Friday, 14 October 2016

Meaning, selection and narrative: why we don't see the information others see

In our DTMD (Difference That Makes a Difference) research group, which is focused on information as used in a wide range of fields, we've lately been very preoccupied with the role of narrative. It's the theme of our workshop next year in Gothenburg as part of the IS4SI summit on information. My colleague David Chapman has recently written an excellent blog post on the subject, concluding that:
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.
Today I've been thinking about narrative in a slightly different way, in conversation with David and other OU colleagues at a research away day. It seems to me that one of the key aspects of narrative comes from what we select to view as information, and then weave together into a narrative. This is an iterative process: when something that might be considered information arises into our consciousness, but doesn't fit the narrative, we often completely fail to notice it. It's not just that we see these items and decide (however explicitly) that the item doesn't fit our narrative and must be rejected; it's that we don't even register these items in the first place.
Image: Wikispaces

Here are two recent political examples, one from progressive thinkers and one from conservative thinkers (keeping it fair and balanced!)

First, the progressive version of selective information. In the EU referendum, those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU frequently reported knowing nobody who was in favour of the Leave campaign, and had little sense of that campaign making traction with their arguments. I happen to have voted in favour of Remain, and had little sympathy with the Leave campaign's arguments (though I'm not sure I had any direct conversations with anyone in favour of Leave), but it was clear that there were those prepared to listen to them. The result came as a nasty shock, but not entirely a surprise. For others in favour of Remain, the result was a surprise because they failed to treat the serious risk of the Leave campaign succeeding as real information.

Second, the conservative version of selective information. This week, US presidential candidate Donald Trump was heard on tape making disgraceful misogynist statements about his treatment of, and attitude to women. Many Republican politicians have condemned the candidate and withdrawn their support. Curiously, however, this has not been seen amongst many prominent evangelical Christians. This is a group which has often been supportive of Republican politicians, but might have been expected to condemn Trump given their conservative sexual attitudes. I don't think it's sufficient to regard this as hypocrisy - rather I think it's a matter of selective information. The narrative of Republican = good, Democrat = bad (and the anti-abortion stance of Trump) is so strong for these evangelicals that they are simply unable to see the unethical nature of Trump's (apparent) behaviour.

This process of selecting information has similarities to other perspectives on information. Our former colleague Sue Holwell refers to those items of the world which we select as important as 'capta':
Data are available to us, and capta are the result of consciously selecting some data for attention, or creating some new category.

Likewise, Gregory Bateson, whose definition of information as 'the difference that makes a difference' forms the foundation of our work, refers to selection as the way in which we make sense of the differences in the world. Quoting Immanuel Kant, he wrote:
Kant, in the Critique of Judgment – if I understand him correctly – asserts that the most elementary aesthetic act is the selection of a fact. He argues that in a piece of chalk there are an infinite number of potential facts. ... The sensory receptors cannot accept it; they filter it out. What they do is to select certain facts out of the piece of chalk.
Information is the process of giving meaning to those selected facts, those capta - of constructing narratives built up from potential facts. But when we construct those narratives, we notice some could-be facts, some potential items of information, and fail to notice others. This is not deceit, or hypocrisy; it is the way we construct narratives, the way we build up information.

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