Posts Tagged ‘ psychology ’

The Knowing and Agency of Information Need

There is a fuzzy distinction between “information” and “knowledge” that is strongly emphasized in Wilson’s article “On User Studies and Information Needs”.  Information exists as a subcategory of knowledge; in terms of the models we’ve previously discussed—in particular, Nonaka and Cook & Brown—knowledge encompasses both the property of information and context, and the activity of interpretation (or “knowing”).  Wilson describes this in his figure for the “Universe of Knowledge” (661).  An alternative interpretation of this model would be to consider the concentric circles as “bodies of knowledge”, and the intersecting lines between “users”, “information systems”, and “information resources” as the action or practice of “knowing”.

The distinction between “information” and “knowledge” becomes fuzzy the instant you introduce agency into the equation—particularly, human agency.  As soon as we begin thinking of people accessing, transmitting, and creating information, we also have to start thinking about processes and motivation.  The concept of “information needs”, then, is epistemological; as Wilson describes it, an information need arises from a more basic “human need” that may have a physiological, affective or cognitive source, implying that a person must know something before seeking information (663).  That initial knowing or knowledge might be implicit or tacit.  You might feel hungry and, knowing implicitly that you must eat to resolve this physiological need, you might seek information about the nearest restaurant or supermarket.  How you go about doing that would be categorized as “information seeking behaviour”, and would be influenced by context—for instance, what you already know about what restaurants or supermarkets look like, what neighborhood you are in, what kind of restaurant or food you could afford and how much money you have in your purse or wallet, what information resources are most easily available to you, etc, etc.  If you have an iPhone, you might simply locate the nearest restaurant using GIS technology.  If not, you might consult a nearby map or directory, or simply look for signs of restaurants.  Or you might ask someone.  All of these represent different behaviours designed to fulfill an information need.  Once you have located a restaurant, you have fulfilled the information need required to fulfill your physiological need—hunger.  You have acquired information—namely, where to find the nearest restaurant from your starting point.  But you have also acquired a great deal of additional, potentially useful knowledge about the neighborhood, about other businesses you came across that were not restaurants, about how to find restaurants in general, and so on and on.  What you now know is not limited to the restaurant itself and the meal you are about to have, but includes every new piece of information that you came across throughout the information seeking process.  Including the process itself.  And this knowledge will be available to you the next time you have an information need.

Wilson identifies three definitions of “information” in user studies research (659):

1. Information as a physical entity (a book, a record, a document).

2. Information as a medium, or a “channel of communication” (oral and written).

3. Information as factual data (the explicit contents of a book, or record, or document).

These definitions are useful, but need to be expanded.  In his analysis, Wilson only discusses information as being transmitted orally or in writing.  There are, however, a number of alternative means for acquiring information.  Taking my previous example, you might smell cooked food before you see the marquee above a restaurant.  Or you might first notice the image of a hamburger on a sign before reading the words printed underneath.  Both of these examples—visual and olfactory information media—demonstrate that messages are transmitted in a variety of ways.  Additionally, we cannot forget the context.  If I am on a diet, I might ignore the building that smells of French fries and hamburgers.  If I am allergic to certain foods, an image of the type of fare served in a particular establishment might turn me off of it.  And it is possible that I miss these messages entirely; if I have a cold, maybe I won’t smell the hamburgers, and walk past that particular restaurant, unaware that it could satisfy my need.

Knowledge seeking can also be considered in terms of communication.  When I look at a sign, a message containing information is being transmitted to me.  Simplistically, this is the “conduit” metaphor for communication, which usually disregards or downplays the notions of context, influence and noise.  The communication process is far more complex, but conceptually the metaphor is useful for highlighting the roles of transmitter/speaker, message and receiver/listener.  Thomas, Kellogg and Erickson explore this idea in their article by suggesting the alternative “design-interpretation” model.  They argue that “getting the right knowledge to people” is only part of the equation, and that “people need to engage with it and learn it.” (865)  Thomas, et al. describe the model as follows:

The speaker uses knowledge about the context and the listener to design a communication that, when presented to and interpreted by the listener, will have some desired effect. (865)

The application of existing knowledge about the environment and the target audience by the speaker (or transmitter) is important to understand.  When I see the image of the hamburger, I can assume that the restaurant owners put some thought into presenting an appetizing, attractive product that will draw the most clientele.  If the image makes my mouth water, the message is received—and if I am then motivated to enter the restaurant, the owners achieved the desired effect.  If, however, I find the image unappealing, the message has failed; not because I don’t understand the information it contains, but because the restaurant owners failed to appropriately apply their knowledge about what potential customers want.  Perhaps they lacked the information they needed in order to do this successfully.

Cited References

Thomas, J. C., Kellog, W. A. and Erickson, T. (2001). The knowledge management puzzle: Human and social factors in knowledge management. IBM System Journal, 40(4), 863-884.

Wilson, T. D. (2006). On User Studies and Information Needs.  Journal of Documentation, 62(6), 658-670.

Forms of Knowledge, Ways of Knowing

The principle premise of Cook & Brown’s “Bridging Epistemologies” is that there are two separate yet complimentary epistemologies tied up in the concept of knowledge.  The first one of these is found in the traditional definition of knowledge, which describes knowledge as something people possess—that is, a property (in more than one sense of the word) that is.  Cook & Brown refer to this as the “epistemology of possession”, and it can be characterized as the “body” of knowledge.  The second, “epistemology of practice” hones in on the act of knowing found in individual and group activities—it is the capacity of doing.  Cook & Brown contend that the interplay between these two distinct forms is how we generate new knowledge, in a manner not unlike Nonaka’s spiral structure of knowledge creation (with one key difference, described below), which they call the “generative dance”.

Another way I conceptualized this distinction (using analogy, as Nonaka urges, to resolve contradiction and generate explicit knowledge from tacit knowledge, (21)) was to consider these two notions of “knowledge”/”knowing” from a linguistic perspective: if knowledge and knowing were distinct properties of the English sentence, knowing would be the verb and knowledge the object.  This is supported by Cook & Brown’s emphasis on how “knowledge” can be applied in practice as a tool to complete the task, and can result from the act of knowing (388); “knowing” acts upon (and through) “knowledge”, just as the verb acts upon (or through) the object.  The subject—that is, the person or people who are performing the action—is an essential element both to the formulation of knowledge/knowing and to the sentence.  The subject’s relationship to the verb and the object is very similar to the individual (or group’s) relationship to knowing and knowledge.  The verb represents enaction by the subject—as knowing does—and the object represents that which is employed, derived or otherwise affected by this enaction—as knowledge is.  Cook & Brown’s principle of “productive inquiry” and the interaction between knowledge and knowing, then, can be represented by the structure of the sentence.

Cook & Brown’s premise has many important implications for knowledge management.  Perhaps the most important of these is the idea that knowledge is abstract, static and required for action (that is, “knowing”) in whatever form it takes, while knowing is dynamic, concrete and related to forms of knowledge.  Of these characteristics, the most dramatic must be the static nature of knowledge; in what is Cook & Brown’s most significant break with Nonaka, they state that knowledge does not change or transform.  The only way for new knowledge to be created from old knowledge is for it to be applied in practice (i.e. “productive inquiry”).  Nonaka perceives knowledge as something malleable, that can transform from tacit to explicit and back again, while Cook & Brown unequivocally state that knowledge of one form remains in that form (382, 387, 393, 394-95).  For Cook & Brown, each form of knowledge (explicit, tacit, individual and group) performs a unique function (382).  The appropriate application of one form of knowledge in the practice (the act of knowing) can, however, give rise to knowledge in another (393).

I found Blair’s article “Knowledge Management: Hype, Hope or Help?” useful as a supplement to Cook & Brown.  Blair makes several insightful points about knowledge and knowledge management, such as the application of Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning as use in defining “knowledge”, identifying abilities, skills, experience and expertise as the human aspect of knowledge, and raising the problem of intellectual property in KM practice.  Blair’s most valuable contribution, however, is to emphasize the distinction between the two types of tacit knowledge.  This is a point Cook & Brown (and Nonaka) fail to make in their theory-sweeping models.  It is also a point I have struggled with in my readings of Cook & Brown and Nonaka.  Tacit knowledge can be either potentially expressible or not expressible (Blair, 1025).  An example of tacit knowledge that is “potentially expressible” would be heuristics—the “trial-and-error” lessons learned by experts.  Certainly in my own experience, this has been a form of tacit knowledge that can be gleaned in speaking with experts and formally expressed to educate novices (generating “explicit knowledge” through the use of “tacit knowledge”).  An example of inexpressible tacit knowledge would be the “feel” of the flute at different levels of its construction described in Cook & Brown’s example of the flutemakers’ study (395-96); this is knowledge that can only be acquired with experience, and no amount of discussion with experts, of metaphor and analogy, will yield a sufficient understanding of what it entails.  It is an essential distinction to make, since as knowledge workers we must be able to determine how knowledge is and should be expressed.


Cited References

Blair, D. (2002). Knowledge management: Hype, hope, or help? Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 53(12), 1019-1028.

Cook, S. D. N., and Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing, Organization Science 10(4), 381-400.

Nonaka, I. (1994). A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Knowledge Creation. Organization Science 5(1), 5-37.

Bloom’s Cult of the Bard

This is a response to a reading for HUCO617: Posthumanism– The introduction and first chapter of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

We were asked to read this selection while paying careful attention to how Bloom sets up Shakespeare as the origin of what we today call “humanism”, and to wonder, “What if Shakespeare never existed?  What if Bloom made him up?”

To start with, Bloom’s Shakespeare makes me think of the reverence and divine elevation of the title character in A Canticle for Leibowitz.  In the first part of Walter Miller Jr.’s novel, a novice monk uncovers some cryptic documents apparently written by the founder of his order, Leibowitz.   Over the centuries Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, becomes a symbol for the preservation of knowledge.  Shakespeare and his works are also a symbol: for Bloom, he is a symbol of what it means to be human, and Bloom proselytizes about how significant his existence was in the promotion of that ideal.

If Shakespeare never existed, Bloom implies, our understanding of who we are as human beings– humanism, more generally– would be completely different, unfathomable.  I suggest that Shakespeare makes a convenient symbol for Bloom, just as Leibowitz was convenient for the Albertian Order in Miller’s novel… but if he had never existed there would have been someone else to take his place.

Bloom’s mistake is to present Shakespeare as existing in a virtual vacuum; he talks about influences on Shakespeare’s writing only in the context of how Shakespeare imitated existing forms, such as Ovid, to showcase his originality.  Bloom grudgingly admits Chaucer affected Shakespeare’s work (“He took hints from Chaucer…”), but Chaucer– who preceded Shakespeare by two centuries– began exploring the human condition in his Canterbury Tales in such a sophisticated way that it is still critically read for that reason today.  Shakespeare may crystallize several centuries of literary tradition and Renaissance thought in his plays, acting as a lodestone for generations of literary criticism, but he is hardly responsible for inventing humanism as a founding principle of western philosophy.  I’d contend the fact that Shakespeare so effectively summarized the prevailing philosophical bent of the European Renaissance has made it too easy for centuries of critics like Bloom to invoke his work as the culmination of western literary tradition.  Arguably, this position has stunted the growth of literary criticism, paying poor tribute to the many good creative works that have been written since, and we are only now beginning to grasp other approaches to criticism.

Another thought (and I have to say, I had many I’m leaving unmentioned in reading Bloom’s text): Bloom quotes T.S. Eliot in saying, “…all we can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.  I propose only that we cease to be wrong about him by stopping trying to be right.”  This is a truism that should apply to all sufficiently sophisticated creative works, “literature”, not just Shakespeare.  The more closely you examine an object, and the more eyes you have examining it, the more it reveals.  We have had four hundred years to examine Shakespeare’s corpus– imagine what we could get out of four hundred years of interpretations of Joyce’s Ulysses?

Mission Statements: Workshopping the Proposal

While my study on mission statement dissemination is on hold, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about it by any means.  I’m currently workshopping a research proposal for the study in two separate courses this term, and by the end of April I’m hoping to have a really fleshed-out plan of how to proceed.  Here are some of the documents that I’ve written and that are helping me shape this project.


Fall 2009, SSHRC Application: Program of Study

Winter 2010, HUCO530, Thesis Question

Winter 2010, LIS505, Research Proposal pt1 – Problem and Definitions

Designing Visual Differentiators

On Friday, November 20, as a guest of Humanities Computing colloquia, Sandra Gabriele (professor of Design, York University) presented “Visualization Differentiation in Look-alike Medication Names: Evaluating Design in Context”.

The problem that inspired Gabriele’s study is a troubling one: 7.5 % of patients admitted for acute care experience one or more adverse events; 24% of these are drug-related.  Meaning that, all too often, the wrong medication is administered to patients.  Why?

Gabriele identified two sources for design errors in hospital drug-selection:

  • orthographic similarities of drug names
  • phonetic similarities of drug names

Drug names come in two varieties: the generic name (or type), and the brand name (or unique name).  Gabriele showed us examples of how medication is stored in hospital pharmacies, presenting pictures of uniform bins of drugs organized alphabetically by name, usually regardless of its intended purpose.  One bin contained similarly named blood pressure medications, one for high blood pressure, one for low blood pressure, their names orthographically similar and the labels uniform as well; as a layperson, certainly, I would have been unable to tell the difference at a glance.

Gabriele’s project was to find better ways of designing drug labels for hospital pharmacies.  What was most interesting to me was the framework she chose in approaching this problem, asking what was required in effective drug-labelling:

1. Attention: that is, what makes the label distinctive.  Some of the designs she used in user tests were changing the colour and weight of the text, or using white text on solid black.  User tests showed drug names that were printed as white text on solid black made for the most attention-getting label.

2. Perception: or, legibility issues (cutting down the possibility of confusing orthographically similar drug names), establishing a visible hierarchy of data included on the label, and visual cueing (“chunking”, typographic styles, spatial cues, and mark cues).  Gabriele proposed to change the font, so that there was a clearer distinction between upper and lowercase letters, and cleaner font weight.  Interestingly enough, users in her test group responded negatively to this change; most drug labels use a Tallman font (which does pose legibility issues like those mentioned), and it seemed that the users (all hospital nurses) were conditioned to using it, when a layperson would have had more difficulty determining minor differences in names.  There seems to be some debate over the use of Tallman; a 2006 study in Glasgow indicated that Tallman was actually more effective in reducing name-related errors when selecting drugs (Filik et al.).

3. Understanding: Making sure a user can identify and understand all the data available on the label at a glance.  Gabriele’s presentation did not delve too deeply into this part of her study, but I would have found this probably the most interesting step in her research. How do users make sense of the labels?  Does the reorganization and stratification of data (in the “perception” stage) make a positive difference for comprehension with the trained professional?  It seems like, while errors do sometimes occur, changing labels that would avoid errors for a layperson might in fact cause more errors for someone trained to use the current labels in place.

Works cited

Filik, R., Purdy, K., Gale, A., and Gerrett, D. (2006).  “Labeling of Medicines and Patient Safety: Evaluating Methods of Reducing Drug Name Confusion.” Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 48. pp. 39-47.

Asimov: Robot Dreams

UPDATE: Mandala screenshots (below)

I’ve begun encoding “Robot Dreams”, a short story about a robot named Elvex (LVX-1) whose positronic brain has been uniquely imprinted with fractal patterns, and as a result has learned how to dream.  This text also features Susan Calvin, the mother of robot psychology in the continuity of most of Asimov’s robot stories.  In my encoding of this text, I’ve run into several challenges:

  • I’m finding “otherness” more difficult to determine than I’d expected.  This story in particular is challenging, because Elvex has become more “human-like” due to the unique architecture of his brain– a fact that appalls his creator and Susan Calvin.  The more Elvex describes his dreams, appearing increasingly “human”, the more the human characters try to distance themselves from him and emphasize his robotic characteristics.  In this situation, there is a definite tension between “other” and “same”; I can’t ignore that tension by making that attribute “null”, but how can I determine otherness in such an ambivalent circumstance?  …One solution is to look at the source’s motivation.  Is the source saying/doing something to create distance between human and robot, or to draw them closer together?  This raises a new challenge:
  • Can a reference then have multiple sources?  Can multiple sources have different motivations, and thus represent different levels on “otherness”?  If the answer is yes, how do I encode this?  …The answer I’ve come up with is to nest my pr_ref tags.  It’s still too early to tell if this is an effective strategy, but I’m trialing it.
  • How do I define my type attributes when it seems that the reference is fulfilling more than one of the possible types?  (e.g. in “Robot Dreams”  Susan Calvin interviews Elvex in her characteristically cold, clinical way.  Most of her questions/statements directed at Elvex can be construed both as “interactive”– since she is “interacting” with the robot– and “descriptive”– since she is describing the robot.)  One possible answer is to look at the possibility of multiple sources again.  The other is to identify a hierarchy of types: emotion trumps interaction trumps description, since all references “describe” something, but not all references “describe” an interaction, and not all interactions are emotional.  Without clearly setting this rule out, I think this is a strategy I followed when encoding “Someday”.  When there is a clearly a situation of multiple sources looking at motivation can again be valuable, and using nested tagging seems the natural answer.

I chose “Robot Dreams” because it has several elements that I felt needed to be explored in my analysis of Asimov’s robot stories.  First of all, whereas in “Someday” the two human characters were male children, in “Robot Dreams” the two human characters are female adults.  I wanted to see if gender and age played a factor (note: my tweaked encoding currently doesn’t catalog age as a factor– if it looks like this might be valuable information to mine, I may add it in future iterations).  Secondly it included Susan Calvin.  Although I have not, as yet, developed an element structure to analyze principal human characters, it has always been my intention for Calvin to be my first attempt.  Not only is her name synonymous with Asimov’s robot stories as a recurring character, but she plays a unique role in them as a foil for the various robots she psycho-analyzes; it would be a valuable exercise to compare the relationship references to her with those of the principle robot characters in the same stories.  Is Susan Calvin characterized as more robot (“other”) or more human?  In comparison, are the robot characters more or less human? Does she elicit more of an emotional response from the figures that interact with her?  An examination of reference sources in this analysis is useful too: does she express emotion more or less than the average robot?

Finally, the problem of “otherness” is central to this text.  I feel that the tension between being “too human” and “too different” is one that makes Asimov’s work so universally engaging, and has not been explored to its fullest.  My XML encoding can– hopefully– reveal exactly how that tension is expressed through the relationships in the text.


I have completed a first encoding of the principal robot references in “Robot Dreams”.  Here are screenshots of Mandala evaluating “otherness” from the perspective of the three characters: Elvex (principal robot), Susan (principal human), and Linda (secondary human).  Click on the thumbnails below to view the images in full size.

Asimov Update: Gender and Otherness

I’ve been working on my encoding of Asimov’s robot stories, and reworked the pr_ref tag to include attributes for the source gender and “otherness”, as well as generalized the source attribute values (phuman, shuman, probot, srobot, nvoice) so it can be used when analyzing a corpus of different texts.

My encoding can now examine the relation to gender of human-robot interactions in the text (i.e. do more female characters respond emotionally to the robots than male characters?  Do male characters physically interact with the robots more? etc.)

I can also track which references demonstrate a portrayal of the robot as “other”, and which references portray the robot as “same” in relation to the source factions in the text.  This otherness/sameness dichotomy is by no means a perfect science, but given a careful reading most references in the text usually imply one or the other.   (Not unlike determining the difference between an emotive and an interactive reference, determining “otherness” relies on interpretation.)

As well, I have made it possible for the principal robot character to reference itself.  This is important in a text like “Someday”, where the robot “the Bard” tells a story about itself.

Click on the screenshot below to see an example of how I’m using the Mandala browser to visualize these features.

Mandala Browser

The Bard's robot references and their "otherness"