Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Informatics, information science, and information studies, oh my

On a lark, I decided to search for "information studies" on Wikipedia today. Now, before people interpret this as some kind of blanket endorsement (or critique) of the quality, purpose or value of Wikipedia, let me say that the reason I was curious about the Wikipedia entry for "information studies" was that I presumed that the kind of people who claim to practice "information studies" might actually be showing up as authors on Wikipedia.

But, sadly, there was no Wikipedia entry for "information studies" as of today. This intrigued me even more. I figured that maybe the field of "information studies" would be cast instead as "information science" (for all the typical contradictory reasons relating to the valuing of scientific knowledge as supposedly value-free). But the Wikipedia entry for "information science" is merely a disambiguation page which points to either "informatics" or "library and information science". So I followed up these two categories and here is what I found:


Informatics is a sub-genre[1] of information science, which is the study of information. It is often, though not exclusively, studied as a branch of computer science and information technology and is related to ontology and software engineering. Someone who practices the profession of informatics is called an informaticist, an informatician, or simply an informatics scientist.

Informatics is primarily concerned with the structure, creation, management, storage, retrieval, dissemination and transfer of information. Informatics also includes studying the application of information in organizations, on its usage and the interaction between people, organizations and information systems. Within informatics, attention has been given in recent years to human computer interaction (HCI), value sensitive design, iterative design processes and to the ways people generate, use and find information.

Informatics focuses on understanding problems from the perspective of the stakeholders involved and then applying information (and other) technology as needed. In other words, it tackles the problem first rather than technology first.

library and information science

Library and information science (LIS) is the study of issues related to libraries and the information fields. This includes academic studies regarding how library resources are used and how people interact with library systems. These studies tend to be specific to certain libraries at certain times. The organization of knowledge for efficient retrieval of relevant information is also a major research goal of LIS. Basic topics in LIS include the acquisition, cataloging, classification, and preservation of library materials. In a more present-day view, a fervent outgrowth of LIS is information architecture. LIS should not be confused with information theory, the mathematical study of the concept of information, or information science a field related to computer science and cognitive science.

Programs in LIS are interdisciplinary, overlapping with the fields of computer science, various social sciences, statistics, and systems analysis.

Finally, I found this sparse but intriguing category separate from the rest: social study of information systems

Most simply The Social Study of Information Systems is interested in people developing and using technology and the "culture" of those people.

SSIS studies these phenomena by drawing on and using "lenses" provided by social sciences, including: Philosophy, Sociology, Social Psychology, Organisational Theory, Political Science.

Of the three categories, "informatics" was by far the most eclectic, listing various subfields such as "social informatics," "community informatics," "legal informatics," "discovery informatics," and more. By contrast, the "library and information science" entry was primarily concerned with distinguishing itself from "librarianship," or "the application of library science" which "comprises the practical services rendered by librarians in their day-to-day attempts to meet the needs of library patrons."

As a member of a School of Library and Information Studies, who himself studies labor and information/communication technology, you can imagine my frustration at this point. Perhaps I should endeavor to create a subfield of "labor informatics" by staking out some space in Wikipedia. Perhaps I should author a "library and Information Studies" page and challenge the division between "informatics" and "library and information science". But I don't think that waging these boundary battles through Wikipedia would be a very productive use of my time. Yet I was intrigued enough to delve into some of the comments which lurk behind each Wikipedia article, to see if the article authors (and readers) themselves had any insight into the difficulty of conceptualizing these related areas of interest.

In the "library and information science" discussion, one reader commented, "There is no treatment of the history of library science or librarianship, nor an adequate explanation of the evolution of the discipline and its programs into modern-day Library and Information Science." Another asked, "Is there a link I missed that takes one to a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the field? I mostly see a discussion of librarianship (which is fine on its own), but perhaps this could use a bit of discussion about the various "paradigms" (if I may use that loaded word) such as the focus on systems, the cognitive focus on the individual, and the more social constructionist and/or domain analytic views?" So it seems that the current Wikipedia entry for "library and information science" is under considerable criticism already and is ripe for some enterprising LIS graduate student to revise.

The "informatics" discussion is even more interesting -- and more contested. One reader argued, "I do not agree with the equivalence of Informatics and Information Science in general. They might be used syonymously in some contexts, but in my experience they are considered different but related fields. I'm not going to make any edits to the page until I can back up my statements here with some sources to cite, but I wanted to bring this up. I am an "informatics scientist" in a global pharmaceutical company, and the group that utilizes the 'information science' skill set is separate with distinct tools, methodologies, and responsibilities." Another pointed out the rather amusing contradiction that "Currently Computer Science is listed as a sub-category of Information Science and Information Science is listed as a sub-category of Computer Science." And a third reader pointed out that perhaps what the overall field needs is a more historical/geographical analysis of its origins and meanings: "Informatics (US) / Information science (EU) evolved out of computer science, just like software engineering. Therefore subjects studied by computer scientist a decade ago, like human-computer interaction, are now studied by information scientists." This kind of "archeology" of informatics would indeed be useful, since according to Wikipedia the field itself somehow split into half a dozen different subfields. Sadly, the subfield article on "social informatics" lacks discussion entirely.

I'm still not sure what to make of all this, if anything. But a cursory glance at the mission statements of various graduate programs in "information science," "information studies," and "informatics" (all flavors) reveals little consensus on this terminology -- even though, as I mentioned in the last post, the study of "information" in social life has been going on for at least half a century now. Right now I'm trying to spec out a historical/geographical study of my own that would consider the post-Memex, pre-WWW debates over technology, labor, and libraries in the US, a story that intimately involves this struggle over the defnition of "information science" and "library science" in academic settings. I enter this research with the assumption that discursive battles like these can carry real risks and rewards, especially in the competition for scarce research funds, scarce faculty positions, or even scarce technological infrastructures. If Wikipedia is any indication -- and frankly, maybe it isn't -- that competition is far from resolved today

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Invisibility of information studies

Not only is "information labor" often invisible in society these days, but the very scholars in academia who study it are also quite often invisible. This morning, for example, I was alerted to a National Research Council project meant to assess US doctoral programs:

The National Research Council has launched its latest project to assess U.S. research doctorate programs. Like previous efforts in 1983 and 1995, the new study is designed to help universities improve the quality of these programs through benchmarking; provide potential students and the public with accessible, readily available information on doctoral programs nationwide; and enhance the nation's overall research capacity. Data will be available in late 2007.

The problem lies with the research taxonomy that the NRC is apparently going to use -- an organized set of valid fields of doctoral study which quite completely ignores both new and old areas of social science study of information and society such as "social informatics," "library science," and "information studies." The NRC taxonomy leaves only the so-called "emerging field" of "information science" under the category of "physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering." Information science is certainly not an "emerging" field -- it's been around for more than half a century -- but more than that, information science doesn't capture the related but quite distinct work that I and my colleagues do to understand the dialectical relationship between information products, processes, and philosophies throughout society as a whole.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Divisions of information labor in the fast-food industry

From today's New York Times comes an article on a new spatial, technological, wage, and task division of labor at McDonald's, which allows the fast-food giant to gain greater control over time by extending its operations across space:

Like many American teenagers, Julissa Vargas, 17, has a minimum-wage job in the fast-food industry — but hers has an unusual geographic reach.

"Would you like your Coke and orange juice medium or large?" Ms. Vargas said into her headset to an unseen woman who was ordering breakfast from a drive-through line. She did not neglect the small details —"You Must Ask for Condiments," a sign next to her computer terminal instructs — and wished the woman a wonderful day.

What made the $12.08 transaction remarkable was that the customer was not just outside Ms. Vargas's workplace here on California's central coast. She was at a McDonald's in Honolulu. And within a two-minute span Ms. Vargas had also taken orders from drive-through windows in Gulfport, Miss., and Gillette, Wyo.

Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town, 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald's outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.

The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.

The managerial efficiencies of such an arrangement don't only come from the time savings, however. There is both greater surveillance and control over empolyees and greater specialization of labor tasks:

Software tracks her productivity and speed, and every so often a red box pops up on her screen to test whether she is paying attention. She is expected to click on it within 1.75 seconds. In the break room, a computer screen lets employees know just how many minutes have elapsed since they left their workstations. [...]

Its workers are experts in the McDonald's menu; they are trained to be polite, to urge customers to add items to their order and, above all, to be fast. Each worker takes up to 95 orders an hour during peak times. Customers pulling up to the drive-through menu are connected to the computer of a call-center employee using Internet calling technology. The first thing the McDonald's customer hears is a prerecorded greeting in the voice of the employee. [...]

The call-center system allows employees to be monitored and tracked much more closely than would be possible if they were in restaurants. [The manager's] computer screen gives him constant updates as to which workers are not meeting standards.

Finally, this system also serves to reinforce and reproduce greater polarization between the language and job skills available in various local labor markets:

Often, in California in particular, he said, the employee may primarily speak Spanish, while the customer speaks only English — a problem that can be eliminated with a specialized call-center crew. "We believe we raise the customer-service bar by having people who are very articulate, have a good command of the English language, and some who are bilingual," he said.

Specialization at a centralized call center means there is no need to invest in language training -- either in English or in Spanish -- or customer-service training at local McDonald's sites. Is there also no need to worry about a literate work force at such sites? How much might the distancing of mental and manual labor through realtime information technology be pushed? What might the effects be on the already-limited employment experience that working in such a commercial organization confers on its workers?

No mention is made in the article of the other dangers of such a geographic displacement -- such as that local consumers will feel out of touch with the distant language coming out of the drive-through speakers as opposed to the face they see in the drive-up window, or that the corporation will use such technologies to move its labor force into areas of the globe with few labor protections and poverty-level wages.

I wonder, if McDonald's sets a precedent with such disembodied retail customer interaction services, which companies and industries will follow next? Telepresence at the checkout counter in the supermarket? Or at the Gap? How far is far-fetched here?