The Poetics of Thought


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on January 13, 2010

Moving up the hierarchy to information, the way this is conceived metaphorically shows significant overlap with  data.  It is similarly conceptualised as being ‘corpuscular’ and ‘discreet’ with each item of information being imaginable as distinct from every other.  There is also a shared sense of its being ‘out there’, pre-existing our efforts to acquire it.  Also, with both data and information, when the volume of either is large, we begin to think of this in terms not of a collection of discreet particulate objects but as a kind of liquid.  We might talk of the ‘flow’ of information, or of ‘drowning’ in an excess of it.  In this sense it retains some of the properties of the corpuscular but also, like sand through an hour glass, can pass like a liquid.

This metaphor of substance that varies between solidity and liquidity may have its origins in the affordances that different substances present to the body, and a reading of the metaphor in terms of affordances also starts to allow a distinction to be identified between data and information.

Affordance is the term that Gibson (1977, 1979)  gives to the properties of (physical) entities that we perceive and to which we respond in an embodied way.  So for example, the handle of a tool presents itself to the body in such a way that its ‘handleability’ is experienced as a part of the perception of that object, in fact the primary perception. As part of a metaphor of information then, if we are looking for a substance metaphor which embodies this sense of there being something that might be ‘grasped’ as well as the possibility of there being ‘too much for us to grasp’, then substance metaphors are appropriate.  Small manageable amounts of information are conceptualized as hard particles of solid material whilst an excess of information is understood as being ‘impossible to get a handle on’, ‘hard to grasp’, or ‘slippery’, and we run the risk of ‘drowning’ in it.  In this latter regard, such a metaphorical substance acquires the properties of a liquid.

It might be intuited from this use of the language of affordance that there is, in the distinguishing of information from data, the beginnings of an implied human agent figuring in the ground of the epistemology.  Even though we have conceived of data in substantive terms, the presence of the body as the provider of an affordance to that substance is minimal.  As we begin to consider the organisation of information however there is a tacit understanding that such substance is under the approach of an intentional agent; the provider of significant form.  There is the feeling that what was previously inert data is beginning to lean in our direction and organise itself into structures of information which at least have the possibility of purchase, even if our grasp is inadequate and the structure too frail.

Jonathan Hey, in the essay ‘The Data Information Knowledge Chain’ (2004), draws out this epistemological distinction in the metaphor, suggesting that the point at which information parts company with data is in the sense of what Hey calls ‘attributes’.   He draws our attention to the idea that information can be ‘sensitive’ or ‘pertinent’.  It can be more or less ‘salient’ or ‘valuable’ in a way that ‘raw’ data cannot.  These attributes, which are awarded to the information in such a way that they seem to be part of its ontology, are actually derived from the relationship established between such potential information and the origin of this potential, which is the purposive human user.

GIBSON, J. J. (1977) The Theory of Affordances. IN SHAW, R. E. & BRANSFORD, J. (Eds.) Perceiving, acting and knowing: toward an ecological psychology. Hillsdale, Erlbaum; New York; London: Distributed by Wiley.

GIBSON, J. J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception, Dallas; London, Houghton Mifflin.

HEY, J. (2004) The Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom Chain: The Metaphorical link.