In search of the value of information
I researched the value of information in our changing society: the information society. On these pages, you will find not only my research, but also its result: the documentary.
To earn a master’s degree, you are required to write a dissertation, or thesis; an academic text discussing a specific topic.
During my master’s education, the Executive Master of Information Management, we often spoke about information as “data given meaning”, or that which you give form from the inside out: “in-form-ation.” To what degree data is given meaning, and thereby becomes information, is therefore relevant in determining its value.
In a lecture in the beginning of the programme, Ard Huizing explained that information can be viewed as either an object (an economic good) or a concept (an idea), and that either way, it is an inexhaustible resource. I recognised this type of duality from the quantum mechanics I learned about while studying chemistry and environmental science. Quantum mechanics states that particles can sometimes behave as waves, and at other times as particles. If you want to fully understand these particles, you have to take both versions into account. That same principle can be applied to information.
Further on in the programme, we discussed another concept that fascinated me: information in society. It is a known fact that the amount of information in our direct surroundings is increasing rapidly, and becoming more easily accessible to a growing audience. Several lectures have been dedicated to discussing the new consequences and possibilities of that change.
I decided to combine both of these topics, and to use “The value of information in a changing society” as my initial thesis subject. That meant I was immediately faced with a dilemma: what is the value of a traditional thesis? Even an excellent one rarely attracts a lot of readers from outside the field. Although it can be very valuable to those who read it, its overall value is fairly low.
The medium: a documentary
It was my goal to write my thesis about the value of information, and to make that thesis available to a large audience. Because of this, I decided to make it into a documentary. That, however, created a new dilemma. A documentary is made up of visual content, while concepts like information and value are more abstract, and difficult to visualise. For that reason, I decided to take “the changing world” as a starting point for the project, so I could look at the different aspects from that point of view.
The project eventually led to this documentary, in which I look at our information society from a variety of angles. The process of giving meaning and value is certainly one of these, but not the only one.
The thesis consists of:
- orientation and literature review
- choice of medium
My thesis started out as any other: looking for a subject, discussions with my fellow students and tutor, and eventually writing a thesis outline. The topics that had interested me during the programme and the things I had experienced for myself at work steered me in the direction of the value of information in the information society. Using my research model, I first set out to find out what exactly value and the value of information are, and what it is that this information society means.
When does information become valuable
Much has been written about value, but when it comes to information, my preferred way of looking at it is the one used in my master’s programme: looking at value as meaning, with the understanding that valuable information is that which shapes you from the inside out. From that angle, I already had the idea that there was a significant overlap between the theory of the hermeneutic circle as described by Lucas Introna (learning is only possible when there is a partial overlap between existing knowledge and new knowledge), and the theory about curiosity as described by Roland van der Vorst (curiosity is the balance between boredom and estrangement).
Explaining something the other person already understands does not lead to learning, but to boredom. Discussing something incomprehensible does not lead to learning either, but to estrangement. Something that is understandable, and overlaps with the audience’s existing knowledge, leads to learning and curiosity. Valuable information is part of this last group. Of course, this creates another question: which attributes of information contribute to this overlap? It was that question that led me to this article by Guus Pijpers, regarding the attributes of information.
Does the information society exist?
Another subject of my literature review was the information society. This turned out to be mostly a matter of definition. There have been several publications regarding the effect of information on society (Frank Webster, James Dearnly, John Feather, Susan Hornby, Zoë Clarke), but what’s interesting is that almost all of these sources deny the existence of the information society as a fundamental change in society. The main argument for that is the fact that the cognitive motivators of human beings have not changed.
For me, this logically raised the question: what are fundamental cognitive motivators? Using a basic psychology textbook and Giep Franzen’s book about motivation, I discovered there were countless possible options, but the most important ones seemed to be the need for achievement and curiosity. That last one gave me the connection I needed between the two sides of my research.
However, I had not yet established the effect of the increase in accessible information on its value.
Infobesity or information overload
In March 2010, an interview with a student from Utrecht, Rosa Maria Koolhoven, was published in Het Parool, a major Dutch newspaper. Ms Koolhoven works as a trendwatcher for YoungWorks, an agency for youth communication in Amsterdam. She noticed an increase in infobesity. I found this to be an intriguing term, especially in the context of my thesis. Apparently, an increase in available information (an inherent part of an information society) was not necessarily positive. It also reminded me of Barry Schwartz’s TEDtalk about the paradox of choice. In it, he stated that having too many options creates unhappiness and paralysis, instead of the presumed wealth and well-being. Several articles also named other information-related diseases, next to infobesity and the paradox of choice. Martin Eppler, Jeanne Mengis, David Bawden, Lyn Robinson, and eventually Guus Pijpers, for instance, discuss information stress and information overload.
What all these publications have in common is that, although they describe the symptoms and suggest treatments, they fail to say if there is a physical cause for these problems – and if so, what that is.
Physical perception isn’t always interesting
While I was looking for an answer to that question, I came across the inaugural speech of Maarten Kamermans, in which he discussed perception in relation to predictability. In a way, he also describes a balance between boredom and estrangement. Another article that helped shape my view of the subject was written by Donald Hoffman, with the intriguing subtitle “Natural selection drives true perception to swift extinction.”
Combined, these two theories led to the realisation that, even when dealing with physical things, not everything is interesting to perceive, and that this is a good thing.
Increase of information in organisations: blessing or curse?
In early 2010, I discussed the effect of the increase in accessibility and the possibly changing value of information on organisations with my tutor, Hans Jägers. If individuals have trouble handling information selectively, and these people work in organisations, it stands to reason that organisations would have the same problems with this increase of information. Finding literature about this wasn’t easy, but eventually Jay Galbraith’s theory turned out to be the most applicable. According to Galbraith, the best way for an organisation to adjust is by either lowering the need for data processing, or increasing the capacity for it.
Handling information: individual versus organisation
Lastly, I was interested in comparing the various possible ways in which people and organisations could deal with the information society, and finding out if there is a connection to be made between them.
My own experiment
I wanted to approach the matter from various angles. Although that was very interesting to do, I have to admit that, on occasion, I caught myself with certain symptoms of an “information disease.” I certainly experienced the stress of having enthusiasm and interest on one side, and limitations on the other. The funny thing was that this was exactly what I was researching; I had become my own experiment.
Even during the early stages of my thesis, I gave a lot of thought to what would be its final form. An academic article is only valuable for a small group of readers, and I wanted this project to have a bigger impact. It was time to choose a medium.
If information becomes valuable when people learn from it, then the more people learn from it, the more valuable it becomes. This meant my final product had to be more accessible than a standard academic paper, and so I chose a different medium: the documentary, or film.
This choice of medium impacted the project in several ways.
Out of the three elements of my thesis question – value, information, and the information society – two (value and information) are inherently abstract. An abstract concept is difficult to visualise. This meant the focus of the project had to be shifted towards the third element: the information society.
Story and script
Unlike an academic paper, a film has a narrative, which made it important to not only have good content, but also an interesting story. A good story has a beginning, an end, and a narrative arc. I had little experience with those things, but I fortunately discovered there was a standard model, the anatomy of film. I decided to follow this model while writing my script.
Of course, I had no way of knowing what exactly the information experts I planned to interview would say. This meant my script could only be a broad storyline.
Any academic project must have a bibliography. Writing this into the script turned out to be very difficult, as the themes or quotes often didn’t quite line up with the references. Clearly, I had to find another way, like a DVD-inlay or a website. A great deal of films are accompanied by a website, and so I chose that option, and this website was born.
Using the theories from my literature review, the basic storyline, a list of experts, a survey, and a plan for the website, I was ready for the next step: the development.
Would people be willing to work with me? How would I find the right equipment? Would my story get through to people? Would the experts give me the insights I was looking for? Most of the experts readily agreed to be part of the project. Only three of them, for various reasons, declined.
I came into contact with amateur documentary maker Joanneke Groen, who was able to give me some valuable advice. The most important tip was to avoid doing the interviews myself, if I was also the one operating the camera. Unfortunately, this advice came at an inconvenient moment: less than a week before the first interview.
The information society in action
The interviews had been scheduled, and I only had a few days to find a suitable cameraman or -woman. This was the ideal moment to call on the information society. I sent out calls for help though Twitter, LinkedIn, and several film-related job websites (such as filmpeople.nl and filmvacature.nl).
A large number of people responded enthusiastically, but none of them were both available at the right moment and sufficiently experienced with camera work. In addition, I wanted to use the same cameraman for all the interviews, and no one could guarantee that this wouldn’t be a problem.
Three days before the interviews, I received an email from Bob Huisman, an experienced photographer who was making the transition towards video. Bob had all the equipment, was willing to work with me for the duration of the project, and was available for two days the following week. The agreements were all made quickly.
I met Bob five minutes before the beginning of the interview with Maarten Kamermans, and our collaboration was great from the start. Bob was not only enthusiastic, involved, and a great cameraman, but also genuinely interested in the topic; so much so that he often had his own questions for the experts after we were done with the interview.
During the interviews, I usually decided to have a conversation with the experts, rather than going through the survey. That led to great conversations, but it made the interviews more difficult to process. I decided to transcribe all of the clips. Painstaking work, but I later discovered this was the conventional method.
In addition, this way of processing gave me the opportunity to categorise the experts’ quotes based on themes from my script. This gave me a collection of quotes for each scene and subtheme.
All that painstaking work eventually led to 80 pages of text, the equivalent of 8 hours of film.
I was almost done with the transcriptions, and the time came to start thinking about the editing [DJ1] and the further development of the script. This led me, during the summer of 2010, to the sunny terrace of Frank van der Weij, owner of a studio and teacher at the film academy, and Bernet Crucq, producer of documentary films, for an inspiring conversation about my film and the steps I had to take.
New filler shots
Enthusiastically, I started to edit all of the selected quotes into a single file. For the first time, all our hard work became visible, which was extremely satisfying. However, when I viewed the first montage, together with Bernet and Bob, we came to a new conclusion. Watching “talking heads” for an hour is not interesting enough, and some of the shots were not good enough. We needed filler shots: new images that supported the story, and could replace the talking heads in certain scenes. We had recorded a few of those during the interviews, but we needed more, and so Bob and I spent another two days shooting them.
We could record shots of office workers at the company where I worked, Accounting Plaza, and – supervised by a librarian – we were allowed to film inside the library in Amsterdam. To emphasise something Tom de Graaf said, we wanted to film chocolate letters (we were only a week away from Sinterklaas, a major Dutch holiday), and the HEMA let us record inside one of their stores. We went looking for dogs in the Vondelpark.
We needed a voiceover to connect the fragments. Having learned from my experience of finding a cameraman, I decided to post the advert online well ahead of time. To my great surprise, I received dozens of responses within a few hours, from people who were willing to work with us for free.
Among them was Martin van Tulder, actor in the children’s theatre at the Amersfoort zoo and voice actor for the library for the blind. He sent me his final project for his voice acting course. It sounded professional and compelling, and so I asked him to record the voiceover. In a mere two sessions, we recorded the audio in my guestroom, which had been converted into a recording studio (small, full rooms have the best acoustics).
The final montage meant adding the titles and music, and optimising the quality (i.e. understandability) of the spoken word. To avoid copyright issues, I decided to create my own music for the documentary. Based on a dance of Jean-Philippe Rameau, I composed several pieces that return in different ways throughout the film.
Even though I had to take a step back from the concepts of value and information when I chose to make a documentary, the final result ended up clearly dealing with all three of my initial topics. The definitions of information and its value turned out to be more prominent than I had expected. In the end, I can still say that my thesis is about
the value of information in the information society
And the documentary was finished.
I look back fondly on the project. Not only does it have a solid scientific base, it is also a reflection of my learning process in the EMIM, and of the master’s programme itself.
The dean of the master’s programme, professor Rik Maes, told us in his first lecture that the goal of the programme was to learn, both personally and professionally. During the evaluation, a year and a half later, I said that I had personally learned a great deal, through a topic that was very interesting to me. I believe that also applies to my thesis project. I was given the opportunity to take part in a very interesting project, and it allowed me to experience many of the themes I covered in my thesis.
New knowledge, wonderful cooperation
Out of my own curiosity, I gained a lot of new knowledge (so much so that I occasionally came across my own information problems), and got to see that concepts like cooperation, motivation, organisation, and information processing in the creative world don’t work like they do in the business world that I live in every day. That’s why this project convinced me that interdisciplinary unification and cooperation can lead to great results.
Years ago, I ended up on Rik Maes’ website by coincidence. At the time, that was designed in the style of Leonardo da Vinci. To Da Vinci, there was no difference between art and science. As a supporter of interdisciplinary connections, that idea resonates with me. In the years following my “discovery,” I regularly returned to this website, which eventually led to my signing up to the EMIM programme. What could be better than finishing that programme with a project that allows me to combine creativity and science for myself?
Before I started making the documentary, I did a literary review. The literature that inspired me during the making of the documentary can be found here.
- Pijpers, G. Information overload, 2010. Hoboken, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 9780470625743.
- Leimeister, J.M. “Collective intelligence”. Business & Information Systems Engineering 4 (juni 2010): 245-248.
- Jansen, W. and T.A. de Graaf. “The brain and the organisation”. augustus 2010 <view online>.
- “Data, data, everywhere”. The Economist. 27 februari 2010 <view online>.
- Pijpers, G. “Information on information”. januari 2009 <view online>.
- Bawden, D. and L. Robinson. “The dark side of information”. Journal of Information Science 35 (november 2008): 180-191.
- Shirky, C. “Filter failure”. 2008. Video <view online>.
- Kamermans, M. Het zien van het onvoorspelde, het onvoorspelde van het zien, 2008. Amsterdam, Vossiuspers UvA, ISBN 9789056295783.
- Franzen, G. Motivatie, 2008. Amsterdam, Boom, ISBN 9789047300632.
- Huizing, A. “Objectivist by default”. Ed. Elsevier, 2007. 73-90. Uit: Information Management: Setting The Scene, Emerald Group Publishing Ltd. ISBN 9780080463261.
- Huizing, A. “The value of a rose”. Ed. Elsevier, 2007. 91-110. Uit: Information Management: Setting The Scene, Emerald Group Publishing Ltd. ISBN 9780080463261.
- Vorst, R. van der. Nieuwsgierigheid, 2007. Amsterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam. ISBN 9789046803349.
- Ilmola, L. and O. Kuusi. “Filters of weak signals hinder foresight”. Futures 38 (maart 2006): 908-924.
- Vreeken, A. “The history of information”. september 2005 <view online>.
- Schwartz, B. “the paradox of choice”. 2005. Video <view online>.
- Eppler, M.J. and J. Mengis. “The concept of information overload”. The Information Society 20 (2004): 325-344. ISSN 0197-2243.
- Heuvelman, A., J Gutteling and S. Drossaert. Psychologie, 2004. Amsterdam, Boom. ISBN 9085060451.
- Jansen, W., H.P.M. Jägers and R. van den Nieuwenhof. “Informatiemanagement is een sociale wetenschap”. 2003 <niet langer online beschikbaar>.
- Hornby, S. and Z. Clarke. Challenge and change in the information society, 2003. London, Facet Publishing. ISBN 185604453X.
- Jansen, W. et al. Business models, 2003. Den Haag, Ten Hagen & Stam. ISBN 9044005693.
- Webster, F. Theories of the information society, 2002. London, Routledge. ISBN 0415282012.
- Choo, C.W. Information management for the intelligent organization, 2002. Medford, Information Today, Inc. ISBN 1573871257.
- Mul, J. de. Cyberspace Odyssee, 2002. Kampen, Klement. ISBN 9789077070123.
- Huotari, M.L. and T.D. Wilson. “Determining organizational information needs: the critical success factor approach”. Information Research. april 2001 <view online>.
- Da Silveira, G., D. Borenstein and F.S. Fogliatto. “Mass customization”. International Journal of Production Economics 72 (2001): 1-13.
- Dearnly, J. and J. Feather. the wired world, 2001. London, Library Association Publishing. ISBN 1856043738.
- Wilson, T.D. “Human Information Behaviour”. Informing Science 3.2 (2000): 49-55.
- Heylighen, F. “Collective intelligence and its implementation on the web”. Computational & Mathematical Organization Theory 5.3 (oktober 1999). <view online>
- Little, G.R. “Paper 1: A theory of perception”. februari 1999 <view online>.
- Choo, C.W. “The art of scanning the environment”. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science(februari-maart 1999): 21-24.
- Introna, L.D. Management, information and power, 1997. London, MacMillan Press Ltd. ISBN 0333698703.
- Feather, J. the information society, 1994. London, Facet Publishing. ISBN 9781856046367.
- Treacy, M. and F. Wiersema. “Customer intimacy and other value disciplines”. Harvard Business Review 71.1 (1993): 84-96.
- Daft, R.L. and R.H. Lengel. “Organizational Information Requirements, media richness and structural design”.Management Science 32.5 (mei 1986): 554-571.
- Derr, R.L. “A conceptual analysis of information need”. Information Processing & Management 19.5A (1983): 273-278.
- Kets de Vries, M.F.R. Raadsels in de organisatie, 1981. Alphen aan de Rijn, Samsom uitgeverij. ISBN 9014030606
- Galbraith, J.R. Het ontwerpen van complexe organisaties, 1976. Alphen aan de Rijn, Samsom uitgeverij. ISBN 9014024258
- Hoffman, D.D. “The interface theory of perception” <view online>.