is power - for good, for bad. In a world of violence, poverty, and ecological
crisis on the one side, as well as of peace movements, industrial productivity
and scientific-technological development on the other, the production,
storage, exchange, diffusion, selection and use of information has also
become a key issue (1).
the same way as we live not only from nature but also within it, we can
say that our lives, as individuals as well as parts of different kinds
of social systems, are dependent on the knowledge we share with others,
as well as on the ways we make profit of it, i.e. on information.
To consider nature just as a resource or as something we could (and should)
transform without previously thinking on the consequences not only
for ourselves but for the balance of life in this planet, has proved to
be an irrational and irresponsible way of action. It is therefore time
to ask ourselves on the consequences of our thinking and doing not only
with regard to nature but also to the technologies we are using to manipulate
ourselves. These are of two kinds: the biotechnology and the information
technology. Modern information technology plays a major role in the process
of shaping not only the ways we communicate but also all aspects of our
individual and social life.
is the premise of the Institute for Information and Communication Ecology
(Institut für Informations- und Kommunikationsökologie, IKÖ)
(2) founded this year in the Federal Republic of Germany.
The whole complexity condensed in the title information and communication
ecology can be appreciated by looking first at the list of subject-oriented
groups already established: telematics, telecommunication policy and telecommunication
industry work control, security media policy, culture private sphere education
medicine and health positive and negative influence of IT on nature.
institute promotes also interdisciplinary discussions in the following
fields: big technologies, crossing frontiers and new convergences, basic
research on communication ecology technology, life-world, resistance women
and technology, feminist criticisms of technology economic and economic-political
aspects of information and communication technologies.
institute is not only a forum for scientific research but also a focus
for political action in order to contribute responsibly to the protection
of the sociosphere. With the following reflections I would like
to concentrate attention on two questions:
what are the challenges to be faced by a society (a nation or a group of
nations) in which knowledge and its communication is being shaped more
and more by information technologies?
what are the challenges of the global interaction between information
poor and information rich societies?
since the so-called information revolution, knowledge is being considered
more and more as a resource, to be exploited, i.e., produced, transformed
and used in the same way as the industrial exploitation of material resources.
In other words, knowledge in the shape of information no longer has primarily
the function of a public good, with a high utility value, like water or
air, but has also become a commodity with a corresponding exchange value.
The industrial process of reducing goods with utility value to goods with
exchange value was particularly aggressive in the 19th century. It involved
a step by step dissolution of the dimension of utility value, and the reduction
of the evaluating subject to a function of the exchange value. This process
is also known, particularly in the sphere of culture and moral values,
possible response to this development was the Marxist one. It consisted
in the intent to recuperate the utility value, by considering social work
and not the costs, as the fundamental principle for the determination of
value. This theory presupposes, at least in its pure form, a totalitarian
perspective of society and history, which has been more and more the subject
of criticism recently, also within socialist countries. This does not mean,
I think, carte blanche for classical capitalism but a chance
for a new form of pluralism.
is in this sense that the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard considers
databanks to be the form into which postmodern knowledge is represented
after the desintegration of ideological "meta-stories" (3).
This is, I think, a particularly interesting starting point since it regards
the desintegration of political (ideological) and/or philosophical forms
of legitimating the whole field of knowledge not as something necessarily
negative, but as an opportunity. In order to see it in this way, two conditions
are necessary: 1) general access to data banks, and 2) development of the
capacity of playing with different kinds of languages (in the sense
of Wittgenstein's "Sprachspiele"), but without reducing the different social
interests to a particular one (4). In other words, the
dissolution of the ideal of a global practical and/or theoretical control
of knowledge, not only with regard to its content but also with regard
to the process of production, exchange and use, can be considered as a
challenge for new ways of symbolic exchange in a pluralistic society. That
is, I think, the main point to be considered ecologically within so-called
information-rich societies, as well as with regard to 'global' interactions.
following reflections are in many regards one sided and they do
not pretend to give an exhaustive view, not even of the two questions already
mentioned. They are just an attempt to see some of the opportunities and
risks in this field and to offer some criteria for its qualification. I
begin with some hints on what can be called a theory of information ecology
and make, as a second step, some suggestions for action.
Towards a Theory of Information Ecology
of the unity of knowledge and its becoming an exchange value are ecological
dangers if we react by trying to impose a pure (!) political control
or by regarding passively their marketing process. In both cases
we are loosing the chance of potential pluralism which this technology
offers. This pluralism does not imply that with the electronic shaping
of communication all other formal (for instance printing) and informal
ways of human interaction are surmounted or obsolete. This is indeed
one kind of pluralism to be ecologically protected and promoted. An information
ecology does not have the easy task of saying: information technologies
are per se of a uniform nature. Let us save the traditional value
of, for instance, books. This kind of oppositions (books vs. information
technology) fails, I think, to see the complexity and potential plurality
within the technological shaping of knowledge representation and diffusion.
But, on the other side, there is the open question, of how an interaction
between different ways of communication can be organized, in order to be
aware not only of the opportunities but also of the limitations inherent
in each possibility, be it a technological one or not. If we do not pose
this question, then we will have sooner or later, as in the case of non-responsible
action towards nature, huge problems of information pollution. This is
a concept I would like to investigate by considering first some of the
characters or dimensions we can attribute to the information phenomenon.
The social dimension. We have been used to considering information as something
that just exists in our lives, as the atmosphere of a democratic
society. But information is not a triviality. It has taken three hundred
years to open written knowledge to vast sectors of society. This was not
only a technical but also an educational as well as a socio-political process.
We need, as at the time of the Enlightenment, a creative educational and
cultural policy in our field. As with other fundamental human rights it
is not enough to develop an ecological or even an ethical theory on them
(or to put them in a declaration) but it is necessary to cultivate practical
judgement concerning possible alternatives of action (5).
The linguistic dimension. The social character of information implies,
secondly, the linguistic dimension. Language is not something added
to society, but it is its very essence, i.e. our way of being. Some
characteristics of linguistic information are: a) its criticability,
b) its tacit dimension, and c) its partiality.
There is no pure information (as there are no pure facts)
but information is always relative to a theoretical and/or practical pre-understanding.
It remains always something we can criticize (and not just retrieve)
- if we have learned (individually and socially) how to do it. We are responsible
for this awareness.
Information is necessarily blind, i.e., we are responsible for the
information we produce and use (6). This tacit dimension
cannot be objectivised. This is particularly important in the case of expert
Whereas modernity aimed at a systematic view of knowledge, we, at the end
of modernity, are aware of its partial character. In other words,
we are responsible for an open or fragile unity, taking into account
the plurality of languages (cultural plurality, plurality of points of
view etc.) (8).
The historical dimension. Information as a social phenomenon implies, thirdly,
the awareness of its" historical dimension. The electronic revolution
is neither the beginning of a paperless society nor it is a necessary
historical step to be fulfilled by all countries and in the same way
in the future. It is just a possibility, to be responsibly inserted
within the richness of the past and the constraints of the present (9).
The alternative is not between rejection or information colonialism but
between different kinds of cultural and technical information mixtures
- information is half-breed (10).
Towards a Pragmatics of Information Ecology
basis of these categorial analysis it is possible, I think, to define the
concept of information pollution, as a basic pragmatic concept of an information
ecology. I suggest to consider it at the two levels I mentioned at the
beginning: within information rich societies and with regard to global
an information ecology within information-rich societies
ecological issue concerning the production, storage, accessibility, selection
and use of all kinds of knowledge is then, I believe, the preservation
and increase of its social character (11). Responsibility
towards this character is one ecological measure, one measure for the ecological
quality of our field. From this perspective we have to afford two kinds
of ecological problems: first, a monolithic control of the state upon the
information technologies and/or upon the contents of the messages, and
secondly, the unbounded transformation of information into an exchange
value. In other words, we should strive to see and establish differences
between the necessary role of the state in preserving the right of general
access to information, whereas on the other side we must preserve our rights
as individuals from centralised political and/or market control.
is a crucial ecological point, for instance, in the case of the German
ISDN-Net (a step-by-step integration of different transmission networks
for text, speech and images) one crucial ecological point, as it is being
highlighted by Kubicek (12). According to Kubicek,
the immanent ecological dangers of such a centralized system are:
suggests the creation telecommunication systems with a limited range of
options and possibilities. We should be careful not only with regard to
the problems of data protection but also with the transformation of our
homes into parts of the electronic marketplace. We must put limits to the
expansion of non-controllable technical systems, for instance through decentralisation,
through a differentiation of interest (or user) groups, as well as through
the creation of specific legal norms. In other words, we must afford the
ecological problems of uniformation which reduces the chances of
plurality inherent to this technology. We can call this kind of information
pollution, as it depends on the power or control on information, the power
of a total breakdown,
of the system against physical violence,
of software manipulation.
regard to the linguistic dimension, I would suggest we call the problem
message pollution. Information technologies are able to disseminate an
incredible abundance of messages, without making explicit the contexts
they arise from (there are no pure facts), the blindness
of their own limitations, and the specific kind of partiality they
are supposed to have. Human beings are more and more the victims
or targets of a superabundance of messages (this is also the case
within information-poor countries with regard to mass media). Umberto Eco
has already pointed out, that the battle to be undertaken in this
field should be considered primarily not as a strategic affair but as a
matter of tactics (13). We can indeed try to rule the
communication process at the level of the source or of the channel.
But in neither one case nor in the other would we be influencing the message,
i.e., the linguistic dimension. This happens only in the light of the
codes at the destination. In other words, messages change their meaning
according to the presuppositions of the interpreter, to his preunderstanding.
Here, in the chairs in front of our TV sets and in front of every terminal,
is where the linguistic battle takes place. This battle has
not the scope as Eco rightly remarks, for leaving the information circle
in which we are embedded. It is a question of how we prepare ourselves
to cope with this situation, in order to control plurality through qualified
interpretation. Eco suggests something that he calls the "cultural guerrilla",
and he means, for instance, the possibility of using one medium to criticise
another one. This is something we are already doing: newspaper articles
criticise TV programmes, TV discussions criticise books, and so on. Other
possibilities are those of "mass dissent": that is, I think, a field where
we could be more creative, organizing alternative networks and services,
particularly for helping marginal groups inside or outside our societies,
by offering international aid, by supporting peace and solidarity movements,
etc. I believe that the field of scientific and technical information would
also profit from this view: the artificial alternative between state support
and/or private industry is only one segment of a plurality of alternative
possibilities for different kinds of user groups. The currently one-sided
view towards industry as the main user of electronic information is monomanic
and distorts the potentialities of information technology. This is also
the reason, I think, for a distortion of the question of the economic value
of information, where this value is primarily measured from the viewpoint
of industrial users.
last point I should like to mention concerns what I called the historical
dimension. Our field is full of futurological ideas, some of them planing
the next millenium (14). We can pollute ourselves with
all kinds of utopias, which lead us nowhere, or, more precisely, to abandon
the responsibility for evaluating risks and chances of co-ordinating different
possibilities for designing our knowledge universe and its channels, taking
into account their specific quality The slogan of a paperless society
is an expression of historical pollution in our field. It is time,
I think, to abandon the mode of technological grandiloquence and
to look for more humble, i.e.. more specific ways of establishing
the limits of this expanding technology, and to act responsible, conforming
to the possibilities these limits offer! To see limits not as something
negative but as the condition for plurality and interaction is a key point
for the future of a technological society, i.e., for the insertion of technology
within the complex of other traditions. This is of course not a
plea for neo-conservativism. As it is an illusion to think of a pure
technological society, it is also an illusion to believe that there is
something like pure nature or an ideal communication we should
conform to (or we could create artificially).
realistic view takes into account that there is no ideal harmony between
human beings, no possibility of a perfect language for understanding and
action, and that we are always confronted with misunderstanding and non-communication.
Human communication is not just an object for technical manipulation nor
it is something mystical. Information technology is not necessarily
a pollution instrument nor it is an ideal artificial limb. We can profit
from its own (!) potentialities if we are able to integrate it within the
complexity of human communication. If we develop one-sided media,
then we should not forget, that human communication is double-tracked.
If we isolate pieces of knowledge, then we should not forget that they
get their meaning from specific situations and particularly from the receiver's
code. If we distribute knowledge through different technical channels,
then we should not forget the right to a general participation in societal
knowledge. If we handle knowledge with machines, then we should not forget
that human beings are not robots or flesh machines.
close one's eyes to these (and other) ecological questions of the information
society means to forget our responsibility in designing tools - the responsibility
that, in designing tools we are designing "ways of being" (15).
Information tools are, or should be, primarily people's tools. The information
technology opens us its potentialities if and only if we are able to interrelate
it with the whole of its social dimensions. It is indeed an opportunity,
maybe the opportunity for preserving and increasing social understanding,
within as well as between different countries and cultures which belong
to one world (16).
a global information ecology
a global perspective, the question of information pollution can
be stated as the problem of the gap between information-rich and information-poor
is, I think, a common view, that differences of races, religions, ideas,
money etc. should be surmounted not by an ideology of egalitarianism
but by giving individuals, as well as nations, similar chances of development,
on the basis of equal rights and duties. The information difference,
i.e., the difference between the information-poor and the information-rich
has not been considered to be such a key issue as, for example, the economic
one. One reason for this omission is that the gap has been growing slowly
during that last three hundreds years. The advent of electronic technology
has explicitly provided the question of dominance and accessibility to
written knowledge, and it has made clear that this a key issue for the
economic and cultural development of nations.
this perspective to ask for the relations between Information and Quality
means to ask for the ecological quality of the information field, for us
the information-rich as well as for others, the information-poor. One key
issue of an information ecology is to criticize this gap, theoretically
powerful electronic technology has produced a change in the knowledge atmosphere,
creating regions of prosperity, but leaving aside vast amounts of human
beings in a high degree of ignorance and/or informational dependency. The
gap between the information-poor and the information-rich, and not the
overproduction of knowledge (there can never be too much knowledge) is
the real information crisis we have to master. We, who are on the side
of the information-rich, must ask ourselves what we are doing, for instance,
in preserving the information market to become a closed market, i.e., a
pollution factor for the outsiders and for ourselves (Matthew-principle).
The crucial question is then not only the one of overcoming cultural or
linguistic barriers, but of facing the dilemma produced by new forms
of information colonialism on the one side, as well as by the possibilities
of scientific and cultural interrelations opened by this technology on
the other. The ecological challenge in our field is to find the right balance
between overcoming and preserving or, in other words, between
the blessings of universality and the need for preserving plurality
(of cultures, languages, etc.) not only for its own sake (variety is beautiful!)
but also because human problems and solutions always arise
within specific situations and need specific deliberation.
international proposals have been presented so far for a pragmatical treatment
of an information ecology: the MacBride-Report and EUSIDIC's Codes of Practice.
Surprenant states (17) one can approach the MacBride-Report
from opposite sides: a) as a product of the U.N. ideology, particularly
in the field of journalism, or b) as an attempt to consider the whole field
of information (and communication) not primarily under economical (information
as a commodity) but under a global social perspective (information as a
social good and cultural product). From this latter viewpoint the ecological
crisis in our field becomes manifest, as for instance in case of problems
of autonomous communication and information capacities, of rural areas
without any technical and/or educational infrastructure, of lack of paper
(and, of course, of any other kind of hard- and software), of one-sided
commercialisation of information products, of cultural and technical colonialism
through the distribution of information products and channels etc. In
the case, for example, of scientific-technical information this dependency
can (and has) become dramatic due to the acceleration of knowledge production
and of its distribution through electronic means. This leads to lost of
competitiveness, exodus of scientists, low level of education, and so on.
The more information is produced, the bigger the gap. To this kind of information
pollution we must add the question of contents, sources, distribution centers,
fees, protectionist information policies etc.
sum, as Surprenant states:
whole concept of "free flow" of information needs to be reevaluated without
the present confusion and meaningless rhetoric. Free flow does not necessarily
mean unfettered flow. There is a real need to identify the sovereign rights
of all nations in the sphere of information along with a recognition of
the international needs for the collection, transmission, and use of certain
categories. Here we need a great deal of discussion and compromise at the
highest level of international policy making." (18)
this international and ecological context the problems of data protection
are, of course, crucial. As we are rethinking our views on political boundaries
with regard to air and water pollution, we must start considering the question
of information pollution particularly from a cultural, political and legal
point of view (dominance, manipulation, criminal actions). The benefits
and threats of the (mis)use of information technologies must become part
of international (ethical and legal) deliberation.
Codes of Practice are a product of the European Association of Information
Services. Nevertheless they are, I think, an attempt to establish general
or international rules for fair play in our field. Some of these rules
are the expression of ethical dilemmas, i.e., its application is a matter
of ethical (and legal) control or deliberation. Viewing them from the fact
that the information industry (databases, hosts, telecommunications, electronic
hard- and software) is in the hands of the information-rich countries,
some of these rules are de facto one-sided: they presuppose an ideal
situation of equal chances and offer a kind of Münchhausen solution
to the information gap, like a one-way bridge. Some examples:
stated, "equal access to information to everyone does not ensure equal
benefit to everyone" (19). Other dimensions (purpose,
user's characteristics, application environment, medium of information
transfer, quality, time of availability, cost of access) should be therefore
ecologically considered, if we want to face the problems arising from the
and databank producers: (1.2) Items should be included in, or excluded
from, the database in strict compliance with the stated policy. Selection
should not be influenced by economic, operational, ideological or other
(2.2) No user should be denied access to any given host or the services
offered by that host providing the users comply with contractual arrangements
freely entered and meet the necessary technical requirements in terms of
terminals and communication facilities.
(3.2) EUSIDIC considers that if data network services required cannot for
any reason be provided by public Administration, physical or legal obstacles
should not be placed in the way of other bodies offering to provide the
required service or services.
Some Proposals for Action
we do? I would like to suggest some possibilities we could pursue further
(further) regional as well as world-wide discussions on information ecology,
in order to improve the awareness that the trivial fact: we all
live in the same one (information) world may become a real factor for
national and international information policy. The problem of "balkanization"
(Anderla) of libraries and information services is not only a European
but a world one (20).
of modern information technology is one (not the only!) factor of the vast
cultural problem of knowledge storage and accessibility in all its fields
and forms (21). The question is not how can we get
everyone to use a PC, or an international database or whatever, but what
are the most necessary things to do in the information poor countries and
how can we help them in order to promote their identity in the fields of
information production, distribution and use (22).
of the (European) information market is neither a surrogate nor a substitute
for our own responsibility to creating forms of generalized social access
to electronic information (people's systems), similar to the creation of
public libraries during the last three centuries. It is necessary, I think,
to imagine and test practical connections between the two paradigms (23).
how to use databases is not only a technical but primarily a problem of
social hermeneutics (= the ability to ask critical questions, instead
of just believing what is written or programmed or
stored (24). Computer masking is a very serious
task as it establishes forms of social (pre-)understanding and interaction
countries will probably never be able to pay their information debts.
We must start a vast initiative for opening our knowledge stores
(not only the electronic ones!) through mutual giving and receiving
of information, of course - and not primarily money - as one
way to stop the emigration of scientists from information poor-countries
making the gap deeper and deeper. This sounds utopian but maybe it could
become (partially) true (26).
support all kinds of educational activities in order to increase the awareness
concerning the dimensions of the national and international problems and
opportunities offered by information technology to the socialization of
realistic view of the problems of the present ecological crisis in our
field, not the ideal (or ideology) of an information superculture, can
help, at least partially, to surmount it.
create international working groups in the library and information science
field in closed cooperation with related fields (informatics, social sciences)
in order to discuss these matters and propose concrete solutions.
in this paper were discussed and criticised during the NORDINFO Seminar.
I would like to thank all the colleagues who participated at the discussions,
and indicate some of their theoretical and/or practical comments.
Kubicek made some written comments to my paper which I would like to mention
briefly: a distinction should be made between data pollution and
information pollution - at present we have to face data pollution
while many groups in our society do not get appropriate information; we
should stress the difference between information (and its production) and
information technology - information deficits are not necessarily surmounted
thanks to (more) technology; the (my) plea for pluralism is not
enough if we take into account the dimensions of subjectivity and contextuality
which are the determinants of a pragmatic information concept. The
question of power must be clearly addressed.
information pollution should be considered as the negative side
of the information balance to be achieved.
of information pollution are: wrong (or outdated) data, incompatibility
of systems and languages, under-use of hardware, hacking, viruses, addressing
systems to the wrong 'epistemic who', lack of responsibility of software
balance implies: re-use, recycling, free-flow, intelligent systems
or, generally speaking, optimizing man's use of information and knowledge.
is an artificial resource and it is basically social-dependent.
try to think more specifically on the question to which information ecology
is (or could be) the (or one) answer.
of the information landscape has to take basically into account the
managerial (or bottom line) perspective of information. Handling
information like other goods (according to its 'exchange value') does not
necessarily means to forget its social dimension. Different levels
of circulation and different quality measures should be integrated.
A narrow-minded economic view damages (in the long term) itself.
ideas should be further discussed at the international level for instance
within the FID.