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 outlined.
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 action.
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 (2016).
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 activities.
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 activities?
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 through narrative.
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, respectively.
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 participants.
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 poignantly:
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 race.
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.
Central Practice —————-
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 artists.
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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