Info 218: Concepts of Information

School of Information, UC Berkeley, Spring 2012

Paul Duguid, Geoffrey 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
19 Jan: Exercise: I-School information
  • After looking at the ischool 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. Or Paul’s Uncle Tom. (NOT to the provost or an academic review board!) Try to touch on why this is relevant to your interests in particular. This shouldn't take too much 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 (well) before class.

Week 2
26 Jan: Exercise: How Much Information?

  • How much information? [2003] asks "how much new information is created every year?" How much information? 2009 [2009] discusses how much is consumed. Whereas their precursor, Michael Lesk [1996] asked simply (?) "how much information is in the world?" We [2012] ask, how do you stack up? Either calculate how much information is in your "world" (your apartment, office, bedroom or some similar space); or calculate "how much new information" you produce in an hour/day/week/month/year/lifetime [chose your unit], how much you consume, and what your ratio credit looks like? What can we conclude from your results?

Week 5
16 Feb: Exercise: Public Opinion

  • In the course of the year, we will hear claims that "The American people/Republican Party/Democratic Party/People of the great state of ... has or have spoken ...", or that "Public opinion is clear that ...", etc. Pick a particularly interesting or egregious recent claim of this sort and analyze the evidence (or lack of) for the claim, the likely function of the claim, and the applicability of Habermas's argument and/or conceptions of information that we have been discussing to what is going on with such claims. Consider, in particular, Poster's argument, and ask what differences the Internet has introduced to the newspaper-based world that Habermas describes. If we can assume that an idea of a public sphere was important to how we conceived of our polity, is such an idea still tenable?

Week 7
1 Mar: Exercise: Objectivity

  • Do a search in either Google News or JSTOR/Google Scholar on the following string
    "lacking in objectivity" OR "lacking objective" OR "Lack of objectivity" OR "absence of objectivity" OR "without objectivity" OR "not objective" OR "failure to be objective"

    or use similar strings. If in JSTOR pick an article from a discipline you are interested or engaged in. Discuss what it is that the article, position, or approach in question lacks: i.e, how is "objectivity" being construed by the writer? (It may very well be either vague or include more than one criterion). Is to say that someone lacks it invariably a criticism?

8 Mar: Exercise: Political Science

  • Find a issue around which there's some public debate that has the following properties:

    A. It isn't basically "cultural," turning on fundamental differences of value (e.g., abortion, gay marriage etc.)

    B. It has been reasonably widely discussed in the media.

    C. It involves a number of informational claims, many of which would be hard for the average person to understand or evaluate.

    D. It may have partisan implications, but views on it aren't polarized along party lines. Some examples would be net neutrality, online privacy (some one specific aspect or issue of this), programs for mortgage debt forgiveness/ workouts, alimony reform…

    Try to find two opinion pieces taking opposite sides, or to extract arguments for each side from a "balanced" news article. What information short cuts à la Popkin can you discern? How is information packaged, framed and delivered, and what types of shortcuts that Popkin discusses are deployed? The basic question is this: do you think this is an issue that can be reasonably submitted to public judgment -- in the end, does it weigh more for the view of Dewey or Lippmann?

Week 9
15 Mar: Exercise: The Internet and the Organization of Knowledge

  • 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 Encyclopédie, which I've added to the readings; these outline the approach to knowledge that the Encyclopedists assumed.