Prying Information Loose and Dealing with Loose Information

A sociology of information triptych this morning. Disclosure laws that fail to fulfill their manifest/intended function, the secret work of parsing public information, and the pending capacity to record everything all bear on the question of the relationship between states and information.

In a 21 Jan 2012 NYT article, “I Disclose … Nothing,” Elisabeth Rosenthal (@nytrosenthal) suggests that despite increasing disclosure mandates we may not, in fact, be more informed. Among the obviating forces are information overload, dearth of interpretive expertise, tendency of organizations to hide behind “you were told…”, formal rules provide organizations with blueprint for how to play around with technicalities (as, she notes, Republican PACs have done, using name changes and re-registration to “reset” their disclosure obligation clocks), routinization (as in the melodic litanies of side-effects in drug adverts), and the simple fact that people are not in a position to act on information even it is abundantly available and unambiguous. On the other side, the article notes that there is a whole “industry” out there — journalists, regulators, reporters who can data mine the disclosure information even if individuals cannot take advantage.

Rachel Martin’s (@rachelnpr) piece on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, CIA Tracks Public Information For The Private Eye describes almost the mirror image of this: how intelligence agencies are building their infrastructure for trying to find patterns in and making sense of the gadzillions of bits of public information that just sits their for all to see. It’s another case that hints at an impossibility theorem about “connecting the dotsa priori.

And finally, in another NPR story, “Technological Innovations Help Dictators See All” Rachel Martin interviews John Villasenor about his paper, “Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments” on the idea that data storage has become so inexpensive that there is no reason for governments (they focus on authoritarian ones, but no reason to limit it) not to collect everything (even if, as the first two stories remind us, they may currently lack the capacity to do anything with it). I if surveillance uptake and data rot will prove to be competing tendencies.

The first piece suggests research questions: what are the variables that determine whether disclosure is “useful”? what features of disclosure rules generate cynical work-arounds? if “more is not always better,” what is? can we better theorize the relationship between “knowing,” open-ness, transparency, disclosure and democracy than we have so far?

The second piece really cries out for an essay capturing the irony of how the information pajamas get turned inside out with the spy agency trying to see what’s in front of everyone (we are reminded in a perverse sort of way of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter“). Perhaps we’ll no longer associate going “under cover” with the CIA.

And the alarm suggested in the third piece is yet another entry under what I (and maybe others) have called the informational inversion — when the generation, acquisition, and storage of information dominates by orders of magnitude our capacity to do anything with it.

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.

2 thoughts on “Prying Information Loose and Dealing with Loose Information”

  1. This is a little sideways from your post, yet related. In all these masses of information, where is personal privacy, the ability to control our own data?

    There was an interesting conversation on KALW Philosophy Talk about the rights of individuals to request that all of their data (in a particular online sphere) be deleted, rather than simply held on the databases of companies. We have laws regarding the ability of government to use our personal information, however, not so much so for corporations.

    In France there is now a law where a company must delete your information on their servers, backups etc (well, I am assuming backups) when you request it. That would be great to have here. This is according to the guest on Philosophy Talk.

  2. Quick response:

    1. Disclosure at the private level is interesting to consider against the popular isomorphism of transparency and democracy. One argument I've come across is that pseudonyms facilitates a space where self-censorship is moot, and people are more transparent with their views while veiling their real identities. I'm very interested in the variables that determine whether “disclosure is useful” – will definitely check out Rosenthal's article.

    2. Minister D- is a hashtag & this doesn't change the facts, i.e. the receding horizon of gadzillions of bits of public information, yet accidentally obscures them… ! (…literary nerdiness aside, the France approach sounds great.)

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