Bulletin, April/May 2006

The I-Conference in Retrospect

by Anthony Debons and Glynn Harmon 

Anthony Debons is professor emeritus in the School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh . Email: adebons<at>mail.sis.pitt.edu 

Glynn Harmon is a professor in the School of Information, The University of Texas at Austin . Email: gharmon<at>ischool.utexas.edu 

To the present authors, the I-Conference represented a very significant event in the evolution of eclectic thinking about higher education and multidisciplinary symbiosis in the information arena. Few, if any, information-oriented conferences we attended over the last several decades came even close to hosting so effectively such a wide variety of disciplinary and professional perspectives. These perspectives included those from what have been traditionally labeled as computer science, information science, library science, telecommunications, information technology, management information systems, informatics, instructional technology, software engineering, computer engineering, archives and others. Attendees also brought forth their respective orientations from the humanities and social and natural sciences. 

In spite of such disciplinary diversity, there seemed to be an openness and sense of modesty among these variegated attendees. There were frequent expressions of realization that their various home disciplinary or professional areas have become, by themselves, no longer adequate to confront contemporary and emergent local and global information requirements. That is, it has become difficult to identify or otherwise confront the problems and complexities normally addressed separately by areas traditionally named by such labels as computing, communication, information technology or management information systems. The tone of conference discussions can accordingly be characterized as open-ended, eclectic, exploratory, non-territorial, inclusive and driven by curiosity and questioning. There was a genuine quest for common ground and identity. 

During plenary sessions, there were a number of attempts to define the key parameters of common identity among I-Schools. In their quest for historical precedents during plenary sessions, some attendees referred to Information Science: Search for Identity: Proceedings of the 1972 NATO Advanced Study Institute in Information Science (Debons, 1974). The lead author, as the organizer of this NATO conference and two others, was accordingly called on (and the co-author invited) to assess the I-Conference retrospectively, in relation to other activities held in the past with similar objectives. Obviously, such historical comparisons are tricky and often highly simplistic, given the complex of multiple precedents, tributaries, events and forces that combine to form a disciplinary or professional field. The relatively large set of areas provisionally encompassed by various I-School amalgams (such as computation, management information systems, software engineering, telecommunications and library science) makes historical analysis particularly challenging and at best partial. Obviously, the NATO Institutes and other past events are only a very small part of the provisional gestalt represented by the I-School movement. Nevertheless, a few historical comparisons and contrasts might possess some relevance to current deliberations. 

Perhaps a few “then” and “now” comparisons and contrasts are in order. First, the I-Conference that has just taken place was essentially a national ( United States ) multidisciplinary conference that sought to address a host of educational, epistemological and professional issues. The conference was funded by a number of U.S. I-Schools and was also partially funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. In contrast, the three NATO Advanced Study Institutes (Debons, 1974; Debons & Cammeron, 1975; Debons & Larson, 1983) were international, multidisciplinary institutes, supported by the Science Division of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Attendees included individuals from the United States , Britain and other NATO countries. This national/international contrast motivated the present authors to ask whether or not similar I-School movements are occurring abroad. If so, what lessons might be learned or what productive international liaisons might be established in the future?

Second, like the I-Conference, the NATO Institutes brought together participants from a broad range of disciplines: computer scientists, library scientists, psychologists, management information specialists, linguists, logicians, communication scientists, computer engineers, philosophers and others. Multidisciplinary coalitions at these NATO Institutes addressed questions that were remarkably similar to many of those addressed at the I-Conference: the fundamental nature of information; its use, processing and impact in various social, institutional and geographical contexts; the design, development and deployment of systems; the individual and social impact of information; the parameters of a science of information; the nature of information professionalism; educational curricula and problems. All in all, the questions addressed at the NATO Institutes and the I-Conference were strikingly similar and thus perhaps focused on some basic and enduring information issues. 

Third, in contrast to the I-Conference, which focused heavily on the formation of successful, multidisciplinary amalgams, the NATO Institutes were focused on forming a successful disciplinary amalgam, that of a science of information. NATO Institute senior scientists who served as lecturers tended to view information science as a newly emergent discipline. All participants attempted to formalize information science as a discipline, identify its roots and codify its foundations. In the process, they searched for an appropriate academic home for information science within such pre-established fields as library science, computer science, communications, management and philosophy. One might say that the newly hatched field needed to find proper parentage or at least a fitting academic home. By and large, information science programs in the 1960s and 1970s were absorbed or at least tacked on to pre-existing schools and departments. That is, information science needed to be subsumed under different traditional areas to survive. Academicians and professionals alike tended to view information science through the lenses of legacy disciplines or disciplinary groupings, often arguing that information science was essentially a social science, a natural science, an applied engineering field or even merely an extension of library science or documentation. The emergent area of information science tended to be identified through older lenses, rather than according to its originality or uniqueness. 

Fourth, in contrast, I-Conference attendees tended to view I-Schools as multidisciplinary hosts of one kind or another, depending on such factors as their different visionary preferences, funding, parent institutional leadership and the identification or re-identification of collective constituent requirements. Attempts were made at the I-Conference to identify appropriate disciplinary components, such as computer science, management information systems, communications, economics, library science, education and so on, and to offer these relatively mature fields a new home. The I-Schools tend clearly to subsume pre-existing fields through their provision of a relatively timely locus, one centered on information phenomena and technology. In a reversal of fortune, I-Schools are seen as playing the host (or hostess) roles by providing multidisciplinary homes for pre-existing, elderly fields, as it were. The information field is no longer viewed as a newly hatched orphan, but as a parent home providing the foundation for experiments with different disciplinary amalgams. The risk has shifted away from the prior task of getting a fledging information discipline accepted into some established home in the academy during the 1960s and 1970s to the present risk of deciding what disciplinary thrusts in I-Schools to include, which to exclude and how to do so. There appears to be as much intellectual ferment, confusion and even chaos today as there was in the old days, which indicates that closure about the ultimate nature of information or its science has not been achieved. Nor has a universal, definitive mission for I-Schools been realized. But this lack of closure, with its attendant ambiguity, can for the time be regarded as a healthy sign, given the need for provisional postures in the face of rapid socio-technical change, globalization and other forces. The major difference seen at the I-School conference was that information science did not tend to be identified so much via legacy concepts. Debates centered more on which legacy areas were relevant to the encompassing I-School framework and what role these older disciplines might play in the newer, but more flexible and provisional I-School gestalts. Here, the old tended to be revised and even redefined via new. 

Fifth, in comparison to the I-Conference, the NATO Institutes centered on the important question: What should students (albeit from all nations) of information science (however defined) be provided with to guide their careers? Not unlike the stated objectives of the I-Conference, the NATO Institutes were directed to understanding the critical issues and challenges attendant to the information explosion, shifting modes of communication, the nature of decision-making and problem solving and an increasing portfolio of applications and user demands. These important challenges persist and continue to press on today’s educational programs.

Sixth, in contrast to the I-Conference, systems theory possessed an allure of its own and played a slightly larger role in NATO Institute deliberations. Systems theory held promise as a potential integrative framework for the information sciences. As it turned out, systems theory was taught in many information science schools, but its translation into a cohesive, interrelated set of constructs that would have meaning and significance in practical applications did not prevail (Churchman, 1979). Systems theory, as thought and taught, became somewhat marginalized and ephemeral through the years and, unfortunately, has remained so to the present. This outcome is somewhat alarming when one considers the dangers that are inherent in the denial of systems thinking to operational effectiveness or intellectual prowess. A future major challenge for I-Schools appears to be to revive systems theory and to appreciate its nature and potential for theory development and testing and operational problem solving. James Grier Miller’s Living Systems (Miller, 1978 & 1995) provides a detailed account of the various properties of all systems, including their information processing subsystems. The living systems metaphor, and its counterpart metaphor of chaos, could aid the student in her/his search for a sense of system that translates to actual object systems and areas of chaotic randomness in all environments.

Seventh, in contrast to the I-Conference, the NATO Institutes were more concerned with imparting and developing metaphorical reasoning throughout the educational and professional arenas; perhaps this focus was because information phenomena were less well understood at the time and metaphorical reasoning was more necessary. Metaphors serve to shape and direct attention to specific aspects of science and society. Obviously, metaphorical reasoning can help students, researchers and professionals to guide their quests to learn, develop theory or solve operational problems (Stafer, 2005). 

Eighth, in contrast to the I-Conference, the NATO Institutes placed a relatively greater emphasis on mapping entire sets of concepts and visualizing the entities or concepts and their interrelations in a holistic fashion. The mapping metaphor served to develop what were then the rudimentary dimensions of the formative science of information. At present, conceptual mapping might be applied more extensively to formative conceptualizations of the multidisciplinary platforms that serve to guide I-School enterprise. The map, as metaphor, can serve as a perceptual marker during student attempts to discern order and purpose within various multidisciplinary forests. For example, Chaim Zins will soon be publishing a series of mappings of the information science area obtained through his extensive critical Delphi study; these mappings include a Knowledge Map of Information Science and Classification Schemes of Information Science (Zins, in press-b; Zins, in press-a). The Zins mappings provide an integrated, contemporary picture of numerous perceptions of the information field. Such mappings can be of value in negotiating the vast array of alternative conceptualizations of the information field. It might even be seen that the ubiquitous quality of information appears to call for fluid rather than fixed definitions, for dynamic rather than static conceptualizations and for the dialectic reconciliation of opposite characteristics. 

Ninth and last, the I-Conference and the NATO Institutes focused on a host of other similar themes: the need for coherent theory and the creative mobilization of approaches and insights from multiple disciplines; a quest for optimal system design, with due recognition of user contexts, constraints and behavioral propensities; a need to study creativity as a phenomenon and to apply it to the education of system designers, developers and users (Debons and Larson, 1983). 

To conclude, there were many notable comparisons and contrasts between the thrusts of the 2005 I-Conference and the three NATO Information Science Institutes held in the 1970s. But it must be emphasized that the NATO Institutes are merely one part of a much larger and more complex array of relevant historical concerns. The discipline-oriented members of numerous I-School communities possess valuable lessons to bring to their respective multidisciplinary tables, as do information-oriented members of numerous other communities. Moreover, given the rapid pace of socio-technical change, the development of sound forecasts and scenarios of the future might better serve the I-School community than their looking backwards. Perhaps the best way to predict the future is to chart it well and then make it happen. 

For Further Reading 

Churchman, C.W. (1968). The systems approach. NY: Dell Publishing Co. 

Churchman, C.W. (1971). The design of inquiring systems: Basic concepts of systems and organization. NY: Basic Books. 

Churchman, C.W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. NY: Basic Books. 

Debons, A. (1974). Information science: Search for identity. Proceedings of the 1972 NATO Advanced Study Institute in Information Science held in Seven Springs, Champion, Pennsylvania . NY: Marcel Dekker. 

Debons, A. & Cameron, W. J. (1975) Perspectives in information science: Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Study Institute on Perspectives in Information Science held in Aberystwyth, Wales . The Netherlands : Nordhooff-Leyden. 

Debons, A. & Larson, A. G. (1983). Information science in action: System design: Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Study Institute held in Crete , Greece . Vols. 1 and 2. Boston : Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. 

Harmon, G. (1971). On the evolution of information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 22(4), 235-241. 

Harmon, G. (1973). Human knowledge and memory: A systems approach. Westport , CT : Greenwood Press. 

Miller, J. G. (1978). Living systems. NY: McGraw- Hill, 1978. See 1995 reprint for useful systems charts in Preface to the paperback edition, xiii-xxv; Niwot , CO : University Press of Colorado. 

Newell, A. (1983). Reflections on the structure of an interdiscipline. In Machlup, F. & U. Mansfield (Eds.), The study of information: Interdisciplinary messages (pp. 99-110). NY: John Wiley & Sons. 

Saffer, D. (2005). The role of metaphor in interaction design. Masters thesis. The School of Design , Carnegie Mellon University . Pittsburgh , PA. 

Zins, C. (In press-a). Classification schemes of information science: 28 scholars map the field. In publication. Israel Science Foundation. 

Zins, C. (In press-b). The knowledge map of information science. In publication. Israel Science Foundation.