Seminar 2013

In the spring semester of 2013, David Casagrande held a graduate seminar in Information Ecology at Lehigh University. The course was taught as environmental policy analysis; one goal of the class was to develop policy recommendations for the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania (USA). At the bottom of the page please find the syllabus, final report, and annotated bibliography for the course.

Information Ecology Defined

One way to define an ecosystem is as a network of interacting components with multiple and complex relationships. Then "information ecology" is the study of the information networks and the many complex relationships they involve, including the study of how information flows and why. This elides the concept of ecosystem as including input and output environments, and simplifies things considerably.

Information ecology is generally concerned with modeling information processes in human systems. The term has been used in computer science and business management. In most cases, "ecology" is used as a metaphor rather than using actual tools or principles of modeling developed by biological ecologists. Our approach builds on graphic language that originated in biological ecology by adding cultural complexity. One goal of information ecology is to understand how information is distributed and processed in cultural systems in order to understand why cultures successfully adapt to changes beyond their control, fail catastrophically, or become socio-pathological.  

Information Ecology and Policy Design

The study of information ecology may include such concepts as double-loop learning, framing, dialectics, cultural models, vernacular epistemologies, and propaganda. Problem definition is the political process by which issues and data are contextualized to clarify potential solutions (Dery 2000). This is a crucial part of the policy process, because those who successfully define the problem (or frame it) are in position to promote their own agendas. The model below synthesizes four theoretical approaches to information, each of which describes a different aspect of problem definition. These include vernacular epistemology (Casagrande & Peters 2013), cultural models (Kempton, Boster & Hartley 1996), propaganda (Ellul 1965) and issue framing (Lakoff 2005). The human mind cannot comprehend all objective reality and must be trained to make sense of the world. In other words, our culture provides us with a shared epistemology--the basic rules for what we will pay attention to, how we reason about it, and what the limits to our knowledge are. Any definition of a problem is constrained first by our vernacular epistemology--the immediately self-serving cultural values and beliefs reinforced by shared forms of reasoning that filter information. A cultural model draws on an epistemology to build a framework for reasoning about a particular topic. Cultural models filter complexity further so that individual and distributed cognitions can function effectively.

The model illustrates a step-by-step path of how information is created and transformed. Theories on framing (Lakoff 2005) and propaganda (Ellul 1965) explain the development of issues/problems by helping us to understand 1) why certain data is chosen as information, 2) how it is transformed through framing, and 3) how it flows as propaganda to and from the general population. Each of the icons in the model represents a specific theoretical concept. See the icon symbol key for explanation of icons used. Each person's head is a portal to a model of individual cognition. See Casagrande and Peters (2013) for detailed models of individual and distributed cognitions.

Annotated Bibliography

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