Notification and the Public Sphere

Working today on the outline for a chapter on “notification and the public sphere.”  In previous chapters the focus was notification and the maintenance of relationships among individuals. In this chapter I look at the broader distribution of information in society and the institutions that give rise to it.

The raw material I am working with runs the gamut from sunshine and freedom of information laws, mandatory disclosure regulations, discovery in legal context, state mandated notification, truth and reconciliation commissions, emergency warning systems, diplomatic protocol, gag rules, and privacy standards. Generically, I’m thinking of these as “information institutions.”

This is admittedly a big bucket of diverse phenomena; today’s work was a first stab at grouping and categorizing and discovering underlying dimensions that organize these things as manifestations of basic informational forms.

Here are my preliminary categories.

Sunshine, Stickers, Labels, and Report Cards. Laws and rules that say that the state and private and public actors cannot keep (all) secrets. Some of these are things like sunshine laws that promote accountability or combat corruption, others are disclosure rules that address information asymmetry between producers and consumers or between service providers and the public. This category resonates with the “is more information always better” posts that have appeared here previously.

Structured Honesty: Social Organization of Informational Equality. Being able to say “I don’t have to tell you” is an important manifestation of inequality with both material and symbolic consequences. In various forms, the capacity to maintain some control over the disposition of some information is widely recognized as a key component of autonomous personhood. This category includes institutions that collectively enforce (true) information sharing — from legal rules of discovery to truth commissions. It is, I think, distinct from the previous and next categories, but I’m still working on a rigorous way to distinguish them.  The “democracy and the information order” posts that have appeared previously would fall into this category (6 August 2008, 20 September 2007,  22 May 2007, 11 March 2007)

The Social Organization of Omniscience (includes warning systems). These can be distinguished from the disclosure examples because in those cases one entity either has the information and just needs to be compelled to release it or has/controls access to the information and needs to be compelled to collect and release it. By contrast, this category includes cases where either the information is dispersed and we organize a means to detect and aggregate and channel it. Or, where a special channel is set aside to that one type of information (perhaps a rare one) can take precedence. Examples: ER doctors who must report abuse or abortion providers who must provide parental notification for minors, emergency warning systems (tornado.,hurricane, tsunami), airport announcements that recruit everyone as a lookout for unattended bags (see also post on children as spies).

Protocol. In diplomacy, for example, protocol strongly regulates who would speak with whom. As in computer communication protocols, these institutions allow us to tie systems together.

Socially Sanctioned Non-Telling. This is almost the opposite of the first category (leaving an interesting space in between) — secrets that are socially organized. Gag rules and sealed agreements, trade secrets, intellectual property regimes, governments classification systems (top secret, etc.), official secrets acts, privacy standards.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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