Conference information

The 2017 EADTU conference took place at the Open University in Milton Keynes in October. TERG members Jon Rosewell and Karen Kear presented a paper with European colleagues. The proceedings can be found here:


ISSEI 2014 Workshop ‘Information’ abstracts

Scholarly Networks and Information in Medieval Ireland: the Evidence of Legal Tradition


Deborah Hayden, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

This discussion will explore medieval European textual culture and the transmission of ideas through the lens of manuscript production and scholarly networks in Ireland, with a particular focus on the medieval Irish legal tradition.

The rise of the written word as a means of imparting knowledge during the medieval period is encapsulated in the famous maxim of the sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great, who stated that quod loquimur transit, quod scribimus permanet (‘the things we say pass, the things we write endure’). Yet our understanding of textual culture and the spread of information during this period embraces a wide range of more subtly interconnected factors, including the relationship between oral communication, literacy and memory; the role of script and image; the identity of producers and consumers of written texts; the various functions of authors, scribes, commentators, copyists and compilers in the production of a single codex; and the circulation of material amongst different educational centres. From as early as the seventh century, Irish scholars made sophisticated written contributions to learning in both Latin and Irish, ranging from grammatical and computistical works to biblical commentary, narrative prose, verse and annalistic writing. Many of the surviving manuscripts from medieval Ireland contain several or all of these varieties of written material, which might be characterised by different kinds of script, layout or ordering, depending on how a given compiler saw fit to present the information at hand. Similarly, a single text might, in the course of its transmission, be subject to various degrees of expansion, abridgment, conflation or rearrangement by successive copyists. Interlinear and marginal comments or markers in medieval manuscripts serve to indicate how material was understood, organised and contextualised by a compiler or reader, and sometimes serve as a window on the everyday activities and working conditions of the medieval scribe.

Many of the law tracts written in the Irish vernacular can be dated to the early medieval period, but only survive in much later manuscripts, where they are typically surrounded by substantial commentary that offers insight into the reception of these works over an extended period of time. This discussion will draw on a selection of law texts from two Irish manuscripts written in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries respectively, as a means of exploring medieval conceptions of textual authority and authenticity, the role of script and visual layout for conveying information in written form, and the impact of scholarly networks and patronage on the transmission of knowledge, both in Ireland and in medieval Europe more broadly.

The Age of Exchange: Translation, News and the European Public Sphere in the 16th and the 17th centuries

José María Pérez Fernández, University of Granada, Spain

The international turmoil created first by the wars of religion during the second half of the sixteenth century and then by the Thirty Years War in the early decades of the following century stirred what Geoffrey Parker has called an ‘obsession with rapid change’, which in turn fuelled demand for news. In parallel with the exchange of goods and currency, the development of financial capitalism, and the growth of diplomatic networks, news acquired the status of an increasingly valuable, albeit intangible, commodity. This paper aims to sample some case studies to illustrate the emergence of an early modern European public sphere facilitated by agents of exchange that included translators, publishers, and newsmongers.

The first weekly newsletter was published in Strasbourg in 1605: Johann Carolus’ Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien covered subjects that ranged from armed conflict to religion, politics and science. In the Netherlands, printers published newspapers in French and English which were then exported to other countries and regions. In the 1620s London saw the publication of domestic news pamphlets and translated foreign corantos, all of which appeared on an almost weekly basis. Many of them came from Amsterdam, which was strategically located to send news coming from the areas in conflict, i.e. German-speaking central Europe. During these decades the fluctuations of the English political establishment had come to depend to a large extent on the circulation of news and on the sort of changes that they could operate on the state of public opinion.

More traditional ballads sung in alehouses and other public spaces coexisted with these new printed newsletters, with pamphlets on religious and political controversies, and also with new public spaces such as those devoted to the performance of popular plays. Significant among these were the new commercial theatres that sprang up in large cities like London and Madrid. The circulation of news and opinion through the channels provided by corantos, popular publications and public spaces like the commercial stage predates the famous coffee-houses of the late seventeenth century.

This growing mass of consumers of printed matter and popular drama naturally raised serious concerns among the authorities, who feared their power to shape the opinion of the vulgar multitude, and consequently sought to harness its potential in their own benefit.

A more detailed study of these complex and heterogeneous exchange networks will provide a comprehensive view of material conditions and above all of the virtual scaffolding that shaped and sustained the European public sphere during this period. A close analysis will prove that translation played a fundamental role that can be approached from a general theory of communication.

The information turn in modelling people and society: early German work


Chris Bissell, The Open University, UK

In a recent (2011) paper on Hermann Schmidt, a German contributor to cybernetics in the 1940s and 1950s, I referred to forerunners in the field along the following lines.

The notion that living organisms can be considered in some respects as machines has a long history, dating at least as far back as Descarte’s De Homine (1643). Nearly two centuries later (1827) Charles Bell drew analogies between the biology of bones and internal organs on the one hand, and engineered structures and systems such as buildings, pumps and pipes on the other. Herbert Spencer (1860s) considered the way organisms maintain dynamic equilibrium, drawing direct comparison with the steam engine, and also extended such ideas to the equilibrium of non-living systems in the natural world. At this point, although not made explicit, notions about information emerged. In Germany, Eduard Pflüger (1877) addressed the importance of feedback, using the example of the control of the dilation of the pupil, in a paper whose very title, ‘Teleological mechanics of living nature’ anticipated the classic ‘Behaviour, purpose and teleology’ of Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow (1943).

In a lecture published in 1879 Felix Lincke analysed mechanical regulation in general terms, and then applied his ideas to the human body. Lincke distinguished between the indicator (specifying the value of the parameter to be controlled), the modifier (valve, etc), the transmission system (between indicator and modifier), and the motor (to supply power for the actuation). In the human body these functions were carried out by the eye, muscles and nervous system, for example. Information flow was thus a key factor, as was feedback.

By the 1920s a number of German zoologists and physiologists had taken up the study of biological control processes. Jacob von Uexküll (1864-1944) and Richard Wagner (1893-1970) both considered the rôle of feedback. Uexküll used what we would now term signal flow diagrams to represent both internal feedback loops and the relationship of the organism with its environment, while Wagner explicitly discussed biological feedback. Both authors also applied biological ideas to society. Wagner was the anonymous author of a short 1932 publication entitled Unemployment and deflation in the body economic from the point of view of biological laws, in which he proposed solutions to the economic crisis based on biological metaphors including feedback.

This paper will look in more detail at the contributions of early German thinkers in this area.

The Mundaneum in Belgium: where technology meets ITs story …


Delphine Jenart, Mundanaeum, Mons, Belgium

Today, the Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium, is an archives center and a temporary exhibitions space with a mission of conserving, preserving and showcasing the archives and collections bequeathed by its founders. But the origins of the Mundaneum go back to the late nineteenth century. Created in Brussels by two Belgian jurists, Paul Otlet (1868-1944), the father of documentation, and Henri La Fontaine (1854-1943), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913, the project aimed at gathering the entire world’s knowledge and to file it using the Universal Decimal Classification system that they had created on basis of the American librarian Melvil Dewey’s Decimal Classification system. Today their work is interpreted as the first paper search engine ever imagined in history. It is not by chance that the Mundaneum has been referred to as “The web time forgot” (The New-York Times) or “The paper Google” (Le Monde)! In 2013 the Repertory was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

In the digital era, the Mundaneum has already emerged as a wonderful forum for experimentation, bringing together heritage and technological innovation. It is a center that encourages explanations and debates around digital culture with the help of exhibitions, lectures and educational activities. The Mundaneum has closed its doors and is now under reconstruction until 2015 when the city of Mons will turn into a European capital of Culture. More information can be found at or

Measuring information

David Chapman, The Open University, UK

In his celebrated 1948 paper on A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Claude Shannon, building on the work of Ralph Hartley and Harry Nyquist, used a measure of information based on the entropy function ( ) that has become the flagship of information theories. In the words of David Mackay, Shannon’s 1948 paper “both created the field of information theory and solved most of its fundamental problems”. It has been phenomenally successful, and as of February 2014 had been cited by more than 10,000 documents in the Web of Science database.  Though it addressed the specific task of modelling electrical communication systems, the breadth of fields among those 10,000 citations – including such unexpected topics as Pediatrics, Fisheries, Public Administration, Women’s Studies, Art and Religion – reveals that it has found application a long way beyond its origins.

The application of Shannon’s model to diverse fields such as these started almost as soon the paper appeared, but the legitimacy of doing so has been hotly debated from the start. Arguments rage around issues such the interpretation of the word ‘information’ in Shannon’s model, and the applicability of the model (sometimes referred to – often disparagingly – as the conduit model of communication) to communication outside of engineering.

The basics of the Shannon model will be presented, some of the context and issues surrounding what it says about information discussed, and the insights it can offer will be illustrated by the example of modelling the information content of school reports.

Shannon’s entropy function is the flagship, but it is not the only measure proposed for information.

Whereas Shannon’s measure of information comes from a communications engineering perspective, algorithmic information is a different measure which comes from computer science. Pioneered by Andrey Kolmogorov, Ray Solomonoff and Gregory Chaitin, the algorithmic information content (Kolmogorov complexity) is the smallest description that can specify an object. Something which to human perception is apparently complex might be specifiable by a compact algorithm.

The basics of algorithmic information will be presented, the insights it can offer into the nature of information explored, and algorithmic information compared with Shannon information.

Painting as Information?


Pat Simpson, School of Creative Arts, University of Hertfordshire, UK

A common belief regarding globalisation is that it is driven by ‘information’.  For Maurice Castells (1996) the primary vehicles of networked information were the internet and the media.  What about art?  Can art works, particularly paintings, be regarded as containers of information which participate in the process of globalisation?  This paper sets out to explore the question by using some specific examples of European, American and Russian paintings.

Contemporary art discourse highlights the definition of painting as problematic, nevertheless, taking account of the current fluidity of definition a painting has certain basic physical and visual characteristics.  Do these characteristics, however, constitute ‘information’?  I suggest that, to be able to read and understand what the characteristics might signify, we need to know about the artist and the historical context in which the work was produced. Thus, I argue that the characteristics of a painting might rather be regarded as raw ‘data’, similar to computer code, hence the retrieval of ‘information’ depends on a process of interpretation of the data by the viewer, using other sources of information.  There are, however, too many potential variables and too many unknown factors governing why any work looks as it does. The extent of the retrieval and interpretation of the data will depend on the cultural/socio-political baggage that the viewer brings to the encounter with the painting, and the context of the encounter.

The final part of the paper investigates the role of art within a process of cultural ‘globalisation since at least the 1400s, in which painting has played a part.  I suggest that such globalisation has never been entirely disconnected from power politics.  The conclusion highlights the problems with treating any visual material as ‘information’, and also the deeper problem with the concept of ‘information’ itself, and its ambiguous relationships both with constructs of truth, reality and authenticity, and with the operations of power and money.

Information and social contention


Steve Walker, The Open University, UK

The proposed paper examines the relationship between information and social conflict.  Information and the technologies in which it is embodied and transmitted have long been intertwined with such conflict. The printing press, it is repeatedly asserted, was instrumental or even causal, in the European reformation.  Castells (1997) in particular has sought to explain the emergence of new social movements including feminism, environmentalism and various nationalisms, and the simultaneous weakening of the older, universalist moments, typified by organised labour, in terms of the ‘network society’. More recently widespread claims were made for the causal impact of contemporary social networking sites as information conduits in the ‘Arab spring’.  Information and its availability have themselves become the subject of contentious politics, as in the recent high profile cases of Wikileaks’ release of US intelligence data and Edward Snowden’s release of information about the surveillance activities of the US and other intelligence agencies.

We can distinguish three aspects of information in social conflict. Firstly, we can information as a resource in the co-ordination of actors in social conflict. This has become more significant in an increasingly globalised world where the actors and domains of conflict are remote from each other. This co-ordinative use of information has been closely associated with the spread of ‘asymmetric’ social conflict analogous to the asymmetric warfare of contemporary military doctrine. Secondly we can see information as a tool or even weapon in protagonists’ struggles ‘hearts and minds’.  Thirdly, information itself can be seen as the terrain of contention as social movements take up issues such as government surveillance and censorship.

These themes have emerged from the study of the internet in social conflict. This paper will explore these themes in a longer perspective drawing particularly, though not exclusively, on the history of organised labour.

Information networks and the social imaginary


Graeme Kirkpatrick, University of Manchester, UK

As the semantics of ‘information’ have become expanded, even diffuse, so the idea of ‘society’ has been in retreat. As recently as 1947, Maurice Merleau-Ponty could write, “If a man of a capitalist society looks back to its origins, he gets the impression that he is witnessing the ‘realization of society’. Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries the social seemed to be immanent in this way: social change might be difficult and contradictory but it pointed towards greater integration, more sense in our collective lives. Perhaps the high tide of this movement was the late 1960s and early 70s, when benefits specifically thematised in social terms were regularly invoked in support of all kinds of reform proposals, from Ivan Illich’s de-schooling society to the creation of personal computers.

What we have seen since then has been the absorption of many of these investments in the social by information technology and the socio-technical hybrid construct, ‘network’. In their study of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’, which has been in the ascendant since the 1980s, Boltanski and Chiapello show that key discourses – they focus particularly on management science – manifest a shift in focus away from co-ordinating the activities of categorized groups of people with allocated functions and onto control of people’s work through action on their “internal dispositions”.  Those who organize work no longer think their activity in terms of the solution of social problems; rather, it is a matter of harnessing subjective inclinations in such a way that individuals supervise themselves and one another in choreographed performances that serve the interests of the organization. The latter is increasingly construed in quasi-natural terms of the organism and its environment, or ecological niche.

This displacement of the social in our thinking involves a corresponding change in the way that people think the technical. No longer alien to the human, informational and networked technology is part and parcel of what we mean when we think of another person. Society here remains present in our inter-personal world orderings but in a new way. This has been construed as ‘post-human’ by Bruno Latour and others but might actually be the basis for a reformulation of the human, even for a new statement of the humanist position on history and its trajectories. This paper will attempt to think through some of the strategic openings that present themselves for such a position. How can humanist critique work in a situation where social concepts won’t bear the weight they used to and in which technology moves to the centre of the imaginary basis of collective existence?



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  1. Pingback: Social and Educational Aspects of Technology Research Group » ‘Information’. A workshop at the 14th ISSEI

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