Gorichanaz, T. (2019). Information experience in personally meaningful activities. Journal of the Association for Information Science & Technology, 70.
Abstract. Information behavior in activities that are freely chosen has been
little explored. This paper conceptualizes personally meaningful
activities as a site for information behavior research. Personal meaning
is discussed as a necessity for human being. In the information age,
there is an ethical directive for developers of information technology
to promote and afford personally meaningful activities. This paper
builds on discussions of the pleasurable and profound in information
science conceptually and empirically. First, it argues for the necessity
of phenomenology in these discussions, which heretofore has been mostly
absent. Next, it presents results from a qualitative, empirical study on
information in personally meaningful activities. The empirical study
uses interpretative phenomenological analysis to examine information
experience in three domains of personal meaning: Bible reading,
ultramarathon running, and art-making. The following themes emerge and
are discussed: identity, central practice, curiosity, and presence.
Opportunities for technological development and further research are
Oftentimes we engage with information because we have to, not because we
want to. Concomitantly, the preponderance of research in information
behavior has focused on information activities that people are to a
greater or lesser extent compelled to undertake. But what about those
activities which are freely chosen?
Friedrich Schiller (1795/2004, p. 80) maintained that "Man plays only
when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly
Man when he is playing." Playing here is not being frivolous; rather,
it is engaging with the world—discovering personal meaning. These are
the sort of activities we live for, to be completely ourselves, and so
a complete account of information behavior must contend with them as
well. Moreover, the promotion of such activities can be interpreted as
an ethical directive, one rooted in the landscape of evolutionary
psychology; thus the field of information behavior should be concerned
with such information activities if it is to be concerned with ethical
In this paper, I attempt a move in that direction. I conceptualize the
information activities we choose as personally meaningful information
activities, building principally on the landmark paper of Kari and
Hartel (2007), "Information and the Higher Things in Life." Crucially, I
argue that phenomenology is necessary for this concept to be
coherent—that is, we must look at information experience. This
discussion grounds a study of three different personally meaningful
information activities, from which shared themes emerge.
First, a terminological note. I understand meaning to be coordinating
action toward goals, following Floridi (2011). Meaning is thus a
property of a system. To speak of human experience, meaning can be
described as the way patterns of neural activity "evoke feeling-thinking
responses in us" (Johnson, 2007, p. 243). Personal meaning, then, is
that meaning which contributes to one's being a person. I understand
person, in turn, following Harré (1998, p. 73), to be "a word for a
human being as a social and psychological being, as a human organism
having a sense of its place among others of its kind, a sense of its own
history and beliefs about at least some of its attributes." So personal
meaning is found in a situation that contributes to such factors as
well-being and uniqueness (Harré, 1998). Though it has not yet, to my
knowledge, been discussed in information science, the concept of
personal meaning has a significant lineage in psychology and allied
fields (Frankl, 1946/2006; Peterson, 1999). Given the central role that
information technology plays in modern life, it seems clear that it is a
topic of interest to information science as well.
Information Ethics and Personal Meaning
From the perspective of information ethics, one of the purposes of human
life is flourishing. This viewpoint can be traced back to Wiener (1954),
to say nothing of the philosophical discourse on the matter that
predates information ethics or cybernetics. According to Wiener, for
human beings to flourish they must be free to engage in creative and
flexible actions that allow the fullest realization of their potential
as intelligent, decision-making agents. Wiener distills this vision in
his great principle for justice, which articulates a need for individual
liberty to pursue those aims that one finds personally meaningful. In
the psychological framework developed by Baumeister (1991), personal
meaning can be described along four dimensions: purpose, efficacy, value
and self-worth. The pursuit of personal meaning, to be sure, relies on
information access, processing and understanding, as well as a
particular experiential dimension of information activities.
Some may hope for a utopia where people are free to do only that which
they find personally meaningful. Others, surely, would caution that the
very idea of utopia is incoherent. Regardless, it seems to be the case
that today many people spend much of their lives engaged in information
activities that they do not find personally meaningful. Mills (1953),
for example, identified a trend toward the meaninglessness of work in
American society, particularly as it became more information-based: less
and less were people allowed to decide for themselves what to do at work
and how to do it. For Mills, this led to the separation of work from
everyday life. In this world people are "working for the weekend," as
the pop song goes. This split endures even today, as we tend to
conceptually separate work from everyday life; in our field, this is
visible in the discourse on everyday life information activities, which
are distinguished from those related to work (see Savolainen, 1995).
Mills (1953) suggests that work can be made more personally meaningful
if it can be infused with a craft ethic. In Mills' time, such an ethic
already characterized the work of a privileged few, such as
intellectuals and artists; decades later, Csikszentmihalyi (1975/2000)
would show this in his research on flow experiences, which challenged
the separation between "work" and "play" in many domains. Hammell
(2004), in the field of occupational therapy, concurs that it is
possible for a person's occupation to contribute to personal meaning and
quality of life, even though research has tended to emphasize only how
occupations meet extrinsic needs (e.g., monetary success). On Mills'
view, however, this craft ethic should be made much more broadly
accessible. Csikszentmihalyi, Hammell and Wiener would seem to agree.
Thus, in reaching for a more ethical information society, we should seek
to infuse more of our information activities with deeper personal
meaning. This requires understanding better what makes some information
activities personally meaningful.
To this end, Dreyfus and Kelly (2011) discuss how personal meaning can
be cultivated. Finding meaning, in their view, is a matter of nurturing
the skill for encountering the sacred in the world. They invoke the
Greek concept of poiesis—craft, or "making," though not in the sense
of techne—which entails both passive and active components:
passively, poiesis denotes being receptive to what is given in the
world; actively, it involves the trained judgment of decision-making.
Dreyfus and Kelly argue that opportunities for poiesis abound, even in
what may seem to be drudgery, and that seizing them is our prerogative.
As an example, they describe the making of one's morning coffee. As an
everyday task, relegated by many to Mr. Coffee or Starbucks, making
coffee could easily be mindless and meaningless. But, with poietic
attention—that is, with a craft ethic—making coffee could
alternatively be a site for personal meaning: selecting particular
beans, grinding them in a certain way, preparing the coffee in a
distinct manner, etc., all offer opportunities for poiesis both passive
and active. Then, drinking the coffee presents another host of
opportunities: sitting in a comfortable place and manner, using a
special vessel, savoring the aroma, appreciating the color, etc.
Conceptually, what can make coffee (or anything) a site for poiesis is a
person's learning to make distinctions that matter to them:
When one has learned these skills and cultivated one's environment so
that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a ritual rather than
a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself and one's environment
rather than a generic and meaningless performance of function.
(Dreyfus & Kelly, 2011, pp. 218–219)
Thus personal meaning can emerge from the craft ethic: applying a
particular mindset to a task at hand. This can be applied even to work,
which may otherwise be devoid of personal meaning. Recently, in a book
on business productivity for a general audience, Newport (2016)
describes how a craft ethic can be applied to mastering a wide variety
of skills through deliberate practice and focused "deep work," which
improves one's sense of personal meaning.
If this can be accomplished, then people would be able to develop their
selves in a more integrated way. This constitutes a move toward
self-care, which is an important ethical directive in the information
society (see Capurro, 2000; Floridi, 2013; Foucault, 1988). This is not
a solipsistic or egotistical claim; rather, it is the recognition that
without a good self, good work for others is not possible, as formulated
in the Christian maxim to remove the log from your own eye before
fussing over the speck in your brother's (Matt. 7:5), as well as the
airline injunction to secure your own oxygen mask before helping others;
it is the recognition that all beings are connected (in an ontic
trust; see Floridi, 2013), but that certain actions must be directed by
agents toward themselves for the subsequent betterment of all. As an
aside, it may be worth noting that this idea has footing in many
philosophical schools besides information ethics, such as (to name a
few) in the spiritual exercises of antiquity (Hadot, 1995),
transcendentalism (Cafaro, 2004), and recent synthesizing work by Wright
Personal Meaning and Information Behavior
Starting with the Pleasurable and Profound
Kari and Hartel (2007) identified that information activities occur in
contexts that can be categorized as lower and higher. Lower contexts
include everyday life (in the sense of "going with the flow") and
problem solving, and they are neutral or negative in nature. Higher
contexts include pleasurable and profound activities; they "are the
special 'ingredients' that make human life meaningful, shape our very
identity, and give us the reason to live in the first place" (Kari &
Hartel, 2007, p. 1133). According to Kari and Hartel, information
science has historically been preoccupied with investigating information
in the lower contexts to the exclusion of the higher ones. Kari and
Hartel aim to stoke research on information in the higher things. As
part of their conceptual analysis, they present a number of themes they
find to be characteristic of higher-context activities, including
internal motivation, achievement, projects, meaning, and interest.
Kari and Hartel (2007) recognize that "there is in all likelihood
nothing inherently higher or lower about information as such. Rather,
its 'height' is determined by its content, source, channel, and context"
(p. 1139). They do not go into detail on how these factors contribute to
"height," but they do offer an illustration that "from an objective
vantage" (p. 1140) would seem to be lower-context information, but which
could in fact be higher-context if the person "circulates the message of
his own accord, as a part of his life mission" (p. 1140).
The Role of Phenomenology
What Kari and Hartel (2007) thus imply but do not name explicitly is
that the "height" of information is a phenomenological description. That
is, it must be understood from the first-person perspective of the agent
beholding that information, taking into account their lived situation.
In other words, it is an experiential description. To take Kari and
Hartel's work further, the phenomenological aspects of their theory
should be brought to the fore and further developed. This can bring
clarity to how information and knowledge can be keys to a better life
(on this point they cite Nicholson, 2002), which Kari and Hartel say is
not understood well.
At the time of Kari and Hartel's writing, there was not a very strong
tradition of phenomenology in information science (much less information
behavior) research. This is not to overlook the early conceptual work by
scholars such as Budd (1995, 2005), but simply to point out that it had
not yet percolated into the broader consciousness of the information
science research community. In the past decade, there has been a
smattering of phenomenological information research, and interest in the
metatheory seems to be increasing. A panel at the 2016 installment of
the Conceptions of Library and Information Science conference (Vamanu,
Gorichanaz, Latham & Suorsa, 2016) brought together some of the
literature on the topic in grounding a discussion meant to foment
further phenomenological research. It is beyond the scope of this
article to survey all this research; it should be noted, simply, that
the contribution of phenomenology to information science has long been
overlooked by the majority, and that this is beginning to be recognized.
This article contributes to this current of understanding.
Conceptualizing Personally Meaningful Information Activities
Based on the discussion so far, we can define personally meaningful
information activities as those information activities that a person
carries out freely and for their own purposes, and which reinforce the
person's senses of efficacy, value and self-worth. Given that Kari and
Hartel (2007) bisected the higher contexts into the pleasurable and
profound, we might ask how these two concepts relate to personal
meaning. It seems to me that all higher contexts are personally
meaningful, and thus "personally meaningful information" could be
equated with "higher information." Profound and pleasurable are
certainly descriptors of some personally meaningful activities. An
activity could be profound without being pleasurable, but probably not
without being personally meaningful (e.g., grieving); an activity could
be pleasurable without being personally meaningful or profound (e.g.,
pure hedonism); and an activity could be personally meaningful without
being pleasurable (e.g., extreme physical exertion) or profound (e.g., a
small activity, such as deciding to buy a handmade notebook rather than
a mass-produced one). Thus we find ourselves with a conceptual scheme
such as that in Figure 1. This shows that Kari and Hartel (2007) did
identify a sweet spot in looking at the overlap of the pleasurable and
profound. However, it also suggests that there may be additional
concepts within the umbrella of personally meaningful that are waiting
to be uncovered. In my view, this uncovering will require further
research using phenomenology. This paper is a start.
Figure 1. Relationship of the concepts of personally meaningful,
profound and pleasurable.
One might ask how this discussion relates to other categories of
information behavior, such as leisure. Recall that personal meaning is a
phenomenological description. Over the past several decades, the view of
information science as a social science has predominated (Buckland,
2012). Concomitantly, many concepts in information science can be
understood as sociological descriptions; leisure, and specifically the
serious leisure perspective, are examples. For example, Hartel (2014)
outlines possibilities for information research in the liberal arts
hobbies (forms of serious leisure) taking a social perspective.
A Review of the Literature
To be sure, there is a large body of research examining what amounts to
personally meaningful information activities from a sociological
perspective, though these studies have not yet been theorized in that
way. Studies of information in liberal arts hobbies fit that description
(see Hartel, 2014). That research will not be reviewed here. Rather, I
focus on the smaller body of research that does recognize to some extent
the phenomenological nature of personally meaningful information
First, at least two other scholars have voiced the need for
phenomenology in this research area. Kari (2007) is one, who, in a
review of the literature on spirituality and information, finds that
identifying "the spiritual" in information has a defining experiential
aspect, though he does not explicitly connect this to phenomenology.
Keilty (2012) does. In an essay on browsing for online pornography,
Keilty remarks that other research has ignored embodiment and
desire—indeed, the lion's share of subjective experience—as aspects
of information behavior. Keilty seeks to remedy that by bringing
phenomenology into the discussion.
Some other research has been attuned phenomenologically to these
questions, with varying degrees of metatheoretical reflection. Some of
this research has focused on information seeking, while some of it has
shed light on the outcomes of information seeking. To speak first of
seeking, Ross' (1999) study on book selection for pleasure reading
certainly bears mentioning. While her study did include some
sociological aspects, she found that people choose books based on
experiences they desire, and that processes of browsing, monitoring and
serendipity play into their discovering new books. Frank (1999) found
that visual artists, too, emphasize browsing in their information
seeking, and Mougenot et al. (2008) likewise describe the information
seeking of designers through personally-curated sets of information
sources as they look for certain moods (which, it bears mentioning, may
not be articulable as a text query). In a different vein, Clemens and
Cushing (2010) present two studies on information seeking in
\"situations involving personal crisis, legal barriers to information,
social stigma and/or significant life-long impact\" (p. 9).
Specifically, they look at mothers who relinquished a child for adoption
in one study and the offspring of sperm donors in a second study. It
should be noted that, though the information seeking in these studies is
personally meaningful, it is not necessarily pleasurable. Indeed, their
results seem to show the negative aspects of these situations, perhaps
because of the social stigma and secrecy involved. Clemens and Cushing
find that existing models of everyday life information seeking do not
capture the particularities of these experiences—unfamiliarity,
isolation and other emotions, and the pursuant coping strategies—but
they do not yet venture to offer a constructive model.
For research on the outcomes of information seeking in personally
meaningful contexts, we can first return to Ross' (1999) study. In
addition to examining how readers select books, Ross looked at people's
experiences of being transformed by books. Ross found that books awaken
new perspectives, model an art of life, offer solace and connection,
etc. Moreover, she found that the practice of reading over the course of
a lifetime shapes one's self. In another study of engaging with
information-as-thing, Latham (2009) studied numinous experiences with
museum objects, uncovering themes: unity of the moment, object link,
being transported and connections beyond the self. To speak of other
outcomes of information, Sköld (2015) presents a study of memory
practices in an online gaming community, wherein people share screen
captures from their game and associated stories as modes of reminiscing
and constructing knowledge. Finally, Tinto and Ruthven (2016) give an
example regarding information sharing; they explored the methods and
factors of sharing so-called happy information (i.e., that which creates
a sense of happiness when shared). Though these practices are rooted in
pleasure, which is at risk of being classified as mere hedonism, Tinto
and Ruthven discuss how sharing happy information can enhance human
relationships, and be shared with that intent, thus constituting deeper
personal meaning than at first may appear.
As we have seen, there has been some research in personally meaningful
information activities taking the phenomenological perspective. However,
this research has not yet led to the theorization of personally
meaningful information activities as such. That is, these empirical
results have not yet led to any greater findings. As an illustration, we
can look to the paper by Clemens and Cushing (2010), in which the
findings from the two studies are discussed separately even though they
are, in my view, mutually relevant. This seems to be a missed
opportunity. (They should not be faulted, however, as only so much can
be done in an exploratory conference paper.) A next step, then, in this
research trajectory, is to discover how we can understand the results
from all these studies together. In keeping with the necessary
phenomenological position, in this study I pose the research question:
How do people experience information in personally meaningful
For the past several years, I have been engaged in research on diverse
domains of personal meaning. I conducted one study on Bible reading
among Catholics (Gorichanaz, 2016), another on hobbyist ultra-distance
running (Gorichanaz, 2017), and another on visual artists'
self-portraiture (Gorichanaz, 2018). These studies were conducted,
analyzed and published separately, furnishing empirical findings on each
of these domains. In light of the discussion so far in this paper,
however, there is an opportunity to understand these three studies
together as types of personally meaningful information activities. Thus,
in this study, I analyze anew the empirical material collected over the
years under a single research question.
This study uses interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), an
empirical, phenomenological methodology designed for understanding
particular experiences (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). IPA has been
used by many scholars in information science to address a variety of
experience-related questions (see VanScoy & Evenstad, 2015). IPA seeks
to value each individual participant's experience while also drawing out
characteristics that are shared across participants. In general, IPA
studies are guided by research questions but not pre-established
theories; through inductive and abductive reasoning, a theory (typically
descriptive) is devised through interpretation from the empirical
material in light of the research question. This theory generally takes
the form of a number of themes that are explicated and linked together
In my study, as is typical of IPA, empirical material was gathered
through semi-structured interviews with individual participants. I
transcribed these interviews and then open-coded each one for emergent
themes that characterize the experience. I did so with each interview.
Then, I considered how each individual's experience does and does not
commensurate with that of the group. Pursuant to IPA, I iterated between
the group and the individuals, allowing themes to coalesce and emerge.
Generally, IPA studies involve only one group of participants. This one,
however, has three groups, and so my analysis involved an additional
stage of comparing the findings from each group to those of all the
participants together (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Participants and groupings.
The full details regarding recruitment and the participants can be found
in my prior publications (Gorichanaz, 2016, 2017, 2018), so here I will
give only a brief overview. The first group, Bible readers, was
comprised of 6 individuals in Philadelphia who identified as Catholic;
there were 2 men and 4 women, ranging in age from their mid-20s to 60s.
The second group, ultra-distance runners, was comprised of 5 individuals
who participated in a 100-mile footrace that took place in Wisconsin in
2016; there were 3 men and 2 women, ranging in age from their 20s to
50s. The third group, visual artists, was comprised of 7 individuals in
Philadelphia who identified as artists; there were 2 men and 5 women,
ranging in age from 18 to 65. Thus, all said, this study included 18
individuals. IPA studies vary greatly in their sample sizes; the mean
sample size is reportedly 15 participants (Reid, Flowers & Larkin,
2005), though Smith et al. (2009) mention that a group of 3–6 is
sufficient for drawing out meaningful findings and emphasize that the
value of even single-case studies should not be overlooked. In the
present study, the participants in the first (Bible reading) group were
given pseudonyms inspired by herbs; those in the second (ultrarunning)
group were given pseudonyms inspired by the Trojan War; and those in the
third (self-portraiture) group elected to use their real names.
The empirical material in this study come from the interviews I
conducted with these participants. The interviews with the first group
centered around the last time the individual read the Bible; those in
the second group centered around the last 100-mile race the individual
took part in; those in the third group centered around the self-portrait
the individual created as part of my study; in all cases, the interview
also touched on more general matters of information behavior (spanning
needs, seeking and use) regarding the Bible, running and art,
The findings from this study take the form of themes that characterize
the experience of information in personally meaningful activities. The
themes are: identity, central practice, curiosity and presence. Here I
present these themes along with some illustrative quotations from the
In this paper I will focus on themes that were shared among all or most
of the participants, though they certainly manifested in slightly
different ways across groups and even from participant to participant
within a single group. This contrasts with typical IPA studies, which
generally give equal attention to the particularities of each case and
those aspects of participants' experiences that don't fit into the
themes. I take this approach because the goal of this paper is to draw
lessons for personally meaningful information activities as such, taking
a step back from the idiosyncrasies of each case. More detailed findings
can be found in my prior individual publications on these topics.
In all cases, the information activities were experienced as part of the
person's identity. That is, doing these activities was inextricable from
who the person is. Concomitantly, the information involved is part of
what makes up that person.
It should be noted that personal identity here can be more granular than
group identity. For instance, though the Bible readers all identified as
members of the community of Catholics, their reading of the Bible was
experienced as a matter of one-to-one engagement with God. Indeed, most
of the participants expressed that Bible reading is not a typical
activity for Catholics.
Another note of interest is that in most cases, the activity was not
part of the person's identity for their whole life; rather, it is
something that they discovered at some point and cultivated as a
personally meaningful activity to the extent that it now forms part of
their self-concept. Helen's account of running illustrates this
I started running about 7 years ago, just to get out of the house,
really. I had two little children, and I was pushing them in the
stroller and just trying to get some space in my head to think. I
always noticed I was pushing them as fast as I could, and then I just
started gradually running. It just grew. You think you can't do it,
and you start running from one sign to the next, and then you enter a
Helen, like the other runners, described her trajectory in terms of
taking on progressively greater challenges. Similarly, the Bible readers
conceptualized their practice as "a journey." For the artists, this
journey was a matter of developing their personal style through
deliberate practice and experimentation.
The information activities in this study involved a central practice
along with a number of periphery activities that supported or enhanced
it. Bible readers, for example, not only read the Bible, but also read
commentaries and meditations on particular passages and also conduct
searches for additional information (e.g., historical context). Runners
not only run races and training runs, but also read race reports and
magazines, engage in social media discussions, and research new products
to support their running. Artists not only create particular artworks,
but also doodle, read widely and monitor social media for inspiration.
These periphery practices come to bear on the central practice,
sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, during the months when Justin
was working on his self-portrait, a photographer visited his studio for
a photo shoot, and soon after he went on a hiking trip to Colorado to
experience the full solar eclipse. These events unexpectedly affected
his self-portrait. As he explains:
It took me a while since our initial meeting to formulate what I
wanted to do. I sat on it for a while, just thinking. I would say
months and months of thought went into the initial concept of it. The
length of time from concept to finish even then was a few months. I
was putting—not pressure, but... I took this trip to Colorado, and
then these photoshoots, seemed to motivate me to finish it while I had
this idea of who I am and what I'm trying to do, if that makes any
sense. That pushed it over the edge for me to really finish it,
because it was very fresh, my point of view of myself was so fresh,
and the artwork showed. Like it went from slow concept build to the
attempts and once those photoshoots happened and this trip I took that
seemed to be very important to me, as soon as I got back it was done
within that week. [...] It gave me the confidence as an artist and
to achieve my goal. I had a goal to climb that mountain, and I
achieved it. And that gave me the confidence to trust my instincts on
it and use what I did, and have the confidence that it was gonna be
fine and that I was gonna be satisfied with it. [...] And the
perception of it, I was concerned about the perception of how other
people would look at it and see me as, but once that trip happened,
that went away, if that makes sense.
This demonstrates that, though these information activities can be
analytically isolated and conceptualized, they are always playing out in
the lifeworld, and they can be enriched, challenged, replaced, etc., by
other goings-on. To speak of replacement, Emily's account provides a
good example; she began her self-portrait as a photographic collage, but
as the months passed she left photography behind and moved to oil
painting. Her painting was restarted many times, and she stopped to work
on other paintings throughout the process as inspiration struck her.
All the participants were guided in their information activities by
curiosity. This is not curiosity in Heidegger's (1927/2010) sense of
curiosity as "lust for the new," but rather a focused curiosity, wherein
the participants let themselves wander with respect to a particular
topic or question. This involved regularly monitoring certain
information sources, ranging from Facebook and Pinterest to daily
devotional texts, and seeking further information on topics that sparked
the person's interest. Oftentimes this was a matter of being open to
engaging with the information that is already tacit in the person's
lived experience. This is an openness to being informed, or in-formed.
This was conceptualized in various ways; for instance, the artists
talked about this as finding inspiration, whereas the Bible readers
talked about it as being guided by God. As Willow put it:
I always think the Lord leads you, because you'll read something, and
He leads you to that, and then you start investigating, and you read
more, and you go deeper and deeper ... And it takes you to another
scripture ... It's like a little journey.
Following one's curiosity in these personally meaningful activities led
to a personal progression which was, generally, transparent to the
person. The Bible readers described their engagement with the Bible as
central to their "journey" in life. All my participants in the Bible
study were born and raised Catholic, but they went through periods of
little interest in religion, typically beginning in the teenage years
and lasting for a decade. In their case, their journey seems to be a
matter of blooming faith; within this, participants cultivated an
appreciation for the ritual, a deeper relationship with God, and inner
peace. For the ultrarunners, this progression took the form of
continually growing challenges. As an ultrarunner grows in their
athletic career, they typically pursue longer races, faster times,
and/or new settings.
Nestor described this well in his interview:
I definitely want to continue reaching higher and higher. There is a
quote that really resonated with me, and I've got it posted on my wall
at home. It's from that book Born to Run, and there's a section in
it that says, "Why the hell would you run a 100 mile race?" and the
guy's response was, "Why does anybody ever climb Everest? It's because
it's there." So the quote on my wall is "Because it's there." I'm here
right now. So what else can my body do? What's actually possible? How
far can I push myself? What are my actual limits? Continuing to find
those and continuing to improve. What am I absolutely capable of?
As for the artists, their progression entailed developing and exploring
their personal style, gaining skill with their chosen media, and trying
new techniques and materials. For the professional artists, an important
part of their progression was becoming financially independent as
Of course, this progression is not a journey in the sense of having had
a destination predetermined from the outset. Rather, it is a cumulating
response at every juncture, taking into account where one has already
been and the present situation. The trajectory can only be seen in
hindsight; as Kierkegaard wrote in one of his journals, \"Life can only
be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
Finally, all the participants expressed that presence is an essential
aspect of their personally meaningful activities. Indeed, they made
choices with regard to information technology that encouraged them or
helped them to be more engaged in the present experience. For example,
the Bible readers described conscientiously using print versions of the
Bible when their goal was meditation and prayer, whereas a digital
version may suffice if they were, say, looking for the wording of a
particular passage. Jasmine said:
The biggest difference with me is when I'm sitting there with the hard
copy and it's in my private time with the Lord, I feel much more
relaxed. Much more like we're there together. When I'm on this thing
[gesturing to her phone], it's like, "Okay, be quick." I get
distracted easily. If I'm on the computer at work, say, and we're
talking, and I say, "Wait, wait, let me look that up." But then,
"Okay, wait, I gotta get this," and, "Oh, yeah, can I help you?" When
I'm there with the hard Bible ... it's just me and Him. I don't find
it so on the electronics. I'm distracted more easily.
The runners, too, made judicious use of technology so as to enhance
their running experience with respect to their goals. Today, there are
any number of gadgets available for runners' self-tracking of heart
rate, cadence, speed, distance, altitude, etc., and for listening to
music, podcasts or other programming, all of which modulate the running
experience. The ways in which the various gadgets constrain or afford
presence seem, to some extent, to be personal. For instance, Ajax
expressed that any technology was a distraction and he prefers to "run
by feel," whereas Nestor and Odysseus found that using a heart rate
monitor helped them stay attuned to their body and remain more present.
Both Nestor and Odysseus contrasted the heart rate monitor with GPS
tracking, which they found to be a distraction. As Odysseus said:
I don't find a GPS to be helpful because I'm much more in tune with
how I feel. If I had a GPS and I start paying attention to my GPS
splits, I find it much harder to maintain an appropriate pace and much
easier to overdo it, because I want to hit that 8-minute mile here and
maintain it when my body is telling me don't do that.
As for the artists, they seemed to choose materials and work situations
that helped them be more present in their art-making. In some cases they
carved out time from their daily schedules in order to make art, and
they did so in places where they wouldn't be interrupted. Again, these
decisions are personal. Brianna, for instance, found that she was most
productive in art-making late at night in her home studio, where and
when she wouldn't be bothered by other people or be distracted by other
obligations later in the day. Emily specifically described her artistic
practice as "very slow and meditative," by choice. For her and the other
participants from all three groups, the personally meaningful activity
was seen as a respite from the rest of daily life.
Discussion and Conclusion
This study has conceptualized personally meaningful information
activities and presented an investigation into some of their
phenomenological themes. As I have described in the previous section,
personally meaningful activities play a role in a person\'s development
of their identity, or self-concept. This identity coheres over time,
through a personal progression which is guided by a focused form of
curiosity, which continually brings new elements into a central
practice. This central practice is characterized by by presence. Thus we
can see how these themes are linked together and overlap, though they
were analytically separated for the purposes of presenting the findings.
Though, as I have discussed in the literature review, personally
meaningful information activities have not yet been conceptualized or
investigated as such, there has been some relevant research, and the
present study seems to corroborate those findings while also bringing
them into context around the concept of personally meaningful
information. Ross (1999), for example, found a form of focused curiosity
in her readers. As Ross says, readers are open to their environment for
new reading possibilities and connections, and some reading material
contributed to one's sense of identity. On the note of identity, Clemens
and Cushing (2010) found that information sought in emotional and
personal situations comes to be part of one's identity. As their
participant Kate said, "I'm searching for answers in my own identity"
(Clemens & Cushing, 2010, p. 9). Considered from a more general
philosophical perspective, this demonstrates Floridi's (2013) assertion
that you are your information. Additionally, the theme of presence seems
to have surfaced in Latham's (2009) study of numinous experiences in
museums as her theme of unity of the moment. As she indicates, there is
more to presence than just the present moment; presence is the
experience that the past, present and future are coextensive and in
harmony. In my study, this is perhaps best seen in the art-making
experience of Brian, who, in a meditative state, conjured memories from
the past, processed them, and brought them forward materially into his
artwork, bringing him to his next move.
In addition to conceptualizing personally meaningful information
activities, this study contributes to information behavior theory more
generally. Like some other studies, it presents a challenge to the idea
that information seeking is necessarily problematic and negative (see
Kari & Hartel, 2007). However, this study also complicates dualistic
discussions of emotional valence. It is tempting to think in terms of
positive and negative: good/bad, happy/sad, etc. Recognizing the concept
of meaningfulness in information behavior is a reminder that lived
situations are not that simple. It is in this vein that Baumeister
(2005) differentiates meaning from happiness; having personal meaning
does not necessarily entail happiness. A quotation from filmmaker Hayao
Miyazaki illustrates this well: "I don't ever feel happy in my daily
life. Really, isn't that how it is? How could that ever be our ultimate
goal? Filmmaking only brings suffering. I can't believe I actually want
to do another one" (Kawakami & Sunada, 2013).
All this has a number of implications for technology. Tacitly, we seem
to assume that technology should make things easier for people. As I
have written previously on the topic of building understanding, this may
not always be for the best (Gorichanaz, 2016). Just as with building
understanding, it may turn out to be necessary to slow down and undergo
struggle to cultivate deep personal meaning. If meaning is truly an
essential aspect of human life, as many thinkers contend, then
technologists should engage with the question of how particular
technological interventions contribute to or detract from opportunities
for meaning. Indeed, meaning is not a given, but something that is
consciously cultivated. We are beginning to see effects of technologies
that ignore the essential nature of meaning. For example, a
psychological study by Verduyn et al. (2015) suggests that aimlessly
browsing social media undermines well-being; in the context of my
discussion here, this is because the aimless activity is meaningless. In
contrast, finding meaning in one's life has been associated with
positive well-being (Zika & Chamberlain, 1992). More recent research
has, moreover, supported the hypothesis that personal meaning indeed
leads to positive well-being (García–Alandete, 2015). We have seen
that personal meaning is somewhat idiosyncratic; however, it is not
totally random and inscrutable. The themes of identity, central and
peripheral practice, curiosity and presence described in this paper
provide a locus for developing technologies that encourage the
cultivation of meaning.
The findings of this study also set the stage for further research. Van
Manen (2014, p. 29) reminds us that "Phenomenology is primarily a
philosophic method for questioning, not a method for answering or
discovering or drawing determinate conclusions." That is, the present
study is valuable insomuch as it sparks further research questions.
Future research should explore other sorts of personally meaningful
information activities in a continued attempt to discern what it is
about them that makes them so. Additionally, research can look more
deeply at particular aspects of information behavior (e.g., seeking) or
particular slices of information practices for a more granular look,
whereas this study has cast a wide net for understanding.
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