Author Archives: shannon

Knowledge is Power, Information is Beautiful, Data is Open, and Everything is Semantics

Every once and a while, after a carefully debated argument, the discussion will eventually end with a statement like, “Well, it’s just semantics anyways.” It’s such an innocuous little phrase that until this week’s reading I’d never really given it much thought. Of course, everything is semantics! Our language is incredible, it gives us powerful ways to view the world, ourselves, our purpose, and frankly it is incredible that we don’t find ourselves arguing about the meaning of words more often!

This week’s reading reminded me just how malleable and tenuous our understanding of seemingly ancient concepts are, and furthermore, how slight distinctions in meaning can lead to drastic changes in the way we live. Some of the questions that came to mind:

  1. Does objective data really exist? There seems to be a bias in many definitions of the word data that it is closest to fact, closest to reality. However, we each experience the world through our own subjective lens, so how could data ever escape this? As Tim Sherratt states in his talk, A Map and Some Pins: Open Data and Unlimited Horizons, “There is power in the definition of categories and the elaboration of significance.” For data to truly be objective we’d need to find a way to define and collect it without humans, which again leads to the question, can it objectively exist?
  2. What would our world be like without data? While certain types of data are almost completely naturalized, it’s important to remember that they are anything but. In an article from The Atlantic this week, programmer and artist Ben Grosser discusses an app he created to remove quantifiable updates from his Facebook feed because as he states,”There were times when I was more focused on the numbers than the content itself… I was more interested in how many likes I had instead of who liked it. I realized every time I logged in I looked at those numbers. Why was I caring? Why do I care so much?” Our lives are consumed by data that is completely man-made. I remember when the “like button” was introduced, how silly it seemed and now it is difficult to imagine a world without it.
  3. What is the difference between stories and information? Like its friend data, information seems to have an aura of objectivity. Information can be processed by machines so there is nothing irrational about it right? But stories and information both seem to inherently be about communication– relaying messages from a sender to a receiver. So why do we have such a general mistrust of stories, after all there is no American Society for Story Science and Technology?

So many questions from this reading– others include: Where does intelligence fit in the data, information, knowledge scheme? Can “knowledge” ever be outsourced to machines? Look forward to discussing more in class.



Information by Ted Byfield

When does information turn from data into meaning? While reading Information by Ted Byfield I was struck with how the language used in this essay reminds me of the language used to discuss the forming of personal belief systems, in that both are based in the intangible, yet hold powerful meaning and potentiality. The concept of Information itself is abstract because its meaning changes based on the context, with almost anything able to be considered information. What is interesting then is not information itself, but how we use this abstract and apply it to create something concrete or tangible. Like our discussion last week of Foucault’s The Order of Things, information lives in the same non-place as language, only existing once it can be accessed or named. Byfield says:

“so, to the growing list of paradoxes that have marked information for centuries– whether it is an action or a thing, singular or plural, an informal assertion or fact or a procedure for making a formal statement, its ambivalent relationship to operations of state, and so on– we can add some modern ones: It is abstract yet measurable, it is significant without necessarily being meaningful, and last but not least, it is everywhere and nowhere” (pg. 128)

Though the discussion of information in this essay focuses on its application in technology, I believe this is again an example of the human hand in our ability to process and access knowledge, in that information is omnipotent and gains its meaning through its application or use.


In the film The Information Machine, information at its very basic level is shown as an animated person looking at objects around them (starfish, leaf, spider web), and storing them in their “active memory bank” heard as CHA-CHING. CHA-CHING=information (I find the onomatopoeia endearing). Information then, in terms of the film, is the “stuff” you (computers, etc) collect. And at some point, you use this information, hopefully, and are able to analyze and use it to solve a “problem at hand:” in other words using data.

 Data, cannot be without the concept of information since data are little pieces of information, and the database is where you can explore these little nuggets. I saw two sides of the database in our readings this week. On one side the database is a being a tool an enabler of exploration and new possibilities, and on the other as being devoid of a certain “humanity” and individuation. Tim Sherret, in the article “A Map and Some Pins,” speaks about the possibilities of using Trove’s API, and  in terms of accessibility he states that “[i]t opens those resources to transformation. It empowers us to move beyond ‘discovery’ as a mode of interaction to analyse, extract, visualize and play.”  The possibilities of databases are also shown in the Cultural Analytics projects, for example the Dziga Vertov data visualization, where the datasets explore a “top down” view of two of Vertov’s films, and by the end you can see relationships of individual frames. The database opens up a whole new way of creating relationships that are not physically possible in the physical world.

However, there is a flip side. Although databases are great tools, especially when they become accessible and malleable, there is the question of the data’s context. You can pin point anything on a map, where it becomes a data point, however “[w]hat is much harder to represent are the emotions that surrounded that visit.” Oftentimes, the human context gets lost in the data (although a person must control the database/machine etc) and it is up to the user to return it.

Information, Machine and Human

I really enjoyed the film, The Information Machine by Eames. It was made in 1958 but I didn’t feel it at all. In the film, Eames presents the history of how human store and analyze information. Especially these phrases strike me: “With the computer, the concept and direction must come from the man. The tasks that it’s said and the datas that it’s given must be man’s decision and his responsibility.” Not only computer but also this can be applied to any kinds of digital media such as TV, radio, film. There is always human behind it.

Alan Liu’s article address us to understand – something we don’t really notice – how we send our message exactly what we want to be delivered by using machine. “The pure database approach works best when both the sending and receiving computers run the same database program, sharing a common discursive standard built into the workings of the software itself,” Liu says. It reminds me Encoding/Coding communication system by Stuart Hall. People interpret message in different ways depending on their background and experiences. And this links to Ted Byfield’s text when he says “the more freedom of choice one has, the more ways one can render the message.” Information has no specific meaning, it depends on how it’s coded/decoded.


This was a very interesting set of readings. The quotes that stood out to me are:

“Information as a measure of one’s freedom of choice when one selects a message from a universe of possible solutions. The more choice the more freedom. However, trying to decipher a message they have different consequence: The more freedom of choice one has, the more ways one can render the message, and the less sure one can be that a particular reproduction is accurate/Or desirable. Put simply the more freedom one has the less one knows.”

>> I think every mediation supports itself with style and design, and it’s hard most of the time to not judge something by its face value because at the end of the day the cover is part of the package. This is of course the case for the content these days. Large filters let everything through. It’s hard to judge whats worth reading, watching, not stopping.

Data  are the basic individual items of numeric or other information, garnered through observation; but in themselves, without context, they are devoid of information. Information is that which is conveyed, and possibly amendable to analysis and interpretation, through data and the context in which the data are assembled. Knowledge is the general understanding and awareness garnered from accumulated information, tempered by experience, enabling new contexts to be envisaged.” Quentin L. Burrell

>>  This was the best one in my opinion. It also reminded me of knowledge and action. It seems that the Berkley philosopher John Searl’s speech act theory fits well here by referring to his commentary about context and practices of conveyance, enabling a creation of certain actions.




The Information Machine

“This is information. The proper use of it can bring a new dignity to mankind.” 


This is a statement from a segment of the 1958 film entitled ‘The Information Machine’ which was completed by Charles and Ray Eames. This statement poses an interesting assessment on the ability of humans to collect and use data in a manner that is thoughtful, ethical and productive. The calculator had an enormous impact on the ability of humanity to analyse large amounts of data so that it could be interpreted on a human scale. However as is stated in the film, it remains the responsibility of the scientist or designer to input the ‘raw’ data for the computer to analyse. There is an issue here in terms of the transference of moral accountability from the person responsible for the input of data to the computer itself. In error management terms, this causes a diffusion of responsibility that results in a complete lack of accountability for the mistakes made on either part. This issue has evolved even further today as the methods by which we collect data are completed in part by the computer which we use to analyse that same data.


Information Machine 9


The transfer of this data analysis into practical use or ‘storage’ is another issue examined by the film. It talks about the nature of speculative design, and the nature of individuals to mentally catalog visual interpretations of a system. Charles and Ray Eames managed to encounter many recurring themes existing today and provide useful insight in the perceptions of data analysis.

The Library as the “City’s Living Room”

Came across this article about a newly redesigned library in Canada. The space looks absolutely beautiful and it seems to have everything anyone could ever need in one building:

“At almost triple the size of the original, the library will provide a 300-seat performance space to support the city’s burgeoning arts scene; two cafes – including one overlooking the scenic harbour; gaming stations; e-book  services, two music studios where people can bring instruments to the library and play, record, and burn a CD; a dedicated space for adult literacy; a First Nations reading circle; a boardroom for local entrepreneurs; and space for arts and culture based seminars.”

Oh and it only cost $57 million, no big deal!

Final Presentations December 2 4-7pm (Extended Class)


We’re extending our final class on Tuesday, December 2, to 7pm — in other words, we’re meeting from 4 to 7 — so we can accommodate everyone’s final presentations. We’ll be meeting in the Media Studies “back conference room” (room 1645) on the 16th floor at 79 5th Avenue. I’ll have pizza delivered around 5:30 or 6. You’re welcome to bring drinks and other snacks to share.

Each person will have a total of 10 minutes (including set-up!) for presentation and five minutes for discussion. It’s best that you build in some “buffer” time for the inevitable snafu(s), so I’d recommend that you plan to talk for no longer than eight minutes. These presentations are more of a celebratory, show-and-tell nature; there’s nothing to freak out about. Still, you should be prepared to show something — e.g., have some slides prepared, video clips excerpted, websites queued up — and you should have a crystallized version of your project goals, or your argument, so you can make the most of your eight minutes!

And don’t forget your stage makeup! Those floodlights can make your face look positively “archival”!


Order Up

How and why do organize our daily lives, our collections, our schedules.

Is there a central theme we follow that links all of our organizational habits, do we follow some grander classification system that has been set up by scholars and prophetic minds or are we all idiosyncratic. Databases have structural organizational systems, libraries too, and certainly archives. Ones that may be programmed, but it all started from someone’s mind. All major systems were invented by somebody, and that somebody usually invented the system on their own.

Should we alphabetize them? Should we color code them? What about organizing by subject or genre? or by release date?

All of these basic systems make sense hypothetically, but we must first orient our minds to what we are organizing. As we discussed earlier, color coding books usually wont be of any strategic help. Just as genre sorting wouldn’t make total sense when organizing clothes. So what connections do we make when setting out the order of things? In order to be most effective you must know, and fully understand the environment of the things which we organize. To bring ‘order’ we must have order in our minds. I couldn’t aptly sort a yarn collection by any more than basic instinct. I don’t know the functionality of different needles or thread widths. I could sort by color I suppose, but that may not be most effective way when needing to find a particular thread strength.  We follow what others may have set up for us, but we all have our own internal ways of knowing what works best for us. So to me it is incredible that there have become wildly accepted systems of organization that sprung from a single mind. A system efficient and elemental enough to work for years and years, despite all of the individual differences an organizer may have.