Information, episteme and techne part 1

I was recently reading about information and stumbled upon an OED entry on the subject. As Michael Proffitt, managing editor, OED said, “Compounds arising in that period [the 1800s] reflect information as a commodity with supply and demand: information-giving (dating from 1829), information-seeking (1869), information gathering (1893).”

Proffitt is mistaken about about the commodity metaphor, and it is a similar one made in Marxist and Marxian thought. Once you make a concept a commodity, you have stripped it of value. Corn is a commodity because the value of one piece of corn is essentially the same as another. Employing Marx’s concept is tricky because he was trying to solve the problem of value in the marketplace. His resultant version of commodity was a very specific labor based answer to this problem. For this purpose, it was well adapted, but it was still wrong because the concept of value that he inherited from Adam Smith was wrong. Value, as was later understood, was simply the opportunity that one was willing to substitute for the given good. For Marx, though, value was a product of labor. It is not an incorrect step to then organize the state around the value of labor, i.e. a communist world. But similarly, once the issue of labor and value was solved, his critique falls out.

We now understand that there is undifferentiated labor, which has similar properties to a commodity, but they are still not the same thing. Similarly, information is not a commodity because it can be differentiated. Some information is more valuable.

The more important point is that information became an object in the early 1800s. By becoming an object, information became real. One of the key insights of cognitive linguistics is in the idea of a conceptual metaphor. To understand an idea we map it onto another. For example, to understand quantity we think of it in terms of directionality (e.g. “prices are rising”). As Lakoff and Johnson have shown, the regularity with which different languages employ the same metaphors, which often appear to be perceptually based, has led to the hypothesis that the mapping between conceptual domains corresponds to neural mappings in the brain. What we can surmise from this insight is that once a thing has metaphorical qualities, it becomes real semantically. The act of giving information qualities of gathering and seeking makes it real in the metaphorical sense.

First published Mar 26, 2011