Is there a Case for a New Information Literacy Inspired by …?

The problems that have to be solved in the 21st century to maintain or increase human health, wealth and happiness are highly complex. By “complex”, I mean that they are highly interconnected and impossible to understand accurately by looking at influential factors in isolation. Divide-and-conquer strategies and narrowly focussed-expertise are inadequate unless re-integrated to understand the bigger picture. This state of affairs is currently reflected in much research funding but isn’t just a concern for researchers.

Professionals in almost all walks of life will be faced with making decisions on matters for which there is little precedent and a shortage of established professional practice to fall back on.  There is, and will be a growing need, for professionals capable of drawing on information and adapting to the paradigms of multiple disciplines.

The trend in supply of data from both research and public sector communities is clearly in the direction of more information being provided under suitable “open data” licences and employing basic semantic web techniques. This resource, not confined by disciplinary boundaries or utility to specific lines-of-argument, has great potential value in answering the complex and novel questions required to navigate humanity through the complexities of sustainable development. I contend that realisation of the potential of this information is contingent on a new information literacy, specifically a new digital literacy if we are concerned with open data on the web or otherwise.

Whereas the use of historical data is well known in research in many established disciplines a new information literacy is required to realise the potential noted above that is not limited to academic research, that uses data disembodied from the narrative and argument of the journal article and that transcends the limit of the established discipline. The challenge for the education system is to prepare professionals of the future (and helping professionals of today adapt through appropriate work-based learning) with this new information literacy. This “new information literacy” requires a deeper and more explicit understanding of models employed within and outwith a professional’s “home” discipline and the embedded epistemology of that discipline.

The philosophy of General Semantics and the practices advocated by Alfred Korzybski and subsequent thinkers are of interest in that their focus is on “consciousness of abstracting” as a means of avoiding the conceptual errors often made in interpreting linguistic acts or experience of events. Rather than making an assertion that General Semantics is “the answer”, indeed it certainly contains fallacies and unsubstantiated ideas, I suggest that it offers some valuable insight into the mental habits that can improve the ability of professionals to work across disciplines, whether using Open Data from research and public sector sources or not, to answer the questions of tactical and strategic character that sustainable development requires.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), founded as a movement in the mid 1970s and with clear links to Korzybski, contains some further useful ideas if one looks beyond the psychotherapeutic dimension. My intention is not to develop a detailed position in this post but to suggest that there are some practices/habits advocated by Korzybski and others that offer a resource for us to consider. Some of the maxims and practices that I think are candidates for education in the new information literacy, hence also a new digital literacy, are:

  • Korzybski’s “extensional devices” are practical habits that stress relationship between things (as opposed to things defined in isolation)
  • Gregory Bateson in “Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity” presents a number of pre-suppositions that “every schoolboy knows” (sic) that are actually more representative of gaps in thought.
  • The meta-model of NLP provides a set of heuristic questions to identify distortion, generalization and deletion in language. These kind of questions are potentially useful when working across disciplines to reduce the chance of false-reasoning.

I will now complete the title, where the ellipsis left off: “… General Semantics, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Gregory Bateson”

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