Virginia Tech Report and Information

A report on last year’s Virginia Tech shootings was released last week (full report | executive summary). It highlights a number of sociology of information issues among its findings:

  • Widespread misunderstanding about what privacy laws did and did not prohibit in terms of communicating information about mental to family and school officials
  • Some states report information about mental health to a federal database used to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers, but there is ambiguity about what kind of mental health treatment history triggers this action.
  • Errors were made in assuming that initial leads were correct. The report suggests that officials “did not take sufficient action to deal with what might happen if the initial lead proved erroneous.”
  • Notification: “The VTPD erred in not requesting that the Policy Group issue a campus-wide notification that two persons had been killed and that all students and staff should be cautious and alert.”
  • Medical facilities did a good job at providing care but there were many challenges at cross agency communication.
  • “The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner properly discharged the technical aspects of its responsibility ….” but “[c]ommunication with families was poorly handled.”
  • “State systems for rapidly deploying trained professional staff to help families get information, crisis intervention, and referrals to a wide range of resources did not work.”

What Society Knows

The lead editorial in the NY Times today (“What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You“) addresses the question of the state’s role in the generation of public knowledge. The piece argues that congress should restore funding for census bureau projects that produce important economic data, noting, in reference to financial markets, that “the system cannot thrive without good and timely information.” True, no doubt in other sectors too. A question worth asking is whether the political actors who cut funding were aiming only at saving money or keeping government small or were responding to parties who have an interest in restricting the amount and quality of public information that’s out there. We can imagine two scenarios: (1) some actors prefer to function in an environment of relative public ignorance; (2) some actors don’t want the government to produce and supply information that could be sold for a profit.

We shall see.

"The More Information the Better"?

Take a look at BARRY MEIER’s May 23, 2007 NYT article “For Drug Makers, a Downside to Full Disclosure.” It’s about how GlaxoSmithKline made drug study data available online as a part of the settlement of a lawsuit from a few years back. The “story” of the article is that a scientist stumbled on the data, analyzed it, discovered that a drug posed a health threat, and published the results. This then leads to the big question of the pros and cons of public disclosure, selective publication of results, who has the expertise to analyze and interpret, and so on.

A quick list of sociology of information issues that come up here:

  • If datasets contain “information” that could serve the public interest but that might not be extracted by private actors should that data always be made available?
  • How should we think about the disincentive to collect data to begin with that will likely emerge if corporations have to always consider the downside of a third party discovering in it information that is contrary to the corporate interest?
  • Where do we put the inevitable disputes that will arise over which experts extracted information from data in the correct manner? Does the “more info is always better” stance merely push social uncertainty up one level?
  • The article also notes that “Roughly a decade ago, some experts raised concerns that doctors were not getting the full picture about a drug’s risks and benefits because they tended to hear or read about only those trials in which the medication showed a benefit.” This raises two issues. First there is the obvious one: “deliberate” bias in terms of what information gets passed on. But there’s a second one too — we need to look at the social networks and channels through which information passes. The more these structures are institutionalized, the more likely, I suspect, there is a built-in bias to what information gets through. Public disclosure might disrupt this just enough to make it a little more likely that the benefits of “marketplace of ideas” and “truth will out” will be realized.

What do you think?

Democracy and the Information Order I

Consider Adam Liptak’s front page article in the Times today. It’s about a website that publishes information about people who agree to be witnesses for the government. The information, it seems, is all gleaned from public documents so there’s no big violation of privacy type question here, but it does bring up lots of questions and not just the obvious ones.

On the one side, you have prosecutors pointing out that this might massively de-incentivize (sic) truth-telling. Seen more economically, we might speculate that it will just make it a lot more expensive (since part of the impetus for the website seems to be focusing on the “deals” that are offered for information).

So, it’s interesting to the sociologist of information in that it makes us think about the way that transactions in (presumably) the truth are valued and how secrecy about who is doing the truth telling and why affects the “price,” not to mention the perceived veracity.

If you think only about whistle-blowing and organized crime prosecutions, it’s easy to lean in the direction advocated by some judicial policy makers: information about informants and deals should perhaps be sealed or in some way less accessible to the general public.

But if you think for a moment about the democratic functions of the legal system, especially the role they have in fostering openness in the information order, you might not be so sure about that.

If you go further and think about other places and other times, as depicted, for example, in the recent film ” The Life of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen“), then the idea of “outing” informants might seem like even less of a good idea.

We are reminded, in any case, that new technologies change the meaning of the phrase “it is known that….”

Tooting My Own Horn

Well, the sociology of information has made it to the big time now. John Tierney has a piece ( in the New York Times Science Times section about my work on notification.

He’s also got a bit on it in his blog, Tierney Lab, where readers are posting examples of botched notification. So far, the stories people have contributed are pretty awesome. I plan to spend some time analyzing them and then posting a response.

O.K., back to work.

Technology and Invisibility

Technology boosters are fond of telling us that soon everything will be at our fingertips, that technology will transform an informational landscape that is riddled with nooks, crannies, dusty inaccessible archives and unlabeled boxes into one marked by easy to search open stacks.

When universities were first digitizing their card catalogs they typically began with recent acquisitions and worked backwards. When I was a graduate student at Yale in 1990 the electronic catalog went back to around 1975, if I remember correctly. I wrote at the time time that we might see a (digital) divide emerge between those of us who still used (and knew how to use) paper card catalogs and those who only used the new electronic system (then called ORBIS, I think). The latter, I speculated, would end writing papers that would never reference anything published before 1975.

In the interim, most libraries found the funding to fully digitize their catalogs but now we are into an age of the entire digitized text, not just the digital listing of physical texts. In a 11 March article in the New York Times KATIE HAFNER examines the impact of the fact that while lots and lots of stuff IS being digitized, many things are not. The latter, she reports, are at the risk of falling off our collective radar as “not digitized” consigns things to an unfindable status due to (1) resources not being put into preserving them (2) resources not being put into making them available (why spend money on keeping the archive open if you can put some of the collection online?); and (3) the more readers become dependent on the digitized material, the fewer people will have the skills, time, energy, motivation to examine the undigitized.

At least back at Yale, the reader of a paper could easily notice what was missing because nothing in the bibliography was dated before 1975. In the future, both the writer and the reader may have very little appreciation of what is missing.

If wisdom consists in some part of knowing what you don’t know, might technology be a threat to wisdom?

In my project file is a folder titled “Do a History of Blindness about Blindspots”

Suing for Information

Conventional wisdom says lawsuits are always about money driven, motivated by, depending on your point of view, greed or the need for just compensation. Sometimes, though, a plaintiff may seek a more literal public hearing.

A 9 March NYT article reports that the family of a murder victim reached a settlement in a lawsuit against the District of Columbia:

The settlement calls for the district to investigate the response of fire and emergency medical services after the beating and report back in six months. The district must also report to the family of David E. Rosenbaum in nine months on progress by the Metropolitan Police Department in addressing questions raised by its actions, the mayor said.

Works Cited
n.a. 2007. “Murdered Reporter’s Family Settles Lawsuit” New York Times, March 9, 2007

The Sources of Fiction?

The sociology of information overlaps (or, in a grandiose moment, subsumes) the sociology of knowledge and related fields. In this corner of its sandbox, we find topics such as considerations of authorship, authority, information “ownership,” and provenance as well as how much meta-information must/should attach to a given information “emission.” In today’s NYT JULIE BOSMAN reports on a contemporary phenomenon of interest: the inclusion of bibliographies in works of fiction.

Multiple issues on the table: blurring genre lines between fiction and nonfiction; legal concerns (see Hadfield on lexigenesis); intimidating readers vs. impressing them (marketing); getting credit for hard work (authors); naive claim that authors who include bibliography do do research, others do not; padding bibliographies to look sophisticated; what counts as “a lot of reading”?; divergence of purpose — suggesting to readers where they can go for more vs. documenting where ideas came from. Bosman sees continuity between emergence of acknowledgements in fiction (apparently a relatively recent thing) and bibliographies and compares them to Oscar thank you speeches. In addition to hinting that both are a sort of potlatch of back patting and such, this nicely captures the contradictory pulls between humble recognition that one does not do it alone and attempts to impress by attaching oneself to other stars.

Works Cited

Bosman, Julie. 2006. “Loved His New Novel, and What a Bibliography.” New York Times, 5 December 2006.

Hadfield, Gillian. n.d. “Lexigenesis.” Unpublished manuscript.

Organizations, e-information and the law…

On NPR’s Morning Edition, reporter Ari Shapiro’s “New Rules on Retaining Digital Business Documents” described rules “that help companies decide how many e-mails and other digital items they have to keep in case someone sues them and demands the documents be brought to court. Even small companies can generate millions of digital documents in a very short time, and systems for managing them can be expensive.” (NPR 2006)

Consider Weber’s observation that maintaining written records is a hallmark of bureaucratization. He was primarily observing the internal rationalization of organization. Information retention rules would seem to push things at the other end of the spectrum and a sort of external rationalization oriented not toward organizational performance but rather the organization’s existence in a social context. Hmmm.

See Also 2006. E-Discovery Amendments and Committee Notes

Can a "realization" change the world?

Generic notion #257b. Consider the quote that begins “When IBM realized that it was not in the office automation business but rather the information processing business, everything changed….” Is there a generic term for this kind of realization? Part of it is just coming to see the truth, overcoming illusions, getting it right finally. But there seems to be a separate dimension here, something other than just coming to a correct empirical understanding of the world. One piece of this seems to be reframing; the realization has implications for re-interpreting other information and re-channeling how actions will be based on existing information/knowledge. Hints here, then, of a sort of “paradigm shift” (to use an overused and misused term). Hmmm, back to work.