Information Collection

Introduction 

In a previous post, Information Lifecycle: Creation, I wrote about the when, how, what, why, and who of information creation; I also defined information disorder and touched on the different types of information disorder.

If you haven’t read the previous Information Lifecycle posts, I recommend doing that first. Links:

For a refresher, here’s the information lifecycle:

The Information Lifecycle
Source: Information, A Very Short Introduction, by Luciano Floridi

I will be dedicating one post to each part of the information lifecycle. The purpose of the Information Lifecycle series is to dive into a topic of deep personal interest with the higher objective of increasing my own information literacy.

As the American Library Association defines it, information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Being information literate includes the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Source: https://literacy.ala.org/information-literacy/ 

This post is dedicated to the second component of the information lifecycle: Collect.

What to expect

In this post, I write about:

  • The difference between information creation and information collection
  • What information can be collected
  • How information is collected
  • Information disorder at the information collection step

Creation to Collection: The Second Step

To recap, data + meaning = information. There’s a lot of nuance in there, but that’s the gist.

Once information is created, whether that’s by an individual on a singular level or by an institution or group/multiple people, information is then associated with other information, intentionally or unintentionally. The information is placed within a framework, format, or structure of existing information – a process I call “information collection”; this structure is then recorded or stored.

That’s truly the key of this step – information can be created, but if it is to be memorized, recorded, or communicated, we must put it into a format that allows us to do so.

Individuals

Information collection occurs very quickly on an individual level. The process uses specific modalities that allow us to encode information, so we are then able to associate it with other existing information; we generate new inferences and associations within this process. In other words – learning.

Once assimilated by an individual, information is organized into knowledge structures, which are composed of concepts/sets of concepts. We then use these structures to understand and process elements in our environment and develop our perception of ourselves, other individuals/groups, or the non-human elements in our environments. For better or worse, these information structures interact with and impact each other over time; they can degrade or other “cross wires,” creating all sorts of problems with memory and/or warping our objectivity, in ways that we may or may not be consciously aware of.

Information Modalities

But first – how do we even think about new information?

  • Language: When we create or learn new information, we may understand it mostly in terms of language. If we think of information being contained within language, it is packaged syntactically in words, sentences, and phrases, and semantically via speech characteristics like tone and pitch. That being said, the questions of how we understand information and structure our thoughts are largely unanswered in neuroscience and epistemology. Language can be passed on orally or preserved in writing.
  • Images: This is when we think in pictures.
  • Language & images: this is sometimes referred to as multi-modal thinking. Learn more here: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/05/visual-images-often-intrude-on-verbal-thinking-study-says/ 
  • Instinct: I refer to the elusive fourth modality as the “subconscious,” in the most general sense of the overused word. Instincts, desires, and emotions – functions of the limbic system, a convenient label for several interconnected neurological components. We can think we know something but not have put it into words or pictures. We just know. Unless the data behind these instincts is well-formed and meaningful, these become our beliefs, which, operating within the framework I’ve established here, means that they are misinformation. Beliefs can be difficult to recognize, isolate, and then consciously and critically assess. We may believe something to be true, but is it really? Our beliefs easily become misinformation unless we learn to justify our beliefs with well-formed and meaningful data.

Information Structures

Once we have created or assimilated information, we immediately create inferences and associations between information we already have and this new information.

According to cognitive development theory and schema theory, new information creates or contributes to “schemas,” dynamic structures in the brain that help us process new information by referencing already-acquired information. Learn more about schema theory here.

For example, a human eats a mushroom that has never been eaten by a human before, and they become ill shortly after. Because of the survival directive to seek patterns, the human’s brain will perhaps categorize that mushroom under the cognitive framework (the “schema”) for “things that might kill me” or “things that I could eat but won’t because they might kill me.” The visual stimulus of mushroom and the unpleasant sensation of being sick are now paired; in the language of behaviorism, the human was “punished” for the behavior of eating the mushroom.

Scared cat gif

To summarize – we encode information with the available modalities of language, images, a combination of the two, or subconsciously (in ways we can’t really explain). We associate this new information we’ve collected with existing information via information structures (“schemas”).

Groups/Institutions

In the information creation post, I described data collection. Because information = data + meaning, data collection is not the same as information collection.

The modalities used by groups or institutions are much the same as the modalities used by individuals, except that groups rely on communication (the fifth part of the information lifecycle – distribute/transmit), so in order to substantively discuss information within those groups/institutions, we would have to skip ahead.

No skipping here.

Zero skips.

Information Disorder

Information disorder is a clear and present danger at every stage of the information lifecycle.

The way we create information (direct experience, observation, or interaction) can impact which modality we choose to think about information and how we encode it, just like the way we encode information and associate it with information structures can distort that information. As experiences happen and new information is created, new schemas may be developed and old schemas may be modified. This process of assimilation may result in perceptual distortion based on existing schemas; the information may mold itself accordingly. Too much distortion and molding, and it is likely that we have information disorder on our hands.

Schemas may also change in accordance to new information. Maintaining a balance between the two is called equivalibration. They can be automatic or effortful processes and can happen quickly or over a long period of time.

There are unique pitfalls to watch out for in this stage of the information lifecycle.

Danger Zone

Time

The time gaps between observing data, assigning meaning, encoding this new information, and associating it with existing information can be very brief. These things happen quickly in the brain. Unless we’re actively monitoring how we perceive and process information, erroneous or partially erroneous associations/inferences may form. When this happens, we are at greater risk for developing biases (prejudice, stereotypes, etc) and logical fallacies.

Self

The social constructs or imagined orders of our upbringing may influence how information is encoded and organized into information structures.

For example, presentism, in history, “is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they consider it a form of cultural bias, and believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter. The practice of presentism is regarded by some as a common fallacy when writing about the past.” (Source)

Prejudice and stereotyping are other common causes of information disorder.

Logical Fallacies & Cognitive Biases

Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning that undermine every step in the information lifecycle; because once we assimilate information, it starts to mean something to us, it makes sense to introduce logical fallacies here. A cognitive bias is a preconceived notion of someone or something, based on information we have, think we have, or lack.

Often, these are unconsciously developed as “shortcuts” in thinking. That being said, it is necessary to have mental shortcuts to process information, otherwise we would need to take too long to think about everything. It’s just best to be aware of what these mental shortcuts are and if they are serving us well, so we can de-risk our thinking.

Examples of logical fallacies & cognitive biases:

  • Conflating necessity with sufficiency (fire needs oxygen, therefore everywhere with oxygen can have fire – when, in fact, you also need wood and a spark). Don’t we all. 😏
  • In general, conspiratorial thinking: this often relies heavily on confusing correlation with causation. X happened and it seems related to Y; therefore, X was caused by Y. This is related to the Post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy – if A occurred after B, then A must have caused B.
  • Confirmation bias: this is when someone either creates, encodes, or associates new information in such a way that supports something already thought or believed; this generally occurs at the expense of unacknowledged data or ignored information.
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect: when someone thinks that something is simple just because they aren’t aware of more information about that thing.
  • In-group bias: when someone accepts information due to being familiar with the person presenting the information. This is related to the genetic fallacy, which is when a conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of something determine its worth. It is also related to the Ad populum/bandwagon appeal, when presents information in such a way that implicitly or explicitly implies that a group of people believe it.
  • Fundamental attribution error: when Person A attributes another Person B’s behavior to a stereotype, and then when Person A exhibits the same behavior, they do not apply the same judgement to themselves.
  • Anchoring bias: when someone latches onto the first information they encode, and base subsequent information on that information. At a higher level, this happens during childhood, as a natural part of learning about the world for the first time; whatever information a child is presented with during their development is later used to help them navigate the world.
  • The halo effect: when someone has experience with Something A; if Something B is related to Something A, then that person has a more positive outlook on Something B. This is related to the hasty generalization fallacy, which is when a conclusion is drawn without sufficient evidence.

Source, Source

Conclusion

To recap, information collection occurs at the point in time between information creation and information recording/storage. It happens when we use a specific information modality and organize it within an information framework.

Once this process is complete, we move on to the information recording/storage component of the information lifecycle, when we are able to make information external to ourselves in specific formats.
Information disorder is a risk at this step of the information lifecycle, just like any other step. Beliefs are likely misinformation candidates, due to a lack of well-formed and meaningful data. So, unless you have a really good reason (backed by more than anecdotal evidence) for believing what you believe, re-examine those beliefs.