Clarifying interactions

XVII.1 January + February 2010
Page: 66
Digital Citation

TIMELINESReflections on the future of iSchools from a dean inspired by some junior faculty

Martha Pollack

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In the September + October issue of interactions, three junior faculty members at the University of Washington School of Information (iSchool)—Jacob Wobbrock, Andrew Ko, and Julie Kientz—proposed a definition for what we study in iSchools, one that, interestingly, omits the word "information." They characterized iSchools as "the place where people and technology meet." In their thought-provoking article, they also provide criteria for successful iSchools that include:

  • They must value both analysis and invention.
  • They must enable different disciplinary perspectives and methodologies to reinforce one another in research.
  • They must be places where rules and policies are minimal.

Near the end of their article, Wobbrock, Ko, and Kientz (hereafter, WKK) described these as three challenges that iSchools must meet. However, throughout earlier portions of the article the authors suggested the criteria also help define the field.

It is heartening to see junior faculty step back and consider the broader picture, and there is much in their article with which I agree. However, I would strongly argue that, in the final analysis, they have not provided a clear statement of our field's identity, and that by abandoning the idea of information as the essential focus of our study, they do a disservice to it.

Let me start with the three criteria listed here. They've got these basically right: iSchools do need to include both analyzers and builders, with multiple disciplinary backgrounds, and there must be a culture in which this range of perspectives is mutually reinforcing. Our subject matter simply demands that, because we work at the intersection of people and technology. Rigid rules and policies are at odds with such a culture. As a dean of an iSchool, I view it as one of my central responsibilities to ensure that we have just the sort of environment that WKK propose: One that values and supports intellectual diversity, balances analysis and invention, and provides appropriate incentives for people with different backgrounds to engage with one another around fundamental research questions. (And yes, one that provides needed lab space to the inventors!)

But contrary to WKK's claim, iSchools are not unique in their need for a culture with these characteristics. We are not the only place on campus that combines scientific analysis with invention. Computer science provides a good counter-example: It is squarely within Pasteur's quadrant, motivated by a desire both to understand an important phenomenon (computation) and to create better solutions to real-world problems [1]. Computer theorists study algorithms and the underlying mathematics of computation (analysis), while systems researchers develop new database mechanisms, operating systems, and network protocols (invention). Indeed, even individual researchers within the field of computer science may straddle the divide: Theorists also produce new algorithms, which may or may not lead to practical results, and systems researchers analyze things like network performance in the real world. Nor is computer science the only example of work in Pasteur's quadrant. Most biomedical research has this spirit, and it is thus no accident that the NIH frequently cites Stokes's work. These days a great deal of academic engineering research involves what would be generally considered to be basic (analytic) work, and increasingly academic science aims at developing solutions to real-world problems. (Wander over to the chemistry department and ask some of the faculty what they're working on. Almost certainly you'll find people who talk both about understanding the fundamental mechanisms behind some sort of chemical process and about developing some kind of therapeutic based on that process.)

Similarly, there are plenty of other units on campus that are multidisciplinary, spanning both social science and technology: public policy; business; science, technology and society (STS) programs; and emerging programs on sustainability, to name just a few. The iSchools may be among the most interdisciplinary—we often include not just social scientists and engineers, but also people from the humanities, from library and information science, with business degrees, and possibly even lawyers. We can and should develop effective approaches to nurturing interdisciplinary work, but we cannot claim this as a factor that uniquely identifies us.

As for rules and policies: As WKK note, a thicket of these is never a good thing. Overly complicated or rigid regulations nearly always stifle innovation and are, in my view, best avoided in any field, regardless of whether it is well established or emerging.

Thus, WKK's three criteria seem to me to be important characteristics of a good interdisciplinary program, and thus a good iSchool. These characteristics are an important part of our identity. But they by no means distinguish us; we still need a defining framework of some sort.

The simplest definition, of course, is that we study information in all its forms, and more particularly, the connection between people, information, and technology, and that we create solutions to information problems. WKK, however, reject this definition and make the surprising claim that information as a concept should not be part of our identity statement. In fact, they argue that information should not even be viewed as something separate from people and technology. They provide two types of support for this claim.

The first is sociological. WKK argue that in general people have a hard time understanding what information is, and that this makes it difficult to explain what we are about. Additionally, they claim that when those people are our academic colleagues, we risk being off-putting by claiming information as our own, since "there is no such thing as an informationless field of study."

Their second argument is epistemological. Information, they claim, is "just" an abstraction. As they put it: "It is the thing that moves within and between people and technology, making them interesting." For them this is a problem, since they believe that "most other academic disciplines—at least those claiming to be part of the sciences—have concrete objects of study in the world."

The sociological arguments are simply not valid in my experience. While it is true that neither academics nor non-academics have much experience with information as a field of study, and thus are prone to ask what an iSchool is, I have found that a fairly simple explanation suffices once you get past the initial joke—"You're the dean of information?? Wow, you must know everything." My pitch goes something like this:

"Since the advent of the Internet, there's been an explosion in the influence of information. The information revolution changed everything: the way businesses and governments work, the way we do science and provide health care, the way we educate our children and entertain ourselves. There are all kinds of important questions involved in understanding and improving the ways in which we generate, collect, analyze, store, preserve, and disseminate information in the modern world. That's what we study in the iSchool."

And often I add:

"At our school, our slogan is 'Connecting People, Information, and Technology in More Valuable Ways.'"

That nearly always does the trick, and I'm off and running in an interesting conversation about some aspect of information generation or collection or.... My dialogue partner may not know or care about how to define information, but that fact doesn't prevent her from seeing the scope and value of what we do. In this, we're no different from biologists: One can appreciate that biology is the study of life without having a clue about the nuances that define life.

What about the claim that our academic colleagues will be offended by our staking out information as our intellectual territory? Once again, I have not found this to be an issue. On the contrary, my problem is often the opposite: Once other faculty members recognize our expertise, they want to collaborate with us, because they understand that they have information-level questions about which we can provide insight.

I often have to fend off requests to find a faculty member who can work with Prof. X in discipline Y, not because the request is inappropriate, but simply because we don't have enough faculty in the School of Information to participate in every attractive collaboration opportunity.

Overly complicated or rigid regulations nearly always stifle innovation and are, in my view, best avoided in any field, regardless of whether it is well established or emerging.

Beyond that, the fact that all academic disciplines involve information doesn't mean that all academic disciplines study information qua information. Most engineering disciplines involve matter, but they don't study matter qua matter, and hence engineers don't view as a land grab the fact that physicists claim matter as their subject.

Turning to the epistemological claim, that information is too abstract to be the subject of a field of study, I would point out that law schools study law, business schools study business, schools of public policy study policy, and so on. Certainly information is no more abstract than law, business, or policy. Even amongst the sciences, it's not clear that the objects of study are concrete. Contrary to what WKK state, many people would agree with Edsger Dijkstra's famous statement that computer science is not the study of computers; instead, IT is the study of something at least as abstract as information, to wit, "computation."

None of these objections would matter if the proposed WKK definition of the iSchools were adequate. Alas, I believe that claiming that iSchools are "the places where people and technology meet" is too broad, and at the same time, not bold enough, and thus does not do us justice.

There are lots of technologies with which people interact, but not all of those interactions fall within our purview in the iSchools. Many technologies for transportation exist, but iSchool faculty would be unlikely to study the question of how railroads changed the social structure in our country, or of how automobile emissions are affecting respiratory health. The former would be a question for STS; the latter for public health schools. Similarly, ergonomics is all about the connection between technology and people, but we don't generally study ergonomics in iSchools, except when the ergonomic questions involve information technology—and then we call the subject HCI. Simply put, we are not about the interactions between people and arbitrary technology: We focus on technology that mediates information use.

Perhaps most important, if we shy away from the central use of the term "information" in carving out an identity for ourselves, we will fail to convey the enormous importance and breadth of what we do. People do understand the significance of information in the 21st century. They understand the challenges and opportunities that the information revolution has posed. They've used Google and Facebook and Netflix; they've bought things online and worried about whether they should enter their credit card into a Web interface; they've watched the music industry be transformed and the newspaper industry collapse; they've read the news story about the risks of electronic voting; they've considered alternative ways to save and share the data from their last experiment, or the photos from their last trip. The examples are endless. Undergraduates get it, our colleagues in other fields get it, and—let me put on my dean's hat—provosts get it. "It," of course, is the intellectual richness and the concomitant importance of this thing we call information, and we in the iSchools need to be proud about claiming it as the focus of our work.

back to top  References

1. Stokes, D.E. Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

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Martha E. Pollack is dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan. An elected fellow as well as the current president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, she is also on the Board of Directors of the Computing Research Association and the Advisory Committee for NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate. Pollack's research has spanned many areas of artificial intelligence, including the design of assistive technology for people with cognitive impairment, a topic on which she testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aging.

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