In the first wave of digital invention it was a rallying cry to proclaim that “information wants to be free.” Of course what this really meant was that a certain subculture of educated people, mostly in universities, wanted to access and share information without having to pay for it. This cultural attitude has produced useful online resources like Wikipedia and it has also produced high visibility arrests for media piracy and endless litigation against the Google Book Project. We now know whatever “information” may want, rights holders often want to be paid.
I was reminded of this change in perspective recently by Janet Vertesi, who was at Georgia Tech speaking about her illuminating research on knowledge cultures at NASA. Vertesi studied two projects which collected very different configurations of knowledge, mirroring the very different social organization of the investigating teams. One team which divided up the ownership of individual instruments and had a highly politicized decision making process collected data with great breadth but little coherence; a second team that shared a common instrument set and made decisions by consensus collected data that was highly integrated and detailed but narrow in scope. Vertesi’s presentation made it clear that there was no such thing as objective data, and that knowledge reflected cultural organization. It was Vertesi’s very sensible position that designers must heed such differences in cultural configuration or risk creating tools that do not fit the user group. Continue reading