Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto - OCS, 15th INTERNATIONAL ISKO CONFERENCE

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Elliott Hauser

Last modified: 2017-12-19


This paper aims to augment a domain-independent conception of information processes developed by Losee (2011) such that it is philosophically pluralistic as well. If successful, I will provide a conception of information that can more easily be utilized across fields without requiring specific ontological or epistemological commitments unique to realism and empiricism. The concepts of epidata and episemantics are introduced and operationalized in this context to bridge information processing and knowledge.

Losee (2011) has argued for a view of information in terms of processes, where a process’s output is informative about its input and/or the process itself. This is a promising, powerful, and succinct framework, but hinges on two key theoretical definitions: those of processes and of aboutness. Losee stresses that his theory is intended to be domain-independent, speaking of psychological processes producing psychological information, biological processes producing biological information, and so on, yet he seems to view both aboutness and processes in ultimately physical terms.  Accordingly, he sees hard sciences such as physics or chemistry having much more fine-grained coligations, while the social sciences such as economics or sociology bundle many phenomena together, making their disciplinary information more diffuse.  Thus, in Losee’s framework, the more precise hard sciences are more amenable to the methods of information science than the social sciences.  If true, this would be a dismaying result for practitioners serving patrons in other fields.

Losee’s information from processes framework entails an endorsement of logical empiricism and scientific realism and can most fruitfully be applied to domains that endorse these philosophical perspectives.  Though indeed domain independent, this framework is ultimately disciplinarily reductive, and needlessly so.  In this paper I’ll explore alternate definitions of process and aboutness to determine whether an alternate conception of them more widely compatible with other philosophical views is possible.

I’ll first argue that  information processes are best described by what Bowker (2005) has termed their jussive qualities: the things they leave out. Bowker claims there are two distinct types of jussive processes: ingestion and retrieval (G. C. Bowker 2010).  I’d like to slightly reinterpret these as encoding and interpretation.  This allows a new definition of an information process as a jussive encoding, restrictive in terms of what it produces. The result of jussive encodings I label epidata, which isn’t ‘about’ anything; it’s merely ‘subsequent-to’ the jussive process. The result of the interpretation of a jussive process’s output I term episemantics, or the production of meaning from epidata. Episemantic interpretation is shown to be jussive in Bowker’s second sense, and it is only after such interpretation that aboutness can be said to obtain. This definition is shown to be mostly compatible with Weaver’s conception of information theory. It also connects information processing, via the concept of epidata, to knowledge, via the concept of episemantic interpretation.

With the distinctions between encoding/interpretation and epidata/episemantics in place, I will argue that Losee’s conception of aboutness’s role arises from a category error: while processes’ output is related to both their input and the processes themselves as he claims, that relationship should not be described as aboutness until episemantic interpretation occurs. Following logical empiricism, Losee assumes that episemantic interpretation is a transparent process, enabling processes’ outputs to be about their inputs. I contend that aboutness only obtains in the relationship between the interpretation and the jussive encoding. The relationship between the epidata inputs and outputs of information processing should be described, weakly, as something like 'subsequent-to’. Epidata in this sense can be shown to be similar to Guattari’s asignifying semiotics (see Genosko 2016 , chapter 1).

Together, these modifications transform Losee’s theory from one that entails and requires assent to scientific realism to one that is more philosophically pluralistic, while still preserving domain independence (psychological processes producing psychological information, biological processes producing biological information, and so on).  Further, it provides a framework to characterize different domains and systems by describing their jussive processes and the interpretive practices they enable. This forms a potential alternative to Buckland’s (1991) information-as topology of information science.  Losee's original construction can be seen as a particular instance of my more abstract formulation which equates jussive processes to some coligation of physical phenomena and assumes interpretation is unproblematic.

Why am I interested in doing this work? Amidst long-standing calls for pluralism (Wilson 1983; Mai 2010), and the development of contextual design methodologies such as domain analysis (Hjørland 2002), the field needs both domain independence, which Losee provides, and ontological independence, which I attempt to provide here. Together, these independences will deepen the field’s abilities to serve a wide range of domains holding a wide range of philosophical presuppositions.

Systems, viewed as the assemblages of various jussive elements, can be described in terms of the epidata they produce, subsequent to various inputs.  Users of systems can then be seen to place episemantic interpretations upon systems’ epidata, producing meaning via these aboutness relationships, which are often heavily influenced by disciplinary and cultural particularities. This conception suggests that a core benefit of contextual techniques like domain analysis can be described as a focus on enabling users’ prefered episemantic interpretations via the jussive processes employed in system design. This has potential applications in contextual design methodology, the creation and use of controlled vocabularies, interdisciplinary retrieval systems, and interoperability of systems.

In the spirit of pluralism, my intent is not to decry Losee’s interpretation or proscribe its use in the way he suggested; far from it. Losee and other scientific realists can continue to use and advocate for their preferred view that the jussive elements of processes should be described physically, that episemantics is an automatic process, and that subsequent-to relationships are sufficient for attributing aboutness.  These claims will be unacceptable to many other users and domains, however, necessitating the approach in this paper.  Ultimately, my goal is to extol the power of Losee’s approach while advocating for an abstracted conception of it suitable for the inherently pluralistic nature of information science and knowledge organzation.