© Jannis Kallinikos and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Kallinikos was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on July10th, 2010
Jannis Kallinikos is a Professor in the Information Systems and Innovation Group, Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Dr. Kallinikos’ research has over the last decade increasingly focused on the study of the social and institutional implications of the diffusion of information and information-based artefacts across the social fabric. He is particularly interested in understanding how the diffusion of technological information in all its breeds (text, voice, image) and digital formats impinges upon social life by (re)constructing the foundations of social institutions and the patterns of interaction characteristic of everyday living. In his research he draws on a variety of social science disciplines including sociology and media, information science and semiotics, organization studies, philosophy and art theory. To better accommodate these goals, Dr. Kallinikos formed the Information Growth and Internet Research (TIGAIR) group that is currently conducting research in a range of empirical settings on the formation of the new networked information environment he refers to as The Habitat of Information and the implications such an environment has for people, social processes and institutions. His research and thinking on these matters are documented in a number of publications, including the book Governing Through Technology, a number of recent journal articles and conference papers. More easily accessible versions of his ideas can be found in a number of publications made in the bilingual (French/English) online discussion forum telos www.telos.eu.com. Dr. Kallinikos is Chair of the ISIG Research Group and Director of the MSc in Information Systems and Organizations at LSE.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Nothing is ever as clear as it may look in retrospect. At some point as an undergraduate it occurred to me to pursue a PhD. After the PhD I went out to the industry for about six months before I realized that academic life was more attractive to me than money.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
You always learn from good teachers. Discipline, perseverance and pursuance of clarity are some of the things that some of my teachers conveyed to me as a graduate. But as a young man you even learn from others that are not part of your immediate surroundings. Early in my PhD years I came across the work of Gregory Bateson. Sadly, I never met him; he passed away just around the time when I was in my first or second PhD year, but his “theory of play and phantasy” has had an effect on me that I find difficult to express in words. It has certainly shaped my scientific outlook and provided an everlasting model of disciplined and imaginative ways of thinking and writing.
In your experience, how did the university as an institution generally – and the role of university professor specifically – evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
Core challenges, I feel, remain to some degree unchanged. To teach and motivate students, to convey complex ideas in ways that attract the attention of students, to encourage curiosity, these are some of the challenges that, despite one or another change, stay at the center of one’s responsibility as a teacher and university professor. But, of course, societal changes in general and media changes in particular carry important implications. It seems more difficult today to reclaim the attention of students and motivate enduring commitments, without which solid intellectual work is virtually impossible. There is a widespread sentiment in our societies that we live in an expanded present and this is certainly related to the diffusion of new media, the internet and what I, more generally, understand as a culture of the transient and ephemeral. Never forget: the value of information, a basic stuff of our current lives, is contingent on its constant updating, which is another manifestation and measure of the ephemeral character of contemporary living.
An important change that has been occurring in academia over the last couple of decades concerns the significance of rankings, both journal and university rankings. This is a change that hollows out thinking from the inside and mediatizes and informatizes academic work. There are currently many university professors, certainly the majority in economics and related disciplines, that do not know how to write a book. They just write and publish articles, and measure the citations these articles receive. This is a major change not simply away from one of the pervasive cultural artefacts of the last centuries (the book), but also away from what I feel has been the societal mission of the university in modern times (Von Humbolt’s charter of the University of Berlin). It occurs to me sometimes to liken this new breed of academics with architects that cannot think of urban units bigger than a single house, and often a one-storey house. These changes certainly surpass the effects of media but they are closely related to the media changes we have experienced over the last decades. Rankings and citations are certainly games of power but also games of information.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
Certainly, as my answer to your previous question implies. There is I believe what I would call a mediatization of the university, manifested in the fact that impressions count more than substantial reasons and connections more than scientific outputs. The overall outcome of these trends is hard to predict but the ideal of the academic professor as an intellectual is inexorably dying, if it is not dead already. This has occurred previously in art, perhaps. There are though positive changes as well, among which figures interdisciplinarity, criss-crossing of boundaries and fertilization and also the emergence of new scientific fields such as network science.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by information overload?
Very good question. I have no good answer other than those things on which I commented above. It is a big challenge today to instigate to students enduring concerns, “everything seems to melt in the air”.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Be curious and receptive to new ideas, try them out, endure, do not give up, transcend the ephemeral, read the great masters and perhaps… follow your bliss!
Let’s move on. You’re a Professor of Information Systems at the London School of Economics, where your research interests have increasingly focused on information growth. You are currently engaged in a research project that seeks to account for the formation of large infospaces. The research also tracks the organizational implications of changing infrastructural conditions of production and administration brought about by the deepening penetration of organisations by information. What do you understand by “information” and how would you define an “infospace”?
Infospaces are considerable technological assemblages or platforms on which the pursuits of humans are mediated and structured predominantly as games or issues of information and information exchange. They can be social networking sites but also government or media portals, search engines, corporate or library portals, data repositories or cultural hybrids such as Wikipedia. Subsuming such a wide range of phenomena under the heading of “infospaces” is justified by the idea that their formation may carry distinctive implications for the ways we frame our life issues, construct agendas and priorities and act. Much in the same spirit, I guess, that distinguished colleague and friend Albert Borgmann (whom you have interviewed here) call “information as reality”, juxtaposing it to traditional information uses of an ostensive, descriptive or prescriptive nature. At the very bottom is the idea that the ratio (if I may call it so) information/action is drastically refigured.
Placed in such a context, information is for me a cultural category by which I predominantly mean a semantic category. I am not interested in studying nature and biological phenomena as processes of information, though I recognize that this may be useful and perhaps insightful. I have by and large focused on the ways technological information is implicated in social life, namely, the making of modes of interacting and communicating and the operations of the institutions of our society. I have relatively recently extended my interest to include the involvement of technology in the construction of everyday living and the mediation of the trivia of life as the outcome of what is often called ubiquitous computing. It is important to tie the role of information as a cultural category to the distinctive make up of modernity as that social order in which contingencies pervade both personal pursuits and the functioning of institutions. Information is indeed a measure of contingency, “a difference”, as Bateson wrote, “that makes a difference”. In religious, communal or predetermined social orders the need for information is significantly lower, as contingencies are the exception rather than the rule. This may sound controversial given the shelter that modernity constructed to the exigencies of living but must be appreciated against the background of the unprecedented geographical and social mobility it (modernity) brought about. It is a reading of modernity that must acknowledge its debt to the distinguished German sociologist Nicklas Luhmann.
All this being said, it is important nonetheless to recognize (and here I foreshadow my answer to your next question) that in the context established by the contemporary technologies of computing and communication, semantics emerge often as derivative rather a guiding principle of life. It is derivative in the sense of being assembled into what is by statistical means, algorithms and data processing techniques that have their primary source of inspiration in the understanding of the natural world, mathematics and engineering. Datamining, profiling, visualization (shape as derivative of datamining) are some prominent examples and fields. The engineering of communication takes increasingly over other multimodal ways of communicating in which semantics play a pivotal role along the whole process or spectrum of communication. If we are to understand contemporary living, it is therefore imperative to deconstruct and assess the changes brought about by the diffusion of what Lakoff once called the “conduit metaphor” of communication and which your next question identifies. The derivative nature of meaning shaped by technological processes at a remove from people is one way of understanding the nature of contemporary developments. Not very attractive perhaps but compelling.
Back in the 1970s, McLuhan made the powerful argument that most “theories of communication” were in fact “theories of information” – that is, “theories of transportation” concerned with how data is moved from point A to point B with a minimal interference. The Shannon-Weaver model is one such theory which conceived of communication as a mere exchange of messages travelling through a conduit from source to destination; successful communication was understood as the minimization of misunderstandings. Does information theory today hold the same epistemological assumptions as in the past?
My response to your preceding question entails an answer to this question as well, or so I hope. As in many other things, McLuhan have been very perceptive. As far as I know the Shannon-Weaver model still provides the foundations of the technical view of communication understood primarily as the transference of signals from one source to another. But there are theories of information concerned with semantics and pragmatics. Albert Borgmann’s book from 1999 “Holding on to Reality” is a marvellous account of different views on and ideas of information. My own book, from 2006, “The Consequences of Information” also confronts some of the perennial issues raised by the concept of information and its social involvement.
In addition to what we have already discussed in relation to attention span, what are some of the social and organizational consequences of information growth that you have identified in recent years?
The changing parameters or, if you like, affordances by which persons and institutions frame and act upon the world. Though notoriously difficult to be a soothsayer, I dare to predict that if current tends continue, over the next couple of decades information and the artefacts by which it is produced and disseminated would change everyday living to an unrecognizable degree.
What are you currently working on?
The growing involvement of information in everyday living as opposed to the remaking of institutions. I just begin to approach the issue of the derivative character of shapes that visualization brings about and how this relates to patterns of everyday living. But of course all this within the overall context of what I have been doing over the last two decades.
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