Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Smart, Smart Paper

Sat in a meeting with Xerox reps this morning. We're charging toward the "paperless university." As I understand the sales pitch (which has already been accepted...we're in the planning stages), the institution will save lots of money by transforming its documents into TIFF images which can be over-layered with add-ons to replicate paper documents. That's the promise, anyway. In the meeting, I learned that I'm a database nut; information, IMHO, is most useful when it's most malleable, when it can be sorted and grouped, arranged and randomized apart from paper or a static image. I'm talking about institutional data now, lists of names and associated details, mostly. But the meeting wasn't about that. It was set up to inform Xerox about "workflow" in our department.

Postman tells us that one of the active agents in a technopoly is bureaucracy (the others are experts and technical machinery, following his taxonomy). The data-gathering form is one of the sublets of the bureaucracy; bureaucracy is, like a rubber ball (my metaphor, not Postman's), ever-redirecting between two inevitable forces in a technologized culture--information glut and efficiency models. Many advanced data management technologies are in place to assist with the problem of information retrieval, tracking, analysis and storage. But I think there's a cultural lag forming; actually, it's been long forming--most of my life, probably. Or longer. The lag, simply put, looks like a wedge between the capabilities of the technology to aid information processing in a bureaucratic system and the bureaucrats themselves, many who don't have time, inclination or interest in their appointment-littered work-lives to keep up with the technology, which is rabbitting along at a rapid pace. Enter Xerox.

The solution Xerox promises, given these conditions, is a stopgap, a way of fending off the technopolistic forces from crushing institutional functioning under the weight of too much information (too much to process, to understand, to read, to apply, and so on). It's a patch, sold on the promise of greater efficiency, but--at least today--the aim wasn't revisiting the value of the information. The stopgap appeals to the paper-loving bureaucrat who often asks for more information than is really ever needed--a kind of insurance of excess. I don't want to sound unaffectionate when I say bureaucrat. The name bears certain negative connotations, but I'm using it here as Postman does to refer to one of the active agents in a technopoly. Back to the meeting. Rather than interrogating the value of information, the focus was on ease of flow (conduction) and ease of access to old records (storage). And these are legitimate problems for the administrator whose desk is littered with papers. I spent the meeting wondering whether we'll have more critical, discerning relationships with institutional data any time soon or whether, as Postman posits, we'll continue to watch information excess encroach on our lives at the expense of cultural orientations, social interactions, rational agency in decision-making (rather than following the lead of data), and humanism. Those aren't the only two possibilities by any means. But they are patterns suggested by Postman, and, after reading about them, I'm seeing how information glut and efficiency models are reconditioning the student services side of higher ed--at one institution. After a half hour, I figured I'd take a few notes (so as to have some information of my very own). Copy was the most-used word (32 times in one hour and 15 minutes)--slightly ahead of form and file, and well ahead of information.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at February 25, 2004 10:36 PM to Slouching Toward

Interesting stuff, and -- at your recommendation -- I've added Postman to my ever-growing book pile. Some of the stuff you write here about information flow and accessibility, and its relation to social interactions, makes me think immediately of Brown and Duguid's excellent The Social Life of Information. Are you familiar with it -- and, if so, how do you think it informs Postman's argument?

Posted by: Mike at February 26, 2004 11:06 AM

I haven't read it, but I've added it to my list (reciprocation--only fair since you've taken Postman from the library, eh?). Thanks for suggesting it. Postman's Technopoly (1992) came earlier than Brown and Duguid's Social Life (2000), so it's possible that Postman informed some angle of their project, especially since bits of what became Technopoly were delivered in the form of talks, such as this one in Germany in 1990.  Searching around, I found that Brown works for none other than Xerox.

Posted by: Derek at February 26, 2004 7:31 PM