). Pick one collocate on the list that doesn't appear in the OED list of collocates (the line between collocates and freely formed phrases is fluid, so use your judgment). Find at least a half-dozen citations of the collocate in some database (Google, Google Scholar, or the BYU corpus if you want to play with that) that help to show its meaning. (I.e, "He talked about information access" is not very useful). Give a rough description of the meaning of the phrase -- this doesn't have to be in the conventional form of a dictionary definition. Finally, try to identify what sense "information" has in the phrase -- does it correspond to one of the meanings given in the OED or some other dictionary, and if so, which? You might also want to track the frequency of the collocate at

  • Week 3
    3 Feb: How much ...:Exercise/discussion

  • How much information? [2003] asks "how much new information is created every year?" whereas How much information? 2009 [2009] discusses how much is consumed. We [2011] ask, how do you stack up? Calculate "how much new information" you produce in an hour/day/week/month/year/lifetime [chose your unit] and how much do you consume? What's your ratio credit like?

  • Week 4
    10 Feb: ? no class

    Week 5
    17 Feb: Public sphere: Exercise/discussion
  • In the light of Darnton's discussion of the "multimedia" communications environment of the Old Regime try to enumerate the variety of media & communication situations in which you provided or received information or opinion regarding the UC Berkeley budget crisis and related issues. These might include oral communication (conversations, classes, meetings, demonstrations, etc.), written documents (flyers, posters, graffiti), print publications (in both paper and online forms), broadcast media, and online communications (web pages, twitter and texting, youtube, social media, email etc.). You're encouraged but not required to regroup or revise these classifications as you see fit: Are these the best categories? Should there be further distinctions drawn, e.g. between types of email or web sites? Then answer some subset of the following questions. If you find that a question is too broad to permit adequate treatment, you can cut it down -- we're more interested in getting thoughtful answers than in having you address all of these. But we'd like you to at least be able to comment on the third. 1. Which of these communication belong to what Habermas would describe as the public sphere? Which belong to the spheres of private life or the state? How well or poorly do these distinctions work -- where do the problems arise and why? 2. Can you subdivide the types of "information" or content exchanged according to the type of speech situation? How and when is information or opinion from one speech situation recycled or reconsidered in others? Is it possible to make a partial diagram like the one that Darnton gives that will capture the flow of information and ideas? 3. Finally, Poster suggests that the net might represent a break with the traditional public sphere and democracy while Papacharissi argues that the demands of the public sphere may force technologies to adapt, rather than vice versa. Does parsing communication as you have done provide any insight into these arguments?

    Week 4

    Week 6
    24 Feb: Objectivity: Exercise/discussion
    The point of this assignment is to Compare and Contrast some of the ways the words 'objectivity' and 'objective' are used in contemporary discourse. To that end, do one of the following:

    A. Do a Google News search on 'objectivity' (which will return 'objective' as well, I think). You can restrict it with another item like "Egypt," "budget," or "science" so long as the search returns 25+ hits. Go through the results looking for eg's where 'objectivity' is used in a way that makes the intended meaning more-or-less clear (that is, you're looking for the kind of sentences that would be useful illustrations to include in a dictionary entry). Find examples that illustrate at least three different meanings for the word, or three different understandings of its importance. Among the questions you might discuss: What factors are likely to influence how the word is interpreted? Does it matter if it's being used to criticize or praise? What set of background assumptions does the word evoke?

    B. Do a similar search in JSTOR. Pick a discipline (but not philosophy or psychology) and search for articles whose titles or abstracts contain 'objectivity'. Or pick two disciplines, for example anthropology and art (see below). As above, look for different way of using the words. How do disciplinary concerns shape the way these concepts are deployed?

    As with the earlier assignment on 'information,' the task here is basically lexicographical -- or more precisely, a matter of concept analysis. There's no way you're going to hit all the senses of 'objectivity', but it will give you more practice in analyzing the way these terms are used in particular discourses -- which will be an important part of the final paper.

    And as before, we're after interesting presentations -- it isn't necessary to answer all the questions, but rather try to tell a good story.

    Week 8
    8 Mar: Information to "public knowledge" Exercise/discussion

  • After our discussions of the public sphere, public opinion, and public information, this assignment takes us a little closer to the odd but related concept of "public knowledge" and also into the realm of this week's topic, "government information" and "state secrets."

    WikiLeaks views itself as a
    "media organization" and a "new model of journalism." In its early years, however, it seemed to assume that making documents publicly available was all that was needed to fulfill these roles. But availability did not necessarily turn findings into what is often called "public knowledge." (Do a quick search on "it's public knowledge that" to see the sort of things that do get called "public knowledge.") Consequently, WikiLeaks has implicitly conceded that more was needed to perform the necessary transformation, and so it has worked with the conventional media--even if the ensuing relations have often been fraught.

    What we would like to you to do is to investigate the process whereby apparently inert information is transformed into this category of "public knowledge" and so to some extent made actionable in the public sphere. From one end you might find a leak that WikiLeaks has made available and yet remains unknown and consider what it would take to transform it into public knowledge. From the other take something that has recently become public knowledge (eg, the behaviour of Quaddafi's sons) and consider what it took to make this "public."

    While most of you have worked in groups (for which, thanks), you have (for understandable reasons) often submitted more or less individual reports. If you can, we'd like you to try to produce more composite reports. On this assignment, for example, you might consider one person working from the end of as-yet-unknown information, looking at what is available on WikiLeaks but not widely known, another from the now-widely-known end, analysing how something did successfully become generlly known. Then bring your findings together after the fact to see to what extent your assumptions/findings do and don't match, and what we can learn from that. As always, don't regard these suggestions as obligatory. If you see a better way to throw light on the question of how state secrets become public knowledge, feel free to try it.

    One more word. It is quite possible that for understandable reasons some of you may not want to engage with WikiLeaks directly. Don't by any means feel obliged to go the the site, download, or engage with classified state secrets if you have any reluctance. Equally, don't feel obliged to state your concerns. If you prefer, just work from the other end, from the information that is now public.

  • Week 8
    12 Mar: Organization of Knowledge: Exercise/discussion
    Wikipedia conceives of itself on the model of a traditional encyclopedia in many respects -- as witness not just its name, but its frequent comparisons of itself to the Britannica. Pick a (small) area of knowledge with which you are familiar and look at a bit of Wikipedia's treatment of the topics in that area. For the present purposes, don't concern yourself with the accuracy or consistency of the articles. The question you want  to address, rather, is whether Wikipedia's treatment of this area suggests an implicit picture of the organization of knowledge; what features of Wikipedia reflect or indicate that picture; and how consistent or coherent the picture is.

    For purposes of comparison (and because it's pretty interesting) you might to look at the selections I compiled from d'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclop├ędie, which I've added to the readings; these  outline  the approach to knowledge that  the Encyclopedists assumed.

    Week 9
    17 Mar: Theories: Exercise/discussion
    [final project/paper proposals due]

    Week 10
    Midterm break
    - No classes -

    Week 11
    31 Mar: Cognitive science: Exercise/discussion

    Week 12

    7 Apr: Economics, information & development: Exercise/discussion
    finals paper/project outline due

    Week 13
    19 Apr: Policical Science/Memes Exercise/discussion
    Pick two political memoids (i.e., things that memeticists might identify as memes) of two different types -- the types might include phrases, narratives, graphic representations or videos, slogans, etc. They  should be memes that people have in fact circulated with more or less success. Googling "political memes" etc. will turn up lots, or you may find some ideas at the following:

    Mother Jones
    Political Memes That Deserve to Die
    The 12 Internet Memes That Took Obama To The Nomination
    Debunking Stupid Liberal Memes

    Know Your Meme: Political Memes of 2008

    (Note that searching on "liberal memes" will usually turn up conservative sites and vice-versa). See if you can track the growth & spread of these items. Try to explain why they did or didn't catch on, and what purpose they achieve. How might they be explained in Popkin's framework, or some other --  can we analyze them as cognitive shortcuts or Lippmannian symbols?

    Week 14
    19 Apr: Search: Exercise/discussion

    28 Apr:

    Week 16
    3 May: Final paper/project presentations

    5 May: Final paper/project presentations