Object against Objectivity!

Abstract: In this article, Ben Mettes, Quintessence's Managing Director does a comparative analysis of three views on the Information Society that at first glance seem to oppose each other. Ben concludes that none of the positions taken in these views implies that any of the other ones is wrong.

A. What is Objectivity?

Objectivity is often presented as a virtue. Especially among doctors, journalists, scientists, police officers, lawyers and similar professions, the so-called "facts" are what counts, they talk as if the "truth" prefers to reveal itself to those with an "objective" view. Such people claim to be independent of political and other bias. Such people tend to claim that it is their background that gives them this special objective insight, as if objectivity has to be learned by means of some form of higher education and specific work experience. They take the attitude that it is hard for anyone not similarly "qualified" to recognise the truth, especially so when their privileges are in question.

But how virtuous is this objectivity? Is it desirable to be objective, is it possible at all to be objective in the first place?

My view is that claiming objectivity is just an attitude that it is closely linked to privilege. Objectivity does not require years of training; instead, it seems that it is mainly the prospect of power and a high salary that makes people play this game. Objectivity is an instrument of the establishment, of those in power, of privileged professionals who think they are better than common people, of hypocrites who talk about objectivity as if this could justify their privileged position.

B. What is Information?

Don Paragon has said a number of times that two things cannot be exactly the same, i.e. identical. For Don this implies that it is nonsense to say that the information sent by someone is identical to the information received by someone else. And I agree with Don that the view that "information is identical in two places or at two different points in time", cannot be maintained as an objective and absolute statement.

But my agreement with Don results from my rejection of objectivity. After all, I said the following in the early 1980s in the paper I wrote to complete my study in Communications at the University of Nijmegen: information is anything that can be at more than one place and communication is the process of making information at different points identical. In that context, different points was interpreted as different points in time, as well as different places.

This clearly was a controversial definition; some argued that such a definition of communications leaves out the human aspects - the interpretation of information. But I replied that my statement only referred to a narrow set of circumstances, i.e. what happens to information within the boundaries of computer-networks, the bits and bytes. I admittedly wanted to focus on network topology and associated regulation.

C. Where the Media differ

At that time, I merely used that definition of communication in reference to what happens within the world of digital information. I only used the model to make it easier to understand that the regulations applying to the media did not make sense from a technological point of view. One string of bits can be identical to another one, as long as they are only looked at as bits. At that time, the law treated each of the media differently; cinema, broadcasting, telephony, newspapers, etc, they each operated in separate legal frameworks. I used the example of sending digital information over a broadband network, to explain why it is hard to make such distinctions.

I described how, traditionally, each of the media was a distinct entity with its own infrastructure and separate regulatory regime. The press invoked images of newspaper journalists with photocameras and pocket notebooks; a reel of celluloid film symbolized cinema; transmission towers, radios and TV-sets represented broadcasting; huge machines with magnetic tape reels on them symbolized the computer. I pointed out that different regulatory regimes applied to carriers and media such as newspapers, mail, telecommunications, broadcasting and cinema.

I described that such images of separate media were becoming obsolete due to technologies such as digital processing, micro-electronics, flat displays, fibre optics, CDs, networks for cable-TV, LANs, telecommunications, satellites; etc.

I described how services could be offered that are not media-specific, i.e. that did not fit into the legal framework for the media; as I said in my paper, the fact that digital information could be so easily copied without losing detail or quality, made it irrelevant over which "carrier" it was transmitted. Such services just compare "the media" for their cost, quality and accessibility and choose between all such "carriers" to target their customers.

Of course, this also applies to analog information, but it is more easy to understand that bits are the same, than that analog information is the same at various points in a network. As more and more digital information is transmitted, it becomes more obvious that the Government has problems to control such services on the basis of the traditional legal framework that treats each of the media separately.

I did not propose alternative regulations, I only said that such networks made a mockery out of the regulatory regime that was built up over many years on the premise of separate media. My definitions were only meant to point out the failures in the regulatory system.

D. Science is the Problem

Scientists, however, tend to dismiss such an analysis as a political opinion, as a narrow, subjective view that is therefore scientifically invalid; they want statements made from an objective perspective, they want the truth complete with evidence. Of course, I reject statements that supposedly reveal the one and only absolute and universal truth; there was nothing wrong with my analysis nor with my conclusion; what is wrong is to take part of such an analysis out of its context and to look at it as if it is an absolute statement that is true or false.

E. The Info Conundrum

Another interesting view has been described in an earlier article in Optionality (October 1994) called The Information Conundrum. This view was articulated in what was referred to as the "Action Man"-approach. This "Action Man"-approach warns not to take information on its own, in isolation and loose from its carrier. In this view, information should not be seen separately from the medium that carries it. The "Action Man"-approach rejects the concept of the Information Society, on the grounds that this concept focuses on information and not on who controls the carriers.

It is interesting to compare my approach (to define information as anything that can exist at two places simultaneously) with the views articulated in the "Action Man"-approach and by Don Paragon. At first glance, it seems that there are substantial areas of disagreement between the three of us. I maintain that my approach is useful, as long as it is not taken out of context. My point then was (and it still is) that I don't pretend to speak in absolute terms as to what communication is, as I do not accept a so-called objective truth. Consequently, I also reject statements such as that information can never be l00% identical or that information cannot exist separately from a carrier.

However, I am aware of the background against which these articles were written. The point made by the "Action Man"-approach is that from the perspective of information, it may look as if we are entering a new era, but at the physical level, the Government controls property, infrastructure and national borders and from that position it also controls essential services. The "Action Man"-approach warns that a focus on information may create bias and perhaps idle expectations regarding such concepts as the Information Society.

Don Paragon did not make his remarks as absolute statements either. Don attacked the education system that preaches scientific laws, maths and other subject matter as absolutely true: In nature, Don says among other things, no two things are 100% the same; mathematical manipulations such as addition thus have no natural basis, but are just dreamt up by persons.

I don't reject the views as articulated in the "Action Man"-approach and by Don Paragon, as they both make a comparative analysis, expose contradictions, etc. So, here we have a situation in which three views on the Information Society at first glance may seem to be in conflict with another, but at a closer look can happily live together.

F. Comparisons are OK.

My concluding point is that topics such as the Information Society can be studied and that legal systems and education methods can be compared with each other, as long as all this is not done from an "objective" perspective. Absolutism simply is in conflict with my idea of optionality.

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