Technology and the Information School.

Michael Buckland.
Nov 20, 2001

I suggest that a major cause of muddiness in discussion of the nature and mission of SIMS reflects an ambiguity of how "technology" (as in "Information Technology") is to be understood. There is, of course, a continuum, but to simplify for the sake of discussion: Is this School:

#1. Fundamentally a "soft" Computer Science Dept, one that has accepted the fact that human-beings use computer systems and that there is a legal and economic context? - monotechnological; or is it
#2. A School concerned with Information in whatever form / genre / medium, while understandable very interested in digital computing / communications technology? polytechnological.

Many statements about SIMS are ambiguous in this respect. Technologies other than digital computing are not excluded, but they weren't mentioned much either. Readers / listeners, if asked afterwards, would probably opine that the School's scope was #1, not #2.

Suppose we decided that we should study what people's information needs are. Would we define that as limited to only such information as comes digitally? I doubt it.

Other cases are less obvious until spelled out. We can apply litmus tests: Clarification could follow from posing differentiating questions, those for which the answer depends on whether #1 or #2 apply. e.g.

A. We decide to invest to expertise in graphics - design and evaluation - because displays affect ease of use and credibility information. Would we, for example, be interested in an Edward Tufte?

If #1, then HCI is all we need be concerned about. Forget Tufte;
If #2, on a broader view CRT screen design is one application along with print media, book design, posters, etc. We'd seek a graphics specialist who can includes CRT displays within her/his scope. Tufte would suit.

B. What about "tacit knowledge" in organizations - a BIG issue in corporate Knowledge Management?

If #1: Out of scope unless reduced to bits, whereupon it no longer is tacit knowledge.

If #2: Important in its own right. And the more tacit it is, the more interesting.

C. Language is used for recording and communication. So what about linguistics?
In view #1 that reduces to Computational Linguistics, statistical operations on character strings;
On view #2: Semiotics, semantics, and a wider range of pragmatics become included - and Peirce and Wittgenstein matter.
A central issue in access to recorded information is that words evolve: New words and new meanings of old worlds. Consider faculty or dissertation research on one how neologisms arise (mainly through metaphor). Within scope for SLIS, but out-of-scope for SIMS? Yes, if #1.

D. Relationship to the study of mass media?
If #1: In to the extent to which digital media are concerned;
If #2: All mass media issues are within scope.

The difference between #1 and #2 might not be large for many purposes, since digital technology is clearly important with any definition - but it makes a large difference at the margins and in defining and positioning the scope of the School and in what it is permissible to study and to research. It is very germane to faculty recruitment. As questions A - D show (and one could think of many more) one's assumption about how technology is to be understood has a very significant impact on who would be appointable for a faculty position and, especially, on how narrow or broad this School's interdisciplinarity is to be.