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The Yin and Yang of Information Systems

June 7, 1999
by Zac Belado

The Taoist concept of yin and yang, basically that each force has its opposite and that inside each force is the seed to generate that opposite, is a useful metaphor when looking at the developing networked world in which we live.

Networks are built on the understanding that they are there to help users communicate. Whether this communication is simply via file transfers or email messages is largely beside the point. A networked system is simply a way to take a packet of information from one source and transfer it to another. As Internet, and in many companies Intranets, usage grows, we are seeing that these networks are being used to communicate an increasing number of ideas and thoughts along with the regular data traffic.

Truth is beauty

Communications is not only a process but also a commodity. If your company can integrate a system that allows the quick and easy communication of ideas from one section or person in the company to another then it has a competitive advantage. The efficient leverage of this advantage can be invaluable. It is an almost inescapable conclusion that any system that allows the flow of correct information will also allow for the easy propagation of incorrect or flawed ideas. It is just as likely that the company discussion board will generate bad ideas as it will good ones.

In Taoism this is the metaphor described by the "seeds of transformation". The positive has the seeds that grow into the negative. In mathematics this is a process described by Godel's Theorem. Any system contains a set of data that the theory can't describe. Or in our networked communications scenario, any communications system contains the possibility that it will propagate ideas and thoughts that are counter-productive to the system itself.

Say What?

The main problem with networked communication is that it is a context neutral medium. By that I mean that the cues and signals that you get from talking to a person face to face or over a telephone are missing. If you talk to a coworker and she is laughing while telling you a story, then you are provided with additional, contextual, information that helps you decide that she is making the story up. Experience, and common sense, tells you that if the party relating the information can't keep a straight face then the veracity of the information is suspect. The same information provided via a networked message board does not provide those additional informational points and therefore your ability to determine the veracity of the information is limited.

The most frequently encountered incidence of this is the use of emoticons (smilies) in email messages. Without these rather simple symbols we sometimes misunderstand meanings of what people type. If you read an email message that says

You're such an asshole

then you are bound to get upset. But if you read this

You're such an asshole :- )

then you are more likely to assume that the writer is making a joke or a sarcastic comment.

Despite their common disrepute, they are very important ways of transmitting secondary contextual data inside a text-based message. But they are only shallow approximations of the complex amount of data that we gain from visual and aural clues. At their best, emoticons only display a single emotional, or informational, state. And since most people only really use three or four different emoticons, the gamut of secondary information provided by them is limited. This contextual data becomes even more important when we move from simple messages to the interplay of ideas.

Information systems are different from other communication devices such as a newspaper or TV news broadcast in that people have not developed a critical discourse to use with internet based systems. The conscious (or subconscious) systems that we use to engage other communications systems in a critical fashion have yet to be developed. People do not approach the information on a stock based message board in the same way that they would a similar message in Forbes or The Wall Street Journal. Consequently, false information is viewed in the same fashion as correct information.

Society, at least western society, is approaching a critical mass of informational systems without really taking any time to estimate their impact. How do we begin to train people to approach message boards, Usenet and email in the same way that they approach other informational media systems? Before we can take full advantage of these new ways to communicate we have to make sure that we actually utilise them properly. Uninformed and uncritical communications are only slightly better than no communication.

We are visual and aural creatures who, in the last 600 years, have developed an ability to transfer information in a printed system that does not display any of the secondary information we need to fully "explore" a concept or idea. This is why academic material contains footnotes and bibliographies. This is why newspaper articles (should) include references to the sources for the information. And, as well, this is why the opinion pieces of newspapers and other news publications are separated and clearly marked as such,

So it is hardly suprising that in the 5 years we have been developing net-based communication systems we have yet to formalise any standards or practices to enable a critical reading of message boards, email and Usenet posts. And yet we still continue to expand these systems and further our reliance on them. On a personal level this is a trivial question. But on a company wide scale this can have disastrous consequences.

One person with an incorrect piece of information is a problem. One person transmitting that same information across a company wide system is quite another situation. Information has the ability to spread faster than it can be contained. This is a very democratizing power but it is, as the old adage testifies, a double edged sword that we currently have no way to deal with.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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