Weekly reading summary #1

I would imagine that the following will be of limited interest, but I want to post my weekly reading summaries from my introductory class. If you feel like reading such things then please do, by all means. Mostly I’m putting them up to give myself easy reference to them in the future. Like all else on this blog, the copyright on the following commentaries belongs to me. Plagiarists should die.

Buckland, M. (1991). Chapters 1, 4, 5 & 6. In Information and information systems. New York: Praeger.

McMurtry, J. (2002). Preface. In Value wars: The global market versus the life economy. (pp. xii–xxv). Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

Sapir, E. (1949). Communication. In D.G. Mandelbaum (Ed.), Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality, (pp. 104–109). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Buckland (1991) essays a definition of “information” as both a practical exercise (for the construction of information storage and retrieval systems) and as an epistemological exploration. He defines “information-as-process” as “the act of becoming informed”; “information-as-knowledge” as “that which is imparted when one becomes informed, and “information-as-thing” as physical representations of information that—while they are not themselves knowledge—impart information, however imperfectly. (p. 43) Knowledge, Buckland argues, is dependent on belief. (p. 40)

McMurtry (2002) asserts that an “unseen moral syntax” (p. xiv) controls what information will be perceived as true. Using the failure of investigative organizations (including media, which he writes are “dominantly owned by military-industrial and infotainment corporations” (p. xii)) to report the international power structure’s complicity in the attacks of September 11, 2001, McMurtry shows how a deeply ingrained value structure contributes to the “inertial acquiescence of the occupied mass mind” (p. xiv).

Sapir (1949), in delineating the various types of communication from interpersonal communication to mass media, and from language to gesture to “social suggestion” (p. 106) argues that these types of communication are linked to the construction of society, which is not a fixed construct, but one that is constantly in flux. In particular he concludes (in a prescient essay originally written in 1931) that evolving communication technologies would force an increasingly smaller global society to overcome its biggest communication obstacle: language translation. He predicts “that the civilized world will adopt one language of intercommunication, say English or Esperanto, which can be set aside for denotive purposes pure and simple. (p. 109)

For my own interests in journalism and media studies, I connect parts of all three of these studies to form a sort of nascent theory of the ultimate goals of the journalistic process. From Buckland (1991) I take the idea that knowledge is dependent on belief, which relates to studies showing that readers’ trust in newsgathering organizations has fallen precipitously low. Regardless of the accuracy of a given news report (Buckland dismisses accuracy as a qualification for information), the public will be disinclined to accept information from that news report if they do not first believe in that information. Of course, Buckland also raises some problems inherent in any physical representation of information: it is liable to be misinterpreted by its consumer, and will be filtered through both human interpretation and the limitations of language by its author. (p. 53) The optimist in me would hope that a news consumer would accept these limitations and therefore, at least provisionally, accept a news report from a reliable source (and I don’t have a method yet for determining what is “reliable”—perhaps that is left up to the relationship between the individual news consumer and the news organization).

The cynic in me however, is liable to turn to McMurtry (2002) for a reason—as a news consumer myself—to distrust these organizations. McMurtry’s argument that an ingrained value structure dictates the ability of certain facts to penetrate the mass mind clearly links to Buckland’s assertion that knowledge depends on belief. If this moral framework is as pervasive and insidious as McMurtry makes it out to be, then that belief system will not allow the mass audience to become informed in Buckland’s definition, since becoming informed relies on “a change in our beliefs” (p. 40)

This pervasiveness, of course, is largely possible because of the globalization of communication that Sapir (1963) predicts. The propaganda that McMurtry reviles has swamped the global communication network that Sapir predicts, overwhelming the construction of a global society, as Sapir defines society. Luckily for adherents to McMurtry’s argument (and though I’m swayed, I’m not yet convinced), Sapir does write that society is a process, and McMurtry’s proposed solution remains achievable: “Once the human project is released from their invisible prison of presupposition, the constitutional resources to steer out of the accumulating breakdown of life conditions become decisively evident” (p. xxv).

As for the ultimate goal of journalism, it could be seen as to inform, in Buckland’s definition, in order to avoid the sort of mass misinformation evident in McMurtry’s essay in order to build Sapir’s conception of society.

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