of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 28, No. 2    December / January 2002


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Editor's Note: Patrick G. Wilson, winner of the 2001 ASIST Award of Merit, was unable to attend the Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. His acceptance speech, reprinted here for the benefit of those members not in attendance at the Annual Meeting, was read by Howard White.

On Accepting the ASIST Award of Merit

by Patrick Wilson

I'm surprised and delighted to find myself the recipient of this award; I certainly had never anticipated anything of the sort. I'm especially pleased to receive it from the Society under its new name. I've been saying for years that the technical design work of information scientists is not science at all but rather engineering; retrieval system designers are people who try to make new things that work, as other engineers do. Addition of the word technology to the name of the Society is a big step toward recognizing this aspect of its work, and a great improvement, even though still likely to be misunderstood to mean only a concern with machinery, specifically with computers. Still, I like it. But I'm no engineer myself, and you might wonder what I think I've been doing all this time, other than pointing out to others that they are actually engineers. 

I think of much of my work as related to information system design in the way the study of the properties of materials, materials science, is related to traditional branches of engineering. The structural engineer designing a bridge is very interested in the strength of materials, for the aim is to build something that won't fall down. Our materials are as different as possible from steel and concrete, and they are materials our systems are meant to store and deliver, not materials the systems are literally constructed from. Still, a system's success or failure is going to depend on the properties of the materials in the system as well as on the virtuosity of the system designers. Our version of materials science has to study problems in the description of content in terms of subject matter and form and function and relevance and utility to find out what can be done easily and what can't be done easily or at all. And there is even an analogue in our field to the strength of materials that plays such a big role in older branches of engineering. One of the most important properties I'm interested in when I'm looking for arguments or evidence or proofs or persuasive cases is strength and the ability to bear a lot of weight. Weak arguments are no good, evidence full of cracks and holes is dangerous to rely on you get the idea.

Now I claim that these are properties of a lot of the materials we deal with as information scientists: arguments, descriptions, proofs, evidence, are highly interesting from the point of view of the performance capabilities of retrieval systems. Concern with these things led me to explore cognitive authority, for it turns out that we mostly have to estimate the strength of an intellectual product from what we know about the producer. Study of the properties of the materials we are interested in leads directly into social epistemology, the social study of knowledge production and use. That should not be a big surprise; the materials we deal with are intellectual products, and it can hardly be news that such things reflect their social origins.

Strength is only one of these irreducibly social properties of our materials. There are plenty of others. Take stability, for instance. We used to take the stability of textual objects for granted, but in the online world we can no longer take stability for granted; stability becomes problematic. But stability of textual objects is not the only kind of stability that makes a difference to us: conceptual stability is another, and at the top of my list of things to do next was the problem of rapid conceptual change. Conceptual change has huge consequences for those attempting to organize knowledge for retrieval and use. Conceptual frameworks get outdated, relevance relations change unpredictably, things fall apart. So conceptual instability is a major problem for the information systems designer, as it is for the practical information professionals, much of whose time may have to be spent simply keeping up with the changing shape of the intellectual environments which they feel a responsibility to monitor.

Finally, when you see that you have to study knowledge production in order to understand the products, you are almost inevitably led on to ask about the extent to which knowledge is actually embodied in textual products and to pin down the actual roles of textual objects in the immense social process of the production, distribution and utilization of knowledge or information. You become just as interested in seeing where they fail to play a role or are easily avoided as where they are useful and necessary. So for me information science and technology has been a fascinating combination of engineering, an odd kind of materials science and social epistemology. Social epistemology with a focus on textual objects and with an eye on the actual and possible roles of information systems is a productive approach to our field. There is a huge and rich supply of real problems out there still awaiting exploration, of real importance and endless fascination, and I urge others to take them on.

Patrick Wilson is professor emeritus in the School of Information Management and Systems, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720. He can be reached by e-mail at pwilson@sims.berkeley.edu

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