Faculty of Arts, Griffith University
Paper presented to "Food for Thought" conference,
University of NSW, July 1998 and subsequently in the proceedings of the conference.
This paper presents a theoretical and conceptual examination of
'information' as a subject. To do this, 'information' is considered
as both an artefact and as a particular form of story. I argue
for the consideration of information as coherent, singular and
whole 'things'. This position resists the reduction and, to some
degree, deconstruction of information to atoms of smaller information
that are still meaningful. The paper utilises the examples of
the Periodic Table of Elements and George Murdock's Ethnographic
Atlas to argue that information is a heavily contextualised
social construct whichh is affected by provenance and proxemics.
The paper considers the role of consumer culture and the manner
in which information is commodified. These claims are then applied
to electronically-mediated information-rich environments, such
as the Internet.
"What is information?" This seemingly innocuous question
and the plethora of potential responses are the focus for this
paper. Information and the various purposes to which it can be
used are a core concern of contemporary cultural practice. These
practices also emphasise the increasingly significant role of
information technology. The assignment of a pivotal role to information
technology in the maintenance and perpetuation of the social has
led to the identification of an information society (Poster 1990:11).
Some disciplines, such as information science and information
systems, claim a close link to the 'stuff' of information. In
each of these cases, the focus of activity is upon what to 'do'
with information, how to make effective use of it, how to move
it around and how to get more of it. In short, the focus for activity
centres upon the commodification of information. Baudrillard (1988:29)
claims that, "we are everywhere surrounded by the remarkable
conspicuousness of consumption and affluence, established by the
multiplication of objects, services and material goods."
The persistent presence of information technology within these
constructs, however, obscures many possibilities for the detailed
examination of information as information. The material reduction
of information held in digital form to a binary state appears,
at one level, to represent the essence of all information. In
this perspective, however, the heavy contextualising required
to make any 'bit' meaningful as anything more than one side of
a switch is ignored. This reduction also supports the contention
that the information held 'in' information technology is fundamentally
different to other information. Excising one of taxa of information
in this manner privileges it, perhaps intentionally, over many
others. This, in turn, excludes the examination of other, possibly
older, strategies for 'doing' things to the 'information' of information
technology, because of this very difference (Tufte 1990:33).
I do not want to imply a Spinozan understanding of the world
by claiming that everything is information (Curley 1969:3). That
path is already pursued in many ways by reduction of information
to a sequence of binary components. This tendency towards binary
computing is, in itself, however, a none-too-surprising development
considering information technology's heritage within Western philosophies.
In place of a generalised label and definition for information,
this paper considers two allied paths for understanding information;
information as story and information as artefact. I argue for
the consideration of information (or possibly informations) as
whole 'things' and as contextualised social constructs. This position
resists the reduction and, to some degree, deconstruction of information
to smaller atoms that can still remain meaningful as information.
My scope is necessarily narrow and cursory in this paper to the
extent that the entire realm of discourse that regards the relationships
between data, information and knowledge remains untouched. Needless
to say, this is an equally relevant avenue for exploration that
reconfirms the socially constructed and contextualised basis for
The Periodic Table
The Periodic Table (
presents a fruitful example of information as an artefact and
is a tacit reference to Spinoza's own 'elemental' philosophy (Curley
1969:30). The, hopefully familiar, arrangement of elements which
is used to represent the terrestrial elements is far from a 'simple'
list. The position of each element within the table relays various
understandings of the interrelationships that are present with
other elements in the table. Some tables also utilise a colour
scheme which simultaneously represents different taxa. The Periodic
Table neatly encapsulates a number of the issues for considering
information as an artefact. It is, among other things, a representation
of accumulated information, an icon of scientific discourse, a
symbol for systematic thought, an elemental map and a text of
Western society (whatever that may be). However, and without sounding
too much like a Chinese encyclopedia, it is also a cultural artefact
recognisable to those of us imbued within contemporary Western
cultures. We do not necessarily understand the significance of
its 'shape' or the relationships that are implied by the horizontal,
vertical or diagonal lines, nor do we need to, but nonetheless
it is 'meaningful' in a manner that extends beyond scientific
rationality. The meanings that are interpreted from this representation
of information, perhaps more importantly, also extend beyond its
intended function as a visual mnemonic for chemists.
It is this 'fuzziness' and 'wholeness' surrounding the meanings
of the Periodic Table that subtly indicate what could be seen
as the quality of any artefact. We interpret what is before us
in a number of different and contextualised ways and, within each
of these ways of interpreting what we are looking at, we 'see'
a different 'thing' (Shanks & Tilley 1987:98). Yet, and irrespective
of the explosion of potential meanings, what remains is a singular
and coherent thing from which those various meanings are interpreted.
For those who suffered through secondary and tertiary level chemistry
subjects the Periodic Table can be read as a quite particular
legible 'text'. It can be meaningfully 'read' down to the level
of individual atoms and it can be understood through the syntax
of the scientific discourses to which it is also an emblem. For
those who fall into that convenient category of 'other' there
is a vague awareness, a sense of a coherent meaning and probably
some recognisable highlights. This level of awareness, I would
suggest, is the 'artefactual' sense of the Periodic Table. This
does not deny, or even preclude, the textual, symbol or iconic
meanings that can be ascribed to any representation of the Periodic
Table, in many ways it incorporates them. The artefactual qualities
of a particular Periodic Table, however, extends beyond this trinity
of meaning to encompass the specific elements of A Periodic Table
in relation to other Periodic Tables (Shanks & Tilley 1987:107).
In other words, there are additional elements to consider in relation
to a particular Periodic Table, including its form, its context,
its provenance and its relationship to other "artefacts"
- its proxemics.
The range of forms in which even a Periodic Table can be represented
is multitudinous. My own wardrobe, for example, boasts the presence
of a Periodic Table tie and T-shirt. The tie, especially, would
find little utility in a laboratory as its relative narrowness
permits only a restricted range of individual elements to be included.
Thie tie does, however, clarify a number of issues relating to
information as artefact and the commodification of information.
Clearly the Periodic Table tie is an artefact in its own right
but, arguably, it is also a specific synthesis of the Periodic
Table as artefact and the generalised category of artefacts that
are labelled as ties. The partially effaced Periodic Table does
not obliterate the generalised understanding of the Periodic Table
as a whole 'thing', it does, however, largely remove the artefact
from the scientific discourses of chemistry to become a commodity
of contemporary cultures more broadly.
But the Periodic Table is only one of the persistent artefacts
of the chemistry story and but one artefact that I have chosen
to refer to within this story. Because, although I am focussing
upon ethnographic endeavours, telling a 'good' story is an important
element for any work of critical inquiry (Atkinson 1990:36), as
it is for any work intended for popular approval. Using different
artefacts to tell a story changes the story itself in various
ways (cf. Shanks & Tilley 1987:114). This is, though, an unsurprising
observation in a paper that makes a claim for information as both
artefact and story.
Despite representing the same elemental information the Periodic
Triangle, Periodic Swirl and Periodic Rope (Tufte 1990:14) each
emphasise particular qualities of interrelationship that can be
identified within the classification of terrestrial elements.
Each equally represents the sum total of research that has identified
these elements individually and none necessarily obscures the
relational information contained in the Periodic Table. However,
it could also be cynically observed that the table may be the
preferred representation for these elements because its dimensions
most closely mirror those of foolscap and A4 sheets of paper.
In other words, the Periodic Table, as an artefact, suits the
demands of current printing technologies.
These considerations of information as an artefact are only part
of the story. The Periodic Table is a specific representation
of information among its other qualities as an artefact. Conversely,
the Periodic Table's presence as an artefact is one of the many
roles and meanings that can be ascribed to it. A material culture
approach to 'information studies' complements, but does not replace,
other existent discourses that conceptualise the 'stuff' of information.
However, to advocate information solely as an artefact would itself
only capture some of the attendant complexity and prove, in isolation,
to be as limiting as any other arbitrary dictate regarding the
application of theory and method to an object of research. As
with any artefact, information is always 'something' as
a consequence of its human manufacture and the ascription of meanings
applied to 'it', its use and the social practices that flow through
and around it. Information, and any artefact, do not 'float' unbound
from context or the ascriptions of meaning. This understanding
presents another possibility for understanding information, and
one that reflects Richardson's use of George Mead (1989:172-173)
to consider the artefact as an abbreviated act. Information, and
arguably any artefact, could similarly be posed as abbreviated
story. In this sense, the 'things' that are identified and understood
as information are the meta-elements of, collectively, a sequence
of human activities, the systhesis of other information and the
social contexts in which these activities occurred.
George Murdock's Story
George Murdock's 1967 Ethnographic Atlas is a specific
form of information and an ethnographic construction of reality.
The Ethnographic Atlas is a 128 page compilation of the
'significant' 89 qualities of 1170 societies which are presented
in tabular form. The 89 qualities covered are drawn from a survey
of a broad range of ethnographic writings and consequently it
represents a range of ethnographic interests and concerns. For
example, column 19 describes the community organisation (1967:48),
column 35 identifies the types of games that are played (1967:52),
column 37 indicates the presence of male genital mutilation (1967:53),
column 71 identifies the institution of slavery (1967:58) and
column 84 catalogues the roofing material employed for housing
(1967:60). This information, which includes a comprehensive bibliography,
was originally published in the journal Ethnology through
the 1960s and Murdock himself proclaims that its intention is
to facilitate cross-cultural comparison of societies with a 'standard'
set of parameters (1967:3).
The Atlas is a curious artefact of ethnographic research
on a range of levels. It is almost always housed within the reference
collection of university libraries. This location imparts a tone
of validity over its role as a definitive source of information
and by extension the societies for which it speaks. It is also
clearly an artefact of its period. It has embedded within it a
variety of assumptions about which aspects of the source ethnographies
that it draws upon should be presented and what can be readily
discarded. In this respect, Murdock's role within the Ethnographic
Atlas is that of an editor.
The tabular format utilised in the Atlas has necessitated
the standardisation of the available options under each column.
While this structure still accommodate the relatively unusual
such as ultimogeniture as a rule of succession and ice as a roofing
material it does restrict the range of ethnographic detail that
can be presented. This is, admittedly, in some respects an unfair
comparison as the Atlas is not intended to provide detail.
The 'famous stories' of Malinowski, Mead or Evan-Pritchard do
not present the same order of information that is contained within
the Atlas. The detail of observation found in each of these
ethnographies has been abjured to standardised generalisations
within the Atlas. These are complementary orders of information
in the same manner that a library catalogue complements the library
holdings that are themselves particular combinations of information.
The danger, and difficulty, is when one order of information becomes
a substitute for another. Baudrillard's consideration for the
orders of simulacrum is relevant in this context.
This would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection
of basic reality, it masks and perverts a basic reality, it masks
the absence of a basic reality, it bears no relation to
any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard
This is an ever-present danger for the utilisation of any information
and, in some situations, an absent caution when the discussions
involve information technology. Malinowski's observations in the
Massim are specific observations and cannot be transplanted holus
bolus or in some cases even applied to the subjects themselves.
I feel that his material is still not properly digested, that
Malinowski would be regarded in some ways as naïve by the
people he was studying. That the people he describes would still
seem somewhat foreign to the Trobrianders themselves (Baldwin
in Young 1979:12)
Ethnographies are still being conducted and probably in environments
which Malinowski would never have considered. Kapferer (1988:80)
in his description of Geertz's Works and Lives also identifies
the specificity of anthropology.
He [Geertz] shows that the different lives he explores can indeed
be different, disjunct and in intellectual conflict. They do no
comprise - as by extension, anthropology does not comprise - variations
upon a single theme.
The Atlas is, irrespective, a particular story and one
that can be claimed as an abbreviation of many other abbreviations.
The Atlas, however, equally be removed from this particular
contextualisation and be completely excised, at least momentarily,
from any hierarchy of information that might imply an 'original
turth' beyond the Atlas itself. Decoding the elements attached
to a single culture in the Atlas provides a different understanding
than might be gained from reading the ethnography from which the
Atlas entry was drawn or by experiencing the culture at
first hand. This is not to advocate the necessity of immediate
experience or the presence of an ultimate informational 'truth'.
The experience of contemporary cultures is, to a large part, defined
around the reception and interpretation of abbreviated and distilled
The 'Beginner's Guides to [insert philosopher here]' approach
prevades many virtual universities' approaches to education and
mistakenly equates learning with the dissemination of 'bits' of
information. The 'lifestyle' program is another example of the
presentation of abbreviated information. Tonya Todman's televisual
craft efforts do not realistically empower the home viewer to
intimate her prowess with the glue gun. Similarly, the Two
Fat Ladies particular skills with lard are not (fortunately)
readily repeated. Information, in these situations, is reduced
to a context in which it is primarily a commodity for exchange.
Tufte (1990:34), somewhat righteously, describes the commodification
of information as chartjunk. He is particularly disparaging of
information that is presented to be noticed as information and
cites Rand's statement that, "reader's of a report should
be unaware of its design".
I am purposefully describing the Atlas as story and as
an artefact to emphasis that its meanings and context extend beyond
the singular function of reciting data and always includes some
role as a consumable 'thing'. By creating information that is
extrapolated from various ethnographies which are the stories
of 'others' about still 'others' Murdock's story-telling artefact
holds a steady three degrees of separation from any actual society
that it purports to catalogue. The ethnographic equivalent of
a Bacon Index (http://www.spub.ksu.edu/issues/v100/FA/n069/fea-making-bacon-fuqua.html).
There is one exception to this distanciation of information from
informants and that is Murdock's own society which, not unsurprisingly,
is absent from the Atlas as some sort of 'data'. This is
the level at which the Atlas-as-artefact presents an intersection
of meanings and practices that does not allow the information
that it contains to stand in isolation. In many respects it cannot
be objectively separated if it is to tell George Murdock's story.
Atkinson (1990:7) observes, "that texts do not simply and
transparently report an independent order of reality. Rather,
the texts themselves are implicated in the work of reality construction."
As the story of Murdock himself, the written text of the Atlas
does have some consideration for its own provenance. Murdock figures
personally within the text when he claims that,
it is improper to include a society [in a world sample] because
the investigator happens to know its culture at first hand, as
did the author when he used, in Social Structure, the culture
in which he was reared (the Yankees of Connecticut) and all three
of the cultures which he had personally studied in the field...
Murdock accommodates other anomalies in the data with short notes
that read as curious sub-texts of their own. One can too readily
guess the meaning of the comment on Gisu society, "but without
penetration" (1967:11). Whereas the comments, "usually
after capture" (1967:12) for the Bafia appears mysterious
and exotic even when it is cross-referenced to the column that
discusses modes of marriage. The notation for the Tasmanians is
equally concerning; "extinct since 1876" (1967:27).
Murdock's work constructs a social 'universe' of ultimate cross-comparability.
Although it has been observed that this is a quasi-universe (Underhill
1975:843) Murdock makes a quite conscious effort to foreshadow
criticism of his work by providing a series of guidelines to the
use of his Atlas. These principles form an intimate part
of Murdock's own story. Among these principles is the suggestion
that, "no world sample should include two societies located
geographically so close to one another that diffusion is likely
to have jeopardised the essential independence of their cultures"
For Murdock, a 'good' story is clearly a story of statistical
proportions unobstructed by the untidiness or variability of human
organisations or practices. Galileo observed the distinction that
can exist between what the eye of the forehead registers and what
the eye of the mind envisions (Tufte 1990:19). This can be reworked
for the Atlas to become what the people of the ethnography
practice is distinct from the information that the Atlas
records. But this is, of course, Murdock's story and one which
Latour and Woolgar could have been describing when they claimed,
The function of literary inscription is the successful persuasion
of readers, but the readers are only fully convinced when all
sources of persuasion seem to have disappeared. A text or statement
can thus be read as 'containing' or 'being about a fact' when
readers are sufficiently convinced that there is no debate about
it and the literary inscription processes are forgotten (Atkinson
The difficulty with Murdock's story and the extent to which the
Atlas is distanced from social practice and experience
is revealed by attempts to incorporate oneself within the Atlas's
schema. What, for example, is defined as a society within the
Atlas? This is a perennial puzzle of the social sciences
and one with a variety of potential answers. Yet the Atlas,
despite its efforts to categorise the internal qualities of individual
socieities, assumes this encompassing category as a given.
The definition appears to be largely assumed and is driven by
the contributions of the individual authors of each ethnography.
Can we speak of an Australian society in the context of the Atlas
or is Murdock implying a more tightly geographically bound population?
This latter supposition is supported by Murdock's description
of the Yankees of Connecticut as his own 'home' culture. Murdock's
insistence upon 'sampling' independent cases appears to take ethnographic
method to its most rarified level where the people have left and
only their faint echoes, as stories and information, remain.
Other stories from the Ethnographic Atlas
Murdock's Atlas is also the first element of other stories.
A range of papers appeared after the Atlas's publication
that utilised it as a source of information. Each follows, to
varying degrees, Murdock's prescriptions regarding the use of
the Atlas in order to help craft stories about others (Heise et
al. 1976, Ember 1978, Smith & Crano 1977). Lomax and Arensberg's
(1977:659-679) "A worldwide evolutionary classification of
cultures by subsistence systems" presents the apogee of comparative
and cross-cultural macro approaches to ethnographic research.
The first two sentences adequately summaries the extent of their
Comparative ethnology now provides the data by which all known
cultures can be usefully arrayed in an evolutionary series on
the basis of their subsistence systems. The insight is an old
one, but the amassing of evidence about expressive as well as
societal and ecological patterns that the computer makes possible
lends new weight to an evolutionary treatment of cultural variation
This is apparently a claim for the capabilities of specific tools,
namely the computer, which now makes it possible for the authors
to prove their argument. Without considering the specific effect
that a tool has upon the representation of a theoretical argument
one can only speculate what Marx might have done if only he had
had a ball point pen. He may have crafted a better story, he may
have had other research opportunities but it would seem fairly
unlikely that he would have developed a 'better' theory.
Nonetheless, Lomax and Arensberg present their own telling of
a story that starts with Murdock. They also use some specialised
artefacts in the forms of graphs and charts to assist them (1977:666,672).
L.H. Morgan's nineteenth century theories of cultural evolution
which is hinted to in their introduction is echoed in these artefacts.
However, more significantly, the information that is Lomax and
Arensberg's article exists at four degrees of separation from
all of the societies described except those of the authors. At
this level of abstraction the information available from a 'world
sample' can be compared and confined to the single page of an
academic article. Inquiry into the entirety of human experience,
it appears, spirals exponentially downwards from the global morass
of societies, to individually crafted ethnographies, to an Ethnographic
Atlas through to a final and single graphically arranged taxonomy.
It is another of the artefactual device used by Lomax and Arensberg
that introduces the cautionary tale of my paper. Lomax and Arensberg's
intention for their inclusion of a crude and large-scale representation
of the earth is clear. Ostensibly, this is a locational guide
for the societies that have been incorporated into their world
schema. However, it is clearly also a reference point back to
their initial claims - computers have solved our research problem
and here is solid proof for the validity of our theories. Closer
inspection leaves many unresolved questions. This map, for that
is what apparently it must be, cannot be 'read' without knowledge
of the Ethnographic Atlas. Each letter appears to represents
one of the societies in the 'world sample' but in realising that
this is the purpose of the representation it becomes meaningless
data superimposed onto a representation of the earth. Murdock's
Atlas represents a quasi-universe that never existed in
its entirety at the same ethnographic moment nor does it represent
all societies (Underhill 1975:843). In superimposing this data
there is no explanation as to why geographic features such as
New Guinea should be so heavily distorted. It can be observed
that the authors have 'helped' out their computer-generated representation
of this information by drawing rough continental shapes onto the
alphanumeric printout. This amalgam points to a particular privilege
being accorded to the information contained by the information
technology of Lomax and Arensberg's computer.
Finding Artefacts and Telling Stories in Information Rich Environments
To this point I have described events of recent history. The work
of Murdock and other cross-cultural ethnographers was a labour
of the 1960s and 70s. Their works reflect an attempt to accommodate
within ethnographic story-telling the expanse of information that
was seen as relevant to the understanding of social practice.
Their efforts also reflect an increasing awareness of the anthropological
relationship to particular types of information-rich research
environments. An expanding base of researchers and research, new
conceptual and theoretical approaches, new university departments
and an increasingly broad application of ethnographic method were
all increasing the richness of this environment. The response
to this abundance of information, as it is reflected in the Ethnographic
Atlas, was to systematically rarify and distanciate
the scale of information until it was manageable by both the researcher
and by the currently available computing power.
However, the two decades of hindsight that are available in which
to critique the Ethnographic Atlas parallels the development
of increasingly powerful tools that facilitate the storage and
re-presentation of information. Partly as a consequence of the
increasingly ubiquitous presence of these tools, the scale of
accessible information available to contemporary cultures has
multiplied. This increase in information has been of such an order
of magnitude that it has provided the capacity for the creation
of 'new' information environments, such as the World Wide Web.
Within these spaces information becomes increasingly commodified.
At a mechanical level this presents no great challenge because
electronically-mediated information rich environments obtain the
capacity for this mediation by constituting information out of
the same basic binary 'stuff'. This 'equality' of information
has led to development of websites which claim to provide "value-added"
information, for a fee.
The cautionary tales found in the Ethnographic Atlas can
similarly be found with the various web search engines and their
recent revitalisation as Web 'portals'. These developments potentially
reflect an increaingly blurred state between orders of information.
The web search index is an order of information removed from specific
web pages. Depending on the search index the information about
a specific page is a subset of the information contained on the
original page. The increasing sophistication of the search index
and the utilisation of meta-data within individual web pages has
allowed the pages generated by queries made to these search indexes
to approach a level of semiosis. Like the cultures in the Ethnographic
Atlas, the information presented as a consequence of a query
to a search index can appear to be temptingly meaningful in itself.
As tertiary education is increasingly conducted within virtual
environments the manner in which information is understood and
conceptualised impacts upon the shape and meaning ascribed to
the environment itself. Presenting a university subject is another
form of story telling and, as with the Atlas, its artefacts
have their own form, provenance and context. Altering these artefacts
also alters the subject. Placing the outline of a subject online,
for example, does not duplicate the printed document but, instead,
creates a new, albeit closely related, artefact with a different
provenance and proxemics and a context which can be understood
separately from that of the 'other' version. The environment informs
the artefact in as many ways as the artefact informs the environment.
The dangers, then, for telling stories in cyberspace are similar
to those of faced by Murdock in his Atlas. How do you convey
a 'good' story and what are the information artefacts being presented?
Information is never trivial, it is not 'just' lumps of binary
or analogue data. Information is always social. As with all stories
and artefacts, what information reveals about human practice and
experience extends beyond the immediate surfaces of function and
form. Understanding information, however, is a path negotiated
between the philosophy of an essential informational 'element'
and the discovery of utter specificity in its contextualised experience.
There is no pure information. What is present is the intersection
of practices, contexts, proxemics and provenance. In some situations,
however, and with the right story, these intersection can assume
the illusion of an objective state.
Information is a core component of contemporary cultures yet,
in the finest of social science traditions, it approaches indefinability.
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