Monday, June 04, 2007

Reconceptualizing "information labor" as "imaginative labor"

I'm uncomfortable with the term "information labor" -- just as I'm uncomfortable with the terms "information society," "information technology," "information studies," and the like -- but I'm unsure about what to propose as a substitute. In some sense every labor process can be seen to depend on information, every physical artifact can be represented by information, every cultural communication can be reduced to information. But if information is everything then it explains nothing.

There's the term "knowledge work" of course, which implies some sort of greater value than "information labor." "Information" suggests potentially useful but unprocessed data, while "knowledge" suggests a certain intrinsic or predetermined value to that information. The troublesome concept of "truth" also seems bound up in the idea of knowledge more than in the idea of information. Perhaps "information labor" transforms the raw materials of information into knowledge? Perhaps engaging in knowledge work is a precondition to making, defending, and reconsidering truth claims in the world? But then are information workers necessarily less skilled, valued, or compensated than knowledge workers? Still unsatisfactory.

The term "creative labor" carries with it similar problems. We are told that it is to a new "creative class" of workers that we must look in order to rescue our culture, our economy, and our urban environment in an age of political-economic globalization. Can "creativity" be taught or is it an intrinsic gift? Are the products of creative work necessarily meant to contain or produce knowledge? Can't one be creative without having much access to most storehouses of information? And certainly a century of mass communication advertising has shown us that creativity and truth don't necessarily accompany one another. Shouldn't knowledge and information be expected to have a closer claim on such concepts?

Some have focused on the mental mechanics of information, knowledge, or creative work and coined terms like "symbolic analysis." Such work is assumed to be more difficult and thus more valuable than the physical labors of extractive, manufacturing, or service work. At the core of such efforts, it would seem, is the ability to understand, manipulate, and generate utterances in various languages -- spoken or written, numerical or theoretical, visual or musical. Here I'm uncomfortable with the easy split between the head and the hand -- any language seems to me to be biologically and materially rooted in the bodily and environmental history of the individual trying to communicate. But I'm also uncomfortable with the dry reduction of all aesthetic and truth claims to the movement of sign and signifier. Surely we are more than Turing machines.

So lately I've been mulling over the idea of "imaginative labor" as a useful bridge between these different concepts. Imagination requires memory, language, and mental manipulation -- each of which might be augmented by imaginative technologies of all sorts -- but it is something beyond the hundred monkeys hammering out a Shakespeare sonnet at random. Imagination requires a sense of time and space, a sense of change and play, a motivation for moving beyond the status quo (whether to a nostalgic past or a progressive future). And imagination can scale up out of our isolated dreams and diatribes, either in the communication between imaginative individuals or as the shared imaginary enacted daily and transformed over time within a cultural group.

There's something about the various demands which imagination makes upon us that attracts me here. Being willing and able to imagine the world as it is not -- as it once was, as it might be, or as it currently appears from a different point of view -- takes education and empathy and effort. Thus imaginative work seems to be a particular form of labor which is enhanced by quality information, required for productive innovation, and perhaps even essential for daily reproduction.

I think I'm going to try to imagine for a while what such a reconceptualization of "information technologies" as "imaginative technologies" might add to our understanding of our world.


erin said...

If you have time and interest, I'd be curious to know what you think of this manifesto.
Lots of talk of creation and ideation.
I respect your opinion.
Erin, a former student

Greg Downey said...

Hi Erin, thanks for the link. I downloaded and read the "creation vs. ideation" manifesto that you pointed me to. It was slickly produced but I wasn't convinced that the author had a serious argument. Debates over the merits and risks of generalization versus specialization have a long history, certainly predating the "new economy" concerns that the author deals with. The ones I'm most familiar with date from about a century ago, when politicians, reformers, artists, industrialists, academics, and even librarians were fretting about the increasing division of labor (specialization) in a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing world. A series of global depressions and wars in the first half of the century kept these debates alive and intertwined them with concerns about information technologies of all sorts. For my next book I've been reading through some of the debates concerning libraries and computers from the 1950s and 1960s, and these questions over the best way to generate knowlege in a complex, globalizing world were certainly in the air then. So I guess what I'm saying is that I agree it's a really useful topic to pursue, but at more depth than that of a marketing essay.

erin said...

I agree 100%. It lacks depth.
Thanks for looking it over. I feel validated.
I'm glad you're blogging! The content is hefty and good for shaking the webs from my brain.