Yaron Ezrahi’s “Science and the political imagination in contemporary democracies” (a chapter in Sheila Jasanoff's States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order) argues that the post-Enlightenment synthesis of scientific knowledge and politics in democratic societies is in decline, on the basis of a transition of public discourse into easily consumed, bite-sized chunks of vividly depicted information that he calls “outformation.” Where, prior to the Enlightenment, authority had more of a religious basis and the ideal for knowledge was “wisdom”--which Ezrahi sees as a mix of the “cognitive, moral, social, philosophical, and practical” which is privileged, unteachable, and a matter of faith, the Enlightenment brought systematized, scientific knowledge to the fore. Such knowledge was formalized, objective, universal, impersonal, and teachable--with effort. When that scientific knowledge is made more widely usable, “stripped of its theoretical, formal, logical and mathematical layers” into a “think knowledge” that is context-dependent and localized, it becomes “information.” And finally, when information is further stripped of its context and design for use for a particular purpose, yet augmented with “rich and frequently intense” representations that include “cognitive, emotional, aesthetic, and other dimensions of experience,” it becomes “outformation.”
According to Ezrahi, such “outformations” mix references to objective and subjective reality, and they become “shared references in the context of public discourse and action.” They are taken to be legitimated and authoritative despite lacking any necessary grounding in “observations, experiments, and logic.” He describes this shift as a shift from a high-cost political reality to a low-cost political reality, where “cost” is a measure of the recipient’s ability to consume it rather than the consequences to the polity of its consumption and use as the basis for political participation. This shift, he says, “reflects the diminished propensity of contemporary publics to invest personal or group resources in understanding and shaping politics and the management of public affairs.”
But, I wonder, is this another case of reflecting on “good old days” that never existed? While new media have made new forms of communication possible, was there really a time when the general public was fully invested in “understanding and shaping politics” and not responding to simplifications and slogans? And is it really the case, as Ezrahi argues, that while information can be processed and reconstructed into knowledge, the same is not possible for outformations? Some of us do still read books, and for us, Google may not be “making us stupid,” but rather providing a supplement that allows us to quickly search a vast web of interconnected bits of information that can be assembled into knowledge, inspired by a piece of “outformation.”
[A slightly different version of the above was written as a comment on Ezrahi's article for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Although I wrote about new media, it is apparent that Ezrahi was writing primarily about television and radio, where "outformation" seems to be more prevalent than information. Thanks to Judd A. for his comments on the above.]
UPDATE (April 19, 2010): Part of the above is translated into Italian, with commentary from Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence, at his blog.