Think of information as light, not liquid.

In the recent Zenko Mapping video, I talked briefly about a new idea, a lens through which to see the world; we should focus on thinking of information as light, not liquid.

It’s the fundamental philosophy at the heart of this year’s TENETS project, and will no doubt form the basis of Smithery’s work moving forwards. I’ll share more at length in the new year, but the thought of ending 2020 with ‘a clear vision’ is too good a pun to pass up…

Below you’ll find the relevant excerpt from the longer film, followed by some extended thoughts from the project so far.

Information is everywhere

The language we use to describe our work is more important than we might think. Whether we realise it or not, it forms and shapes our actions, especially when it comes to the use of metaphors. I’ve been thinking about this with particular regards to information.

This reflection started back in January. I was asked to give a talk about the different ways of seeing the world I’ve created over the last 12 or so years. Looking back, it was very apparent that all of my work was about ‘information’ in one way or another (arguably, perhaps, everybody’s is).

For instance, think about the information shared in workshops and classrooms, shaping new products, living inside services, informing strategy work, rolling down a production line, creating understanding in niche communities and broader societies. Despite different sources, characteristics, uses and so on, might all that information have similar qualities?

What if there was a consistent way of thinking about information that would offer ways to apply things learned in one domain to another?

After all, information is ‘the distinctions that make a difference’ (see Dennett), a collection of things that stimulates action in all of these situations; from the inputs gathered for an innovation workshop to the profile screen inside an app.

Information as liquid

When you look at frequently used metaphors in speech and text, it becomes clear that information is often described as if it were a liquid. Here are a just a few examples, from an extended project glossary:

  • Let’s have a brainstorm.
  • We’re drowning in the detail.
  • It’s backed up in the cloud.
  • Data is the new oil.
  • Our thinking is a bit stagnant.
  • We’re going against the tide.
  • It’s a stream of consciousness

No doubt you’ve often heard or used phrases like these. Whilst they refer to different activities, they all employ the same metaphorical base; information is comparable to a liquid, a resource for us to store or direct depending on our needs.

Yet it is perhaps not helpful to imagine information as an homogenous liquid, a pool into which we plunge, a tank we seek to fill, a tidal wave from which we must protect ourselves.

Too often the language used to think about information defaults to this idea of it. And the metaphors we use matter more than you might think.

Metaphors matter

Now, from one angle, you might perceive that the metaphors we use to describe information as unimportant. Surely people don’t believe that information is a liquid, pourable from one vessel to another?

Well, they don’t need to believe such a thing for it to behave as if it did. As Lakoff and Johnson describe, in their seminal work on metaphors;

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays central role in defining our everyday realities.

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Basically, we need metaphors to help us work together, as they are ‘defining our everyday realities’.

Therefore, not just any old metaphor will do in order to create alignment. Our concepts about our work, and the metaphors we use to describe it, will structure how we see tasks, projects, goals, cooperation, competition and more.

Knowingly or unknowingly, our language defines our plans and actions, setting our priorities for how we look to make progress.

Which means if we think and speak of information as if it were liquid, our actions will reflect this.

Imagine our task is to ‘prevent news leaking out’. We’ll look for holes, and ways to mend them.

What if we’re asked to ‘cascade information down through the organisation’? We may readily imagine the ‘water’ channels and structures that help us do that.

And if we’re told ‘data is the new oil’? Our immediate thoughts turn to how to secure it at source, and make money from putting it in a barrel.

From light to liquid

If we rely simply on the metaphors of ‘information as liquid’, we only concern ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows. Which means we’re not thinking about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful and important.

Information is useful because of the differences we find in it, and the decisions it helps us make.

Separate pieces of information come together to help us focus, gain new perspectives, or fire our imaginations.

Therefore, the nature of this assembled information is not that of a homogeneous liquid melted together forever. All the contributing pieces can be taken apart and paired with other information to form another view, or even just reassembled to look like something else.

With this in mind, it is potentially very beneficial to employ a metaphor for information which readily works with this aspect of its nature. We want our actions and behaviours to be driven by what we actually want to achieve.

Information as light

Consider, then, thinking of information as light. Individual particles or pixels coming together to form a view, a glimpse, a perspective… something to inform the mind of those perceiving it.

The language we already use on a daily basis helps us see how often we do employ this metaphor anyway; once again, a selection from the glossary:

  • We need some clarity.
  • What’s the outlook?
  • It just dawned on me
  • She brought a fresh perspective.
  • Let’s pause for reflection.
  • It was a glaring omission.
  • Is this in scope?
  • This is pure speculation.
  • It was a real lightbulb moment.

If we shift our thinking as information as the light, not liquid, we can begin to question every piece of information we see, understanding its true nature; it is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive.

Additionally, we can start to depict the processes by which information flows through everything, from the individual to the organisation level, and map out where we might intervene to improve our processes.

Casting a critical eye

Following this line of thought, every particle of information can be split out into constituent parts to help you understand more about it.

Whether it’s a slide in a presentation, a quote in a review section, an article in a newspaper, a link in a tweet, ask yourself a series of critical questions about its composition. Where do this come from? Who set conditions for its collection? Why was it created? How was it created? When was it formed?

The more you can reorient yourself to this way of describing information, the better you can interrogate the world.

Each new piece of information is not just another drop from the well of knowledge, but rather a glimpse of an uncertain vista, and one for you to compare to other things you’ve seen. Critical thinking is critical viewing.

What comes next?

This idea, that we should think more of information as light, not liquid, forms the basis of the TENETS project (“Ten Tools To Transform How You Think“). The tools are a wide variety of things, from group thought-experiments to system-view frameworks.

Overall, they simply help people, teams and organisations interrogate how they use information. That can be in forming strategy, creating new environments for innovation, creative problem solving, designing products and services, and more besides. Do get in touch if that sounds interesting for you.

‘The Infinite Anvil’ – a representation of all the tools, from which we can shape an infinite number of new tools.

Yet perhaps what matters most about this thinking right now, in the midst of COVID-19, is that none of us is seeing the world as we used to.

For organisations used to bringing people together in large containers, great big offices where the intent (or the interpretation) was that ideas sloshed around, mixed together and produced the forward momentum that pushed the business forward.

If you think of information as liquid, you’re probably still trying to recreate the containers and channels.

Think of it as light, however, and suddenly the actions you take become focussed on bringing the right view to the right people at the right time.

One Reply to “Think of information as light, not liquid.”

  1. […] A provocation metaphor for information by John V Willshire. What if data is not a flow of liquid, but behaves more like light and particles? […]

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