Gorichanaz, T. (2017). Information and experience, a dialogue. Journal of Documentation, 73(3), 500–508.
Abstract. Purpose: Scholars in information science have recently become interested in “information experience,” but it remains largely unclear why this research is important and how it fits within the broader disciplinary structure of information science. The purpose of this paper is to clarify this issue. Approach: The discussion unfolds in the form of a philosophical dialogue between the Epistemologist, who represents the traditional and majority epistemological viewpoint of information science, and the Aestheticist, representing the emerging paradigm of experiential information inquiry. Findings: A framework emerges that recognizes dual conceptualizations of truth (veritas and aletheia) and consequently information and knowledge (gnostic and pathic). The epistemic aim of understanding is revealed as the common ground between epistemology and aesthetics. Value: The value of studying human experiences of information is grounded in work spanning philosophy, psychology and a number of social science methodologies, and it is contextualized within information science generally. Moreover, the dialogic format of this paper presents an opportunity for disciplinary self-reflection and offers a touch of heart to the field.
On the heels of calls for further research into the outcomes of information seeking (Case & O'Connor, 2016; Kari, 2007), scholars within information science have, in recent years, become interested in information experience (Bruce, Davis, Hughes, Partridge, & Stoodley, 2014; Latham, 2014). However, it remains unclear how research into information experience fits within the broader disciplinary structure of information science and consequently how findings from information experience can further the aims of information science.
This paper seeks to clarify what is meant by "experience" by drawing on perspectives from the philosophy of aesthetics, defined as the study of embodied meaning-making (Johnson, 2007), as well as the human-scientific mode of inquiry known as phenomenology of practice (van Manen, 2014). Based on Heidegger's (1998) bifurcation of the concept of truth as veritas (factuality) on one hand and aletheia (uncovering) on the other, it is proposed that the study of human experience searches for truth as aletheia and affords pathic (emotional, inceptual) knowledge, whereas traditional modes of research in information science search for truth as veritas and afford gnostic (cognitive, conceptual) knowledge. From this framework springs a discussion of the value of researching human experience within information science and specific methodological approaches for doing so.
This discussion is developed in the philosophical tradition of dialogue-based inquiry. In this discussion, the Epistemologist represents the traditional and majority epistemological viewpoint of information science, while the Aestheticist represents the emerging paradigm of experiential information inquiry. In keeping with the themes under discussion, this format allows the communicative meaning to inhere viscerally, giving space for the reader to reflect on their own information experience in the reading of this paper. Moreover, the format contributes some novelty to research in information science, which has been called "dull, formulaic and often disgracefully bad" (Sturges, 2012, p. 15). To this end, a secondary aim of this paper is to convey that a touch of heart and whimsy is not incommensurable with meaningful scholarship. This is not whimsy for the sake of whimsy, which some might argue has no place in academic work, but rather it serves to stimulate discussion and consideration: readers are invited to reflect on the formal aspects of scientific communication in light of both the past and future.
A Lunchtime Encounter
Epistemologist: Whats that you're reading?
Aestheticist: It's called To the Bright Edge of the World (Ivey, 2016).
E: A novel? I haven't read fiction in years. There's no time for it. These days, all I read are research papers. I'm more into nonfiction, anyways.
A: You know, I've always found that reading novels greatly enriches my research---not to mention life in general. And this book specifically---it's of great interest to information science.
E: How's that?
A: The book is a package of documents surrounding the 1885 U.S. military survey of Alaska---journal entries from various characters, letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, sketches, maps. And it's been sent by a descendant of one of the characters to a modern-day museum curator, and you as the reader are going through these documents along with the curator, and that's how the story unfolds. It's very much about classification, transcription, valorization and authentication. You experience "becoming informed," through the lives of the various characters, including the museum curator.
Two Kinds of Truth and Knowledge
E: But that's not information. It's emotion---feeling.
A: Sure it is.
E: No, information is data that is well-formed, meaningful and true (Floridi, 2011).
A: Still seems to me that there's an awful lot of information in this book.
E: How can you say that? Data, well-formed, meaningful---sure. But true? It's a novel, for Pete's sake. Isn't a novel, by definition, not true?
A: Well, that would depend on your definition of true, wouldn't it?
E: Must we quibble about everything? We both know that philosophers over the millennia have filled more pages defining truth than there are stars in the sky. But seeing as it's our lunch break, let's keep it simple: Truth is when a statement corresponds with reality.
A: That's very well, but it's broader than you think.
E: I suppose you'd probe into my definition of reality.
A: In a way, I suppose. The writer Neil Gaiman put it nicely: "Truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are" (2016, p. 13). Or consider Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's definition: "If orange-trees are hardy and rich in fruit in this bit of soil and not that, then this bit of soil is what is truth for orange-trees" (1939, p. 175). Heidegger (1998) wrote of truth, pointing out that our single word truth conflates two separate notions from Antiquity: First, veritas, and second, aletheia---the first being Latin and the second, Greek. Heidegger suggests that veritas is our most familiar notion of truth, having to do with applying particular methods to distinguish between true and false. And moreover this word is militaristic in nature, suggesting conquest. Aletheia, on the other hand, is gentler; it refers to an uncovering. Truth as aletheia means paying attention and letting things speak for themselves rather than putting them in one of two boxes---Right or Wrong. So I'd contend that it's in the sense of aletheia that a novel is truthful and, therefore, informative.
E: Okay, granting novels truth in the sense of aletheia, we can say they're informative in that sense. But what's the use of that kind of information? The veritas kind of information has a very clear use: It contributes to knowledge. That's the whole point of information, after all---to contribute to knowledge (Bosancic, 2016).
A: I'd say the aletheia kind of information contributes to knowledge, too.
E: Not a chance! Take this novel you're reading about the exploration of Alaska. When you're done with it, you won't know anything really reliable about the topic, even though it's about a real historical event. Sure, some things in the novel might be veritas-true, but that's just incidental.
A: Just as there are different kinds of truth and therefore information, there are different kinds of knowledge, too.
E: I should have known you'd say that. Well, what are they?
A: Drawing from the philosophy of phenomenology, van Manen (2014) tells us that there's gnostic knowledge on one hand, and pathic knowledge on the other. Gnostic knowledge we're all familiar with---that's what you're talking about. It's about knowing the veritas kind of information. But pathic knowledge---that's about pathos. We find the idea of pathos in our words empathy and sympathy. It's an emotional resonance, and it's been an important kind of knowledge in the rhetorician's toolkit ever since Aristotle (1991). Where do you think that knowledge comes from? It comes from experience---both firsthand personal experience, and vicarious experience gleaned through, among other things, reading novels. Yes, it's emotional, but it's still knowledge. To quote Neil Gaiman again, "Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed" (2016, p. 8). That's why a novel is more than just what it's about.
E: "More than just what it's about"? What is that supposed to mean?
A: This book is about whatever it says on the back. Like you said, this book I'm reading is about the exploration of Alaska. But how dry! There's so much more to this book than that. If all there was to a novel was its summary, why would anyone read the actual book?
E: For the same reason someone would read the whole paper and not just the abstract---
A: Not that many do...
E: Well, right, but that's a separate issue. What I mean is, from reading the whole thing, you get more details.
A: Yes, of course. But it's not just a matter of collecting details. There's something that happens when all the details coalesce. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: When you get enough gold coins in a room, suddenly it's not just a heaping mass of gold coins, but it's a swimming pool for Scrooge McDuck. Maybe we can say that gnostic knowledge comes from the details, the veritas, while pathic knowledge emerges from between the details, the aletheia---the unfolding. It's baked into the thing itself. I'm talking about the pockets of air in a croissant. You can't just separate them from the bread. Alone, it's just air. So when you talk about aboutness, all you can really capture is the gnostic side. Everything else falls away. Perhaps that's why it's been overlooked all this time.
Aesthetics, Understanding and Information
E: And you think you've got a way to, well, uncover it, as it were? This baked-in-ness?
A: As a matter of fact, at the root of it, it's what my area of study is all about.
E: Aesthetics? Beauty is only skin-deep, you know.
A: Why does everyone keep saying that? Beauty is only one small part of aesthetics. Granted, that's how aesthetics got its start. And aesthetics isn't only about art, though that's the common view. As John Dewey (1934/2005) showed, art isn't its own type of thing; evaluating art doesn't require a faculty different from that for evaluating anything else. Mark Johnson (2007) has extended this, arguing for a conceptualization of aesthetics as the study of everything that goes into the human capacity for meaning-making.
E: "Everything that goes into meaning-making?" Sounds like a land grab.
A: Not really. It may seem that way, but only because aesthetics was entirely eschewed amidst the hyper-rationalism of the 20th century. But lately, it's begun to reemerge.
E: But wouldn't you say that epistemology is the study of human meaning-making, too?
A: That's an interesting point. Yes, I suppose so. Indeed, maybe that's where we find some common ground. You know, Johnson (2007) also uses the word "understanding" as the aim of aesthetic experience.
E: Does he? That does seem to line up well with recent epistemological interest in understanding. I trust you're familiar with the DIKW hierarchy (Rowley, 2007). You may know that the hierarchy, as originally proposed, also included the concept of understanding as a step below wisdom (Ackoff, 1989). Understanding mysteriously disappeared soon after the hierarchy was introduced, but there have been whispers. For instance, Bellinger, Castro and Mills (2004) wondered if it was really its own step, or if understanding was the link between steps. And most recently, Bawden and Robinson (2016) have been theorizing understanding in greater detail.
E: And, you know, there was a recent paper by Gorichanaz (2016) that explored the building of understanding and proposed a link between the understanding of hermeneutical phenomenologists such as Heidegger and the understanding of epistemologists. So perhaps you're right, that there is some common ground there. But it makes me wonder---is there a difference, then, between epistemology and aesthetics?
A: Well, maybe not, from a certain vantage. After all, Heidegger argued that ontology and epistemology were to be one. Maybe it's time for aesthetics to join the conglomerate. But I expect there's still value to be gained in pursuing studies within the traditional confines of each of these strains of thought. The way I see it, aesthetics places the emphasis on the visceral, embodied nature of experience. To be sure, in virtually all domains, we've come to realize that there's more to life than the brute facts of cognition. Calling someone a Cartesian dualist is a slur in many circles. But in aesthetics, we're suggesting that the pendulum hasn't finished its arc just yet. We still need to give pathos its due, if you ask me, and where pathos comes through---where aletheia shines---is human experience.
The Value of Studying Experience
E: That's all well and good, philosophically. But what's the point of it for information science? They're very practical people, information scientists. They've got no patience for idle philosophizing. I mean, epistemology---there's a very clear link there: Information contributes to knowledge (or understanding, if you like). Information science is interested in knowledge as it is externalized, classified, organized. But aesthetics? This notion of experience?
A: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
A: Never mind. I can answer you directly. Just because something hasn't been done widely, doesn't mean there's no value in it. There are countless reasons for information scientists to study experience.
E: I'm listening.
A: For one, it's been called for in order to flesh out our account of how humans interact with information. Scholars have, for decades, been trying to wrap their heads around outcomes of information seeking (Case & O'Connor, 2016), which includes people's internalization of information-as-thing, as Kari (2007) calls it. It's a question of what happens in the moment of interacting with a document---the document experience, in other words (Gorichanaz & Latham, 2016). Some evidence for the notion of experience in information science can be seen in the publication of the edited volume on the topic by Bruce, Davis, Hughes, Partridge and Stoodley (2014).
E: Yes, yes, but scholars call for all sorts of things and will write about anything. That doesn't explain why it's important to study.
A: Fair enough. I think you'd agree that information science considers the human to be a core concept. Am I right?
E: Surely. The old triad: people, technology and information.
A: Indeed, we say that, but I fear it's mostly lip service. Recognizing humans has been an ongoing evolution, as Talja and Nyce (2015) chronicle. As they say, our work stems from studies of library use, which grew into person-in-situation research that attempted to account for libraries being one of many information channels in people's lives. Later came task theory and practice theory, two further attempts to get at the "stuff" of personhood when it comes to information behavior. But while these more recent attempts have added more color to the contextual factors involved in information behavior, they haven't really managed to engage with what it means to be human, and so they haven't really furthered the cause of speaking to humanity (Cibangu, 2015). Our theories have scarcely even recognized that we have bodies, for goodness' sake (Cox, Griffin, & Hartel, in press). The problem is that we've left the issue unexamined. But it's not just a problem in information science, as I said before. It's rather pervasive---society-wide. As David Foster Wallace wrote, we live in the age of the "unexamined life" (1998, p. 997).
E: I'd imagine biologists, psychologists and philosophers have pretty well established what a person is by now. But I don't see why it matters, to be honest.
A: Because without considering what a person is---who we are and how we are the way we are---we can't make progress. We've run up against a roadblock because, by not probing personhood, we've let assumptions slip in uninterrogated. We overly limit our notion of the human to the cognitive and intellectual. But we're not just brains in vats (Harman, 1973). You know that.
A: Anyway, you're right about other fields having pierced into it a bit. Here and there. Day (2007) has drawn from psychology in conceptualizing a person as an index of experiences. And indeed he's taken it further: Through interfacing with information systems, a person, being an index, becomes a document themselves. What it comes down to, for me, is that experience is central. We need to explore experience to understand personhood, and to explore experience we have to recognize truth as aletheia and the importance of pathic knowledge.
E: Fine, I'll buy that. But I still don't see why your average taxonomist should care. Talking of pathic this and alethic that won't help our case when it comes to, "Oh, those bozos in their ivory tower, what do they know about the real world?"
A: There are some very practical reasons to study experience. After all, individual users are the ultimate end of our work. People are going to have experiences with the systems and technologies we have a hand in designing (Bruce et al., 2014, p. 11). Shouldn't these things be designed with their experience in mind? But how do we do that if we don't understand what it means to experience information? Once we begin to grasp information experience, who knows how our field will be transformed. For example, we can look to Csikszentmihalyi's (1975/2000) work on the concept of flow. Uncovering the structure of autotelic experiences redefined work and play and revealed concrete ways for people to get more enjoyment from the things they do. It led a paradigm shift in psychology. It allowed new questions to be asked.
E: I don't know. This all seems rather solipsistic. For information science to be effectual, we need to speak to society. This goes back to Jesse Shera (1973) and Patrick Wilson (1977) who rallied for social epistemology---looking at how a society, rather than merely a person, becomes knowledgeable. Rayward (1994), too, the historian of information science, suggested that the fundamental purpose of information science is to mobilize the information stored within documents within and throughout society. If we just focus on experience, won't we lose sight of society and culture? Aren't those vital (Lloyd, 2014)?
A: Surely, that danger is there. But that's precisely what Hjørland (2012) cautioned against in decrying the cognitivist view of the individual. The problem isn't with the individual, per se, but rather with how we've conceptualized it---or, indeed, failed to. The cognitivist view, which has pervaded information behavior research, positions humans as automata and suggests that a brain in a vat might as well be called human. But prima facie, it's clear that that's not the case, and it's our job to make that case convincingly. If we do the work in conceptualizing the human, we'll overcome that. You might be getting the idea that our views are incommensurable, but I think we're quite in agreement on this point.
E: I'm glad to hear that.
A: But, to take this further, I'd say first that any satisfactory approach to studying human experience will use the lifeworld as its point of departure---that's the world as we live in it, which includes these ideas of society and culture (van Manen, 2014). As it happens, research in individual experience and culture can be synergistic. Take Csikszentmihalyi's (2000) work on flow, which I just mentioned. Well, Inghilleri (1999) built on that work and showed how individuals' flow experiences can bubble up through the wider culture. Inghilleri discusses the cultural transmission of information as a teleonomic process, similar to biological evolution (Pross, 2012). In that respect, Inghilleri's work echoes Bates' (2005) framework of information evolution. Inghilleri says that human culture is maintained and reproduced through acts that require individuals' psychic energy, which in turn requires intrinsic motivation. He writes that, through this coupling, "cultural structures and experiential structures are repeated over time in a harmonious fashion" (p. 121).
E: That sounds fascinating. I'll have to read more on that.
A: I'll lend you the book.
Approaching Aesthetic Inquiry
E: So, how would you propose to make an analogous kind of discovery for information science?
A: A starting point would be to follow up on a suggestion that's already been made. In his book Indexing It All, Ron Day (2014) discusses how modern sociotechnical systems try to anticipate our aesthetic judgments. Isn't it our duty to make those systems better? The development of information systems has long benefited by discussions of relevance. As Patrick Wilson (1973) said, any system supplying practical information should provide situationally relevant information. Determining relevance is an epistemic judgment. But today our systems do so much more than just supply practical information. They appeal as well to our tastes---and that's the purview of aesthetics.
E: Taste---that seems a bit squishy.
A: Maybe so. But perhaps only because it hasn't been given its due. Fortunately, we're not starting entirely from scratch. A number of people have investigated aesthetic judgments. Most notably, probably, was Kant (1790/1987). In his framework, there are four dimensions for aesthetic judgment: the agreeable, the good, the beautiful and the sublime. Agreeableness is a subjective judgment, as in when we talk about liking such and such a television series or not. The good is an ethical judgment, assessing a situation based on the mooring post of objective reason. Helping your neighbor is good; murder is bad. The beautiful and the sublime are both subjective, but they come along with an implicit sense that we expect others to agree with us, generally speaking. When it comes to agreeableness, I can readily accept that you don't like the taste of mint chocolate chip. But beauty is different; if we saw a stately Siberian tiger, I'd expect both of us to consider the creature beautiful. Part of what makes something beautiful, in Kant's view, is when its form evokes a sense of purposefulness. The sublime is something of a step beyond beauty---it's when something shatters any possibility of our judgment. A cataclysmic mountain view, for instance. Of course, Kant has been criticized for assuming aesthetic experiences are fundamentally different from epistemic ones (Dewey, 2005), and indeed much has been written on aesthetic judgment since Kant---which is to say there are some rich depths for information science to plumb.
E: Sure, but it doesn't sound like aesthetic judgment can ever be measured as rigorously as epistemic judgment. We quantify relevance. I'm not sure you could ever achieve that with taste.
A: As it happens, some are attempting to do just that---in food science, for instance. But I don't think we should have to measure aesthetic judgment in the same way we do epistemic judgment. Remember that traditional epistemic judgment relates to truth as veritas and gnostic knowledge. These institutions rely on logical operations, precise measurements and the like. But truth as aletheia and pathic knowledge shouldn't be bound by the same assumptions.
E: So how could aesthetics ever be approached methodologically?
A: To be sure, it's a different paradigm from the bulk of social science research. This kind of research would be more akin to the humanities---think of literary hermeneutics and the philosophical essay. But in terms of empirical methods, we can look to Max van Manen's (1990, 2002, 2014) oeuvre on phenomenology of practice for a starting point. And as aesthetic inquiry, particularly within information science, gains steam, I hope and expect we'll come to develop further methodological approaches.
E: That's fair. Qualitative methods haven't been around that long to begin with. And, for that matter, quantitative methods, too, in the grand scheme of things.
A Sense of an Ending
A: Speaking of quantification---which relies on the reduction of whole into parts---I'm reminded of an essay the author Mario Vargas Llosa (2001) wrote. It relates back to what I said earlier, about novels enriching life. It's nonfiction, so perhaps you'd like it. Vargas Llosa argues that the wholeness of literature is the perfect antidote to the increasing specialization and fragmentation of modern science, technology and scholarship, precisely because of the role of human experience in literature. It instills in us empathy and allows us to experience other lives. Literature is radical, and it allows us to ask radical questions about our society---the radical of change. For instance, reading about splendor within literature can make us dissatisfied with our menial lives and give us the courage to effect change to enact that splendor in reality.
E: I won't deny that it's an inspiring sentiment.
A: Isn't it? You know, I might be so bold as to suggest that your scholarship would improve if you read fewer papers and more stories. Perhaps, though, we'll come to a point where some papers are stories.
E: Wouldn't that be nice.
Over the course of this discussion, the Epistemologist and the Aestheticist have discussed many topics germane to information science: truth, which is an element of Floridi's (2011) definition of information; knowledge, which has long been taken as the epistemic aim of information (Bosancic, 2016); understanding, which has been proposed as an alternative epistemic aim of information (Bawden & Robinson, 2016); human experience, and more. Though E and A belong to what might be called opposing camps, the two seem to have found a common framework in which to conceptualize their diverse projects of inquiry in information science: The key is in recognizing the pathic, emotional and inceptual (van Manen, 2014) side of truth, information and knowledge; and that it is the concept of understanding that brings together the gnostic and the pathic. This provides a concrete grounding for further study into the human experience of information, and it gestures toward a path for that research to move the field as a whole forward.
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I am grateful to Deborah Turner for pushing me, to Bhuva Narayan for encouraging me, and to Jenna Hartel for inspiring me. I am also grateful to David Bawden for his visionary research and editorial work.