Monday, March 8, 2010

When information is not appreciated

At the start of the term, I read a fascinating article: Information as Thing by Michael K. Buckland (from the Journal of the American Society for Information Science, June 1991).

In the article, Buckland refutes the notion that information can only be present in traditional formats - print, video, etc. He helps us see that any object can be a piece of information. For example, how would we know about Dinosaurs if we never found their fossils? This doesn't seem like a radical idea - why else do we have museums but to study objects? Although, there are some folks who disagree. They say two agents need to exchange information in order for it to be information. Which makes sense. But I think one of those agents can be an "inanimate" object.

I was thinking about this concept recently when I was hiking through the Hoyt Arboretum in the West Hills of Portland. The arboretum, a garden of trees, seemed full of agents. Through simple observation, a plethora of information could be gathered from the trees. Such as how they effect the micro-climate (cooling temperature below the branches with warmer air above the branches), which effects the ecosystem (bugs swarming the warm air above the canopy create an excellent opportunity for various birds to feed, whose droppings help fertilize the soil creating a beneficial relationship between trees, bugs and birds).

Just by sitting and looking you can learn about the symbiotic relationships that exist in nature, which are important lessons to be learned if you want to be a constructive community member - both for your local community, and the various wider communities we are all participants in.

The arboretum, in essence, is a living library, a community space full of information. And like any public space, you can't keep the idiots out.

As I was walking along, I came across a beautiful old beech tree - it looked like a tree out of Middle Earth (it reminded me of a Mallorn Tree, to be exact, for fellow Tolkien ubër-geeks like myself). The trail wrapped around the tree, and as I approached to other side some jerk gouged, in huge letters, the word "GOD" into the side of the tree.

There's quite a lot going on with this specific word carved into this specific tree, so bear with me as I stand up on my soap box...

The nature lover inside of me knows how much danger this causes for the tree. By opening up the bark like that, the tree is now susceptible to a myriad of diseases and parasites. It is especially harmful in the arboretum, where this tree was planted specifically, like an artifact placed in a museum display, for the public to visit and observe.

As a humanist I'm even more annoyed with the person who did this. What was the point he was trying to make (in my mind, it's a him) by carving the word "GOD" into the tree? Was he saying nature is God? God created the tree? Is he an evangelical graffiti artist trying to spread "His" message? I'm guessing that he was just another portland-meth-tweeker who found his way into the woods and felt divinely inspired (through the crack pipe).

As a library student I'm super annoyed with whoever did this. It feels like someone walking into a library and drawing all over the pages of books, ruining the experience for future patrons.

However, the word "GOD" carved into the tree is a piece of information in and of itself - regardless of the message - just like any scrap of graffiti or vandalism is a piece of information. There is meaning behind it, whether we want to admit to it or not. At the very least, it tells us that people can selfish, moronic and destructive.

Unfortunately, unlike Wikipedia, we can't simple edit out this act of stupidity - it will be with us forever...

(FYI - The above picture was taken from the aforementioned hike through the arboretum. However it is not the vandalized tree, rather a specimen from the Creek Trail.)


  1. Good post Turner. Have you read anything by Susan Blackmore? She talks about memes and information as being transmitted through our artifacts. Technological memes or "temes." I would start with her TED Talk. Dawkins has a great essay in The Devil's Chaplain that deals with how we understand information.

  2. Thanks, Steven! I'll have to check her out. I started to read 'Virus of the mind: the new science of the meme' by Richard Brodie. I had trouble getting into it, but Blackmore sounds fascinating....