Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Personal Information Management/From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Personal Information Management/From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Article excerpt

The following review by Juris Dilevko covers two books

Personal Information Management William Jones and Jaime Teevan, eds. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 2007 (pb). 334 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-295-98737-8; ISBN-10: 0-295-98737-5.

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism Fred Turner. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. 327 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-226-81741-5; ISBN-10: 0-226-81741-5.

In The Snack Thief, one of a series of detective novels by the Italian writer Andrea Camilleri featuring the cynical Inspector Montalbano, a retired philosophy professor tells the inspector that university philosophy courses should be retitled "Basic Management of Life" to hold the interest of students because nowadays "kids get bored" and "[t]hey no longer care enough to learn how Hegel or Kant thought about things." Lectures should be modified to explain to them "philosophically, what it means, for example, to smash their car into another car one Saturday night" and "how, philosophically, this could be avoided" (p. 270). As someone whose reading tastes encompass such books as William Faulkner's Pylon, Montalbano is non-committal. But the former professor has perceptively identified a sign of the times: the tendency to include the word "management" as part of just about every field of study or activity so as to imbue it with contemporary relevance and professional cachet. But this act of renaming has grave ethical consequences, occluding the type of fundamental issues that should be grappled with in any endeavor before its more utilitarian aspects are considered. One has only to think about the way in which the phrase "coercive management techniques" was used to describe the interrogation of suspected terrorists in the post-9/11 environment in the United States (Scott Shane, "China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo," The New York Times, July 2, 2008) or how the term "human-capital management" refers to the way in which the work hours of retail employees are impersonally determined by computer scheduling systems based on such performance metrics as "average sales per hour, units sold, and dollars per transaction" (Vanessa O'Connell, "Retailers Reprogram Workers in Efficiency Push," The Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2008).

Something of this linguistic phenomenon is at work in the emerging field of personal information management (PIM), which is the subject of a volume of interconnected articles, edited by William Jones and Jaime Teevan, surveying various aspects of this developing field. In the introductory chapter to Personal Information Management, they define PIM as "both the practice and the study of the activities people perform to acquire, organize, maintain, retrieve, use, and control the distribution of information items such as documents (paper-based and digital), Web pages, and email messages for everyday use to complete tasks (work-related and not) and to fulfill a person's various roles (as parent, employee, friend, member of community, etc.)" (p. 3). And because information is "scattered in multiple versions between paper and digital copies and isolated in separate applications and devices" such that "[e]ven a seemingly simple action like responding to an email request can cascade into a time-consuming, error-prone chore that requires bringing together information from various collections of paper and electronic documents, emails, Web pages, and other sources," PIM is presented as "a serious area of inquiry focusing the best work from a diverse set of disciplines including cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, database management, information retrieval, and library and information science" (pp. 3, 4). The insights gained from these various disciplines will ostensibly allow people to "spend less time with the burdensome and error-prone activities of managing information and more time making creative, intelligent use of the information at hand to get things done" (p. …

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