Tuesday, 10 January 2017

DTMD 2017: Information, Narrative and Rhetoric: Exploring Meaning in a Digitalised Society

The DTMD Research Group has launched the Call for Papers. It always irritates me when people say 'we are excited about...' and then go in to talk about some tedious, mundane or even negative development, but this is different: I really am excited about DTMD 2017!

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The sixth Difference that Makes a Difference conference, DTMD 2017, will form part of the IS4SI 2017: Digitalisation for a Sustainable Society summit, which will take place 12-16 June 2017 in Gothenburg, Sweden, on the theme of:

Information, narrative and rhetoric: exploring meaning in a digitalised society

Meaning is embedded within, and defined by, stories. This workshop will explore the use of the language of information in the stories of the digitalised society in order to enhance understanding, both of society and of information.

In our increasingly digitalised society, certain narratives have emerged depicting possible futures of an information society. ‘Smart cities’, ‘big data’ and ‘the internet of things’ constitute perhaps the most obvious examples of such stories, offering somewhat utopian views of a society enhanced through their application. On the other hand digital technologies such as websites and social media are implicated in the spread of fake news and the rise of post-truth politics. Discussions of these developments engage with information and a shared, tacit understanding of its nature in order to generate meaning, rhetoric and the narratives themselves; reflexively, there is also a need to consider the role of rhetoric and narrative in the shift to a digitalised or informational conception of society. The exploration of information and its use, and their intersection with rhetorical considerations gives rise to alternative viewpoints and prompts a range of questions, thereby providing the basis for a valuable critique of emerging ideas and narratives.

In this workshop, the Difference that Makes a Difference (DTMD) group will continue its interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary exploration at the intersection of information and other phenomena by exploring its relationship to narrative and rhetoric. These conversations between – and across – disciplines encourage new perspectives and foster insight into the meanings and values we apply to our lives and way of living.


The workshop will address the following questions (among others):
  • How is information represented/embodied through stories and narratives?
  • In what way do the structures (e.g. shape and grammars) of stories create information in themselves?
  • Is it necessary to have both rhetoric and narrative to create stories? Can narrative-free or rhetoric-free stories exist? For example, can a bitstream or a DNA sequence be considered a story, or do mathematical equations form narratives in themselves?
  • What are the processes by which narratives are formed? How are meta-narratives formed, and what is their reflexive relationship with the information that the narrative shapes and is shaped by?
  • Are there circumstances when the forming of a narrative leads to the destruction or ignoring of information? Likewise, are there circumstances when the destruction of a narrative leads to the creation of information?
  • How do narratives become hegemonic on particular topics, for example, in political discourse? Who has the power to create and shape these hegemonic narratives?
  • What does the relationship between information and narrative say about the rise of post-truth politics?
  • What is the relationship between levels of abstraction (in Floridi’s sense) or levels of communication (in the sense of the ISO 7-layer model) and narratives?
  • Which narratives, particularly in public discourse, are generated in ways that (deliberately or tacitly) exclude information from discussion rather than adding to it?
  • How can we identify and investigate the narratives around digitalised societies, and critique the assumptions behind those narratives?

Keynote speaker


The conference will be opened by our keynote speaker, Ken MacLeod. Ken is a celebrated science fiction writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has written many novels which look in various ways at the relationship, both utopian and dystopian, between technology and society. He has been described as “one of the most consistently interesting authors we have in contemporary science fiction”. He has been a writer in residence at the Genomics Forum and the Creative Writing MA course at Edinburgh Napier University.

Important dates and submissions


Submissions should be made via the IS4SI summit website: http://is4si-2017.org/submissions/ 
  • 8/1/2017: Call for papers launched
  • 1/3/2017 Submission deadline for extended abstracts following the Instructions for Authors
  • 1/4/2017 Acceptance notifications
  • 15/4/2017 Program & Proceedings with extended abstracts prepared
  • 30/4/2017 Conference Program on the web page http://is4si-2017.org/program/
  • 12/6/2017-16/6/2017 Summit

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Information is provisional - sinking of the Titanic

For an example of the provisionality* of information I've previously used the case of Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour de France wins.

*In, for example, the talk at DTMD 2013 (see 'Information is Provisional' in the Abstracts Booklet - it looks like I didn't mention it in the follow-up paper).

This might turn out to be a more interesting example:
The sinking of the RMS Titanic may have been caused by an enormous fire on board, not by hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic, experts have claimed, as new evidence has been published to support the theory. [...]

Journalist Senan Molony, who has spent more than 30 years researching the sinking of the Titanic... said: “The official Titanic inquiry branded [the sinking] as an act of God. This isn’t a simple story of colliding with an iceberg and sinking.

“It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice and criminal negligence.

“Nobody has investigated these marks before. It totally changes the narrative. We have metallurgy experts telling us that when you get that level of temperature against steel it makes it brittle, and reduces its strength by up to 75 per cent.

“The fire was known about, but it was played down. She should never have been put to sea.”

Titanic sank due to enormous uncontrollable fire, not iceberg, claim experts. Rachael Pells, The Independent, 3/1/2017
I share some of the skepticism of some of the below-the-line comments under this article, but there is no doubt that, even without the fire, the story of the Titanic is an interesting case study of history and narrative.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Information cannot be stored or communicated

Or rather, it is not information but data that is stored and communicated*.

Data are differences that have been given meaning (remember that data needs information).

Information is the trapezium at the end of the communication in which the meaning is extracted from the data. Or, better, the trapezium uses the data to create an information entity in a narrative.

So, what is on the SD on my phone is data, but data which someone/something somewhere imbued with meaning and which I intent to use as information. So I may reasonably talk about it as though it were information, but it is not actually information.

In working towards a unified narrative/theory of information, this distinction is important. You only get information where it is interpreted. Information is relative, in the sense that you only have information for something/someone - for a narrative. 

*Storage, BTW, is communication in time rather than space. Communication takes time, so communication in space is also communication in time. Unless we stay exactly at the same place, which is probably impossible, storage also involves communication in space. So there's only one sort of communication which is communication in space-time.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Post-truth politics; information and narrative

Post-truth has been named as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. In terms of the narrative-information model, post-truth politics is when politicians who are presenting a particular narrative move beyond being highly selective in their choice of information to creating information which has no underlying data.

So narrative connects information, and information is constructed from a trapezium which, for convenience, is described here as converting an item of data (a difference) into an item of information (which makes a difference in the narrative). The trapezium is part of the narrative, so the process of converting data to information is also dependent upon the narrative. In politics, there is a pretence that, for a given purpose, if you have all the true data there is only one narrative: the true narrative. I say pretence because I doubt that anyone really believes it as baldly as that. However, this is how politicians' arguments line up: we want to achieve this (the purpose); the world is like this (the narrative built on the information) therefore there are no alternative: we need to do this.

If the information is true, the narrative is correct, so the argument proceeds. Post-truth politics doesn't bother with the truth of the information. It presents the narrative and creates the information needed to support it. Those opposed to the narrative cry foul! "You can't just make the information up: it has to be true." Well, there is a problem with requiring information to be true because information is always provisional, but even ignoring that, restricting narratives to those based on 'true' information doesn't get you very far.

The trouble is that there are almost limitless possibilities to choose from for the data, so, even if there is one true narrative to match the chosen data, there are endless narratives that may legitimately be constructed based on which choices are made. Given that situation, how can we chose one narrative over another? How we, as individuals, make the choice, is based on our prior beliefs: our prejudices, our past experiences, the community we share (our 'bubble', to use another current word). Beyond that is the question of what determines which narratives 'win out'. This is about recognising the hegemonic narratives and understanding where their hegemony comes from. The owners of the hegemonic narrative will defend their narrative by pointing to perceived flaws in competing narratives and either denying the data used in competing narratives or ignoring it and insisting on the superiority of the data they have chosen to their narratives. When competing narratives are being judged, much of the time the choice is based on which data you agree to recognise, rather than disputing the truth of the data.

So, looking back to the now-notorious EU leave campaign claim that "We send the EU £350 million a week. Let's find our NHS instead", putting it on the side of bus generated masses of publicity and, evidently, contributed to swaying enough of the voters to win the referendum. Most of the voters were not, realistically, in a position to make an informed assessment of the truth of that claim, or indeed most of the other claims on either side of the campaigns.

As argued in that previous post, the £350 million claim was sort-of true. The problem was that it was (IMHO - which is to say in my narrative!) wildly misleading, because: a) the information that it was converted to by the leave narrative was, questionable and b) choosing different data would support a very different narrative.

The truth or otherwise of the data, while important, is actually quite a small part of winning an argument. (Compare E.H.Carr's statement "To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function".) What matters is the narrative, and the politician's ability to present the narrative.

Mainstream opinion pronounces itself shocked by post-truth politics and takes the moral high-ground, despising both those who present narratives built on falsehoods and those who believe them. But the real problem is the failure of alternative narratives. I referred to 'mainstream opinion' there, and that is part of the problem. Many people are rejecting the narratives of mainstream opinion because they feel let down, and they have been. And of course the concept of 'post-truth politics' is itself information created in a narrative of the mainstream opinion in order to discredit alternative narratives.

This post seems to be leading me towards sympathy for Donald Trump (as the most obvious  practitioner of post-truth politics). That is not what was intended, but sometimes narratives take you where they take you. (If you are an academic, anyway. A politician wouldn't let that happen.) And anyway none of this justifies the content of Donald Trump's politics, nor is it a defence of post-truth anything-at-all. What it is arguing is encapsulated very succinctly by something George Monbiot has said:
Those who tell the stories run the world. Politics has failed through a lack of competing narratives.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Facts and historians. E. H. Carr's 'What is history?'

Prompted by "Those with a little postmodern learning often opine that history can never be objective; it always tells a story" in an earlier post, I did a bit of searching for history and postmodernism, but actually I've come back to a book that predates postmodernism. I read it many years ago and (I now realise), it has been formative for me, not just in reference to historical facts, but to facts - information - in general.  This is E. H. Carr's "What is history?", and there's so much good stuff in there I'd like to quote, but this will do for now. (My emphasis in bold.)
What is a historical fact? This is a crucial question into which we must look a little more closely. According to the common-sense view, there are certain basic facts which are the same for all historians and which form, so to speak, the backbone of history - the fact, for example, that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. But this view calls for two observations. In the first place, it is not with facts like these that the historian is primarily concerned. It is no doubt important to know that the great battle was fought in 1066 and not in 1065 or 1067, and that it was fought at Hastings and not at Eastbourne or Brighton. The historian must not get these things wrong. But when points of this kind are raised, I am reminded of Housman's remark that 'accuracy is a duty, not a virtue" [1]. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function. It is precisely for matters of this kind that the historian is entitled to rely on what have been called the ‘auxiliary sciences' of history - archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology, and so forth. The historian is not required to have the special skills which enable the expert to determine the origin and period of a fragment of pottery or marble, to decipher an obscure inscription, or to make the elaborate astronomical calculations necessary to establish a precise date. These so-called basic facts, which are the same for all historians, commonly belong to the category of the raw materials of the historian rather than of history itself. The second observation is that the necessity to establish these basic facts rests not on any quality in the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision of the historian. In spite of C. P. Scott's motto, every journalist knows today that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context. It was, I think, one of Pirandello's characters who said that a fact is like a sack - it won't stand up till you've put something in it. The only reason why we are interested to know that the battle was fought at Hastings in 1066 is that historians regard it as a major historical event. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar's crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all. The fact that you arrived in this building half an hour ago on foot, or on a bicycle, or in a car, is just as much a fact about the past as the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But it will probably be ignored by historians. Professor Talcott Parsons once called science "a selective system of cognitive orientations to reality' [2]. It might perhaps have been put more simply. But history is, among other things, that. The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.

1 M. Manilii Astronomicon: Liber Primus (2nd e., 1937), p. 87.
2 T. Parsons and E. Shils, Towards a General Theory of Action (3rd ed., 1954), p. 167.

E.H.Carr: What is history?  2nd Ed. 1987 (1st Ed. 1961). Penguin 1990 printing, pp10-12
(Those male pronouns "...it is he who decides..." really jar these days. The chapter is entitled "The Historian and His Facts". But this is from 1961 so not all that surprising.)

My little bit of searching on postmodernism turned up two views: 1: that Carr laid the foundation for postmodern thinking about history; and 2: that Carr did no such thing. Well, that's how things work in academia, isn't it!

But, with reference to "Those with a little postmodern learning often opine that history can never be objective; it always tells a story" it is pretty clear to me that that idea is already there in Carr's writing - you don't need to appeal to postmodernism for the idea that history can never be objective and always tells a story.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The nature of 'narrative' in international development.

Some interesting material on narrative on the website of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).  Eg, Simply telling a good story by Liz Carlile (2106), director of communications at IIED and What’s in a narrative? by Mike Shanahan (2012).

A couple of extracts from the latter:
A scholar called Emery Roe developed the concept of development policy narratives in 1991, ...

According to Roe, such narratives are strategic simplifications that help policymaking in the face of situations whose complexity can instil policy paralysis. They generate consensus around major policies and make political action possible.

As simplifications, narratives are fundamentally different from scientific theories. Science, like narratives, needs to spread to become accepted, but science operates within a formal system that validates its findings, through publication of evidence, peer-review and replication.

"Scientific facts are falsifiable," said Jeremy Swift. "Narratives are not. They escape the checks and balances of science."

Narratives need the support of scientific authority but at the same time need to avoid the complexity and conditional nature of scientific knowledge and this is why they exist. As Kr├Ątli pointed out: “scientific knowledge could never be as convincing as a good narrative.”

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Facts, information and alternative narratives

I've got a bit obsessed with seeing alternative narratives all over the place at the moment.  Here's a few.

1 Brexit. These thoughts were prompted by a comment by colleague Magnus Ramage a while back - about a blog post (or contribution for The Conversation) that he thought of writing but didn't get around to [edit: he has now written a post for his blog]. During the run up to the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU, he'd seen someone calling for more information to help decide which way to vote, and he was reflecting on the relative roles of narratives and information in the debates. I'm not sure what Magnus would have said (I'm sure it would have been far more academically rigorous that what I'm saying here!), but my argument is that the bigger problem was the narratives.

Famously, the 'leave' campaign made a lot out of this: "We send the EU £350 million a week. Let's find our NHS instead." Even putting in on the side of their campaign bus.


Sending the EU £350 million a week sounds like a simple fact - information - and indeed it is.  The remain campaign could not say "We do not send the EU £350 million a week" because we do.  But immediately beyond that, the next sentence on the side of the bus ("Let's fund our NHS instead") is narrative which may be disputed. Yes, it might theoretically be possible to spend the £350 million a week on the NHS instead of sending it the EU if we left the EU, but in reality there was never any chance that would happen. The former leave campaigners now acknowledge this - now that they have won the referendum. They have changed their narrative.  A narrative as to why we would not have £350 million a week more to spend on the NHS was very eloquently put by an episode of the radio programme 'More or Less', which you can listen to: "The Cost of EU Membership". So I'll not repeat the arguments (narrative) here, but in essence we would only have the £350 million to spend on the NHS if we didn't replace the current EU funding of, for example, Welsh farmers, with our own funding. (And there's the really bizarre bit about the EU having to continue to give as the 'rebate', even after we were not paying the money to be rebated, if we were to have an extra  £350 million.)

And yet, for enough of the population, the narrative which presented a scenario in which we had an extra 350 million a week to spend on the NHS won the day. We voted to leave. Of course it wasn't just that: there were plenty of other aspects to the narrative and other information information, but my point is that the referendum was decided on force of narratives.  Why the 'leave' narratives held sway is very complicated, but I don't think it had much to do with how much information was available.

2 Halal meat. At various times I've been asked to sign petitions calling for a ban on Halal slaughter, on the grounds of preventing animal cruelty (eg, this one on change.org). Let's assume, for the sake of the argument, that Halal slaughter is more cruel than non-Halal (though even this is disputed). Although I feel very strongly about animal cruelty, I've not signed these petitions, because I think that factory farming is much bigger animal welfare issue than Halal.

So there are two pieces of information:

1 Halal Slaughter is cruel 
2 Factory farming is cruel.

One narrative, which asks me to sign the petition, presents #1 and ignores - or downplays - #2, while I'm arguing the other way around. (I'm not vegetarian but I avoid factory-farmed meat, having a low-meat diet and sticking to vegetarian food if I can't get free-range meat.)

But why should that stop me signing the petition anyway? The problem is what else the anti-halal narrative entails, which tends to be aligned with either right-wing Islamaphobia (so, for example, the right-wing, Trump-supporting, Breithart news supports it) or new atheists such as Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins. I'm not saying I automatically oppose anything supported by the new atheists (or even Breithart news, for that matter), but it does lead you to wonder whether the narrative is really about animal welfare or opposition to religion. I mention Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins because they were praising Denmark for banning halal, yet Denmark has a terrible record on factory farming.

Two other issues that I've thought about in terms of narrative but won't spend time writing about now, are: 3 Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Leadership and, onto more serious issues... 4 Should the manager of MK Dons, Karl Robinson, be sacked? (No!)

Discussion.  I was chatting with a reader of this blog (there are some!) last week, and she referred to a conversation that she'd had about an issue with two competing stories. Her interlocutor had said 'what we need is more information'.  That is based on a positivist paradigm where the information/data is 'out there' waiting to be found, and that there is a 'best' (some would even argue, a 'correct') narrative to fit the information/data.

My argument here is that 'more information' does not in general help, because the narrative chooses or creates the information to fit the story.  But still, not all narratives are equal.

My narrative itself needs more work!