of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 27, No. 3       February/March 2001


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ConTACT or CONtext

by Homer J. Hall

What kind of a social fabric do we live in, and how can technology improve it? In a plenary lecture at the ASIST Annual Meeting in Chicago, John Seely Brown of Xerox (see preceding article) set this as a challenge for ASIST, a possible course of action.  Procedures for the transfer of information are shifting from contacts with the individual to easy contacts with the community. This gets away from the "feel of place," since we still get our best information by discussing it with others. Meanings go along with identity.

Along the same lines, Anthony Oettinger, another plenary speaker at the same meeting, said, "We live in two separate cultures which can't talk to each other, because their windows misalign."  Information technology is amazingly smaller, faster and better as applied to transaction processing, but knowledge is outrunning our ability to use it.  We are losing ground on extracting meanings from data.  

Context is important what is carried along with the text to identify the author's background, meanings of words and subjective elements of reputation.  When the original context leads to other ends, anonymity in the Web allows information entered into the system to change meanings at will. Like on election night, a deluge of changing data in a shifting context becomes uninterpretable.

One approach to identify a point of view may be to construct an open or closed community with a private language. Years ago, long before it was called a science, Gerard Fechner stated a first principle of experimental psychology as a paradox: "If you find for any thing in the world a point of view from which it looks different, then from that viewpoint, everything else in the world seems somehow a little different." Several speakers in Q and A agreed that efforts to punch in context by categories and carry it along are not much help. There are too many niche categories, and no simple formula for how to read it or use it.

Adding a subjective element to value judgments can be mysteriously effective, and values added in processing information are easily lost.  Years ago when Robert S. Taylor recognized value added as a useful approach, a precursor field study of "User Values" drew several conclusions: as a unifying principle, values to different users vary as a function of the user's point of view the user's use not by categories of users, and so for greatest value, examine the information from as many different points of view as possible.

Values added are cumulative when there is a recoverable record of where they came from. Values observed with no record can vanish like pictures in a kaleidoscope. The original context serves as a record of values added, and publish or perish may be saying the same thing.  Preserving the record needs more attention at ASIST 2001. 


Fechner, G.T. Space has four dimensions, in The Four Paradoxes of Dr. Mises, Liepzig, 1846.

    Hall, H.J. User Values in the Selection of Information Services. Exxon Research and Engineering, 1977. NSF Contract C-1027. NTIS PB 269,507.

    Homer J. Hall, a longtime leader of ASIST SIG/IAE, can be reached by e-mail at homerjhall@juno.com


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