Blog post

Information Sources in Planning: Principles

"What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and kinks it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?" 

            - Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space p. 44.

Michael Dudley | February 8, 2012, 12pm PST
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"What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and kinks it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?" 

            - Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space p. 44.

"In the realm of headings that deal with people and cultures – in short humanity – the [Library of Congress] list can only satisfy parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of Western civilization."

            - Sanford Berman, Prejudices and Antipathies, p. 15


All planning is problematic; all proposed interventions imply some normative stance on our socio-political arrangements. Any changes to our housing, work environments or transportation networks affect our social relations, and are dependent on a complex political economy of development processes and practices deeply embedded in power relations. As Lefebvre famously argued, all spaces are by their nature ideological; they are the manifestations of the values, principles and ideals of those who created them.

This is just as true for information sources: Just as city blocks may be set out in uniform grids and built upon according to prescribed classification schemes, information too – be it in the form of books, journal articles or websites – is indexed, formatted and classified by coordinates both conceptual and spatial. Again, such schemes derive from a normative view of the world; and, as Minnesota librarian Sanford Berman pointed out in his famous treatise Prejudices and Antipathies, classification and cataloguing schemes are hardly neutral but can be profoundly biased and resistant to alternative world views.    

As both a planner and a librarian, I use information literacy principles in the courses I teach in order to stress the intersections between the built and informational environments. I point out that they are each equally designed and structured, comprising both physical and conceptual elements; exhibit a tension between the formal and informal, the top-down and the grassroots; and can be made – depending on the biases of their creators – more or less accessible to different constituencies.

When engaging with our present vast information environment, it is therefore essential to be able to identify bias, to distinguish between valuable and less reliable information, and to be able to counter misinformation. As I wrote in my previous entry (and to which Andrew Whittemore's recent essay in Atlantic Cities about countering Tea Party antipathy towards planning attests) the increasingly controversial nature of planning makes this task imperative.

Yet our present information environment also makes this extremely challenging. Between the Internet's tendency to facilitate self-insulating ideological bubbles and a postmodern culture of epistemological relativism, the ability of individuals, groups and entire political factions to select their own array of convenient "facts" has exploded beyond reckoning. Just this week, Garry Trudeau is using his Doonesbury strip to take aim at the pollution of American public discourse with toxic propaganda: a phone operator at a company called "myFacts" fields calls from customers seeking "facts" to support their own pre-determined conclusions about such culture war controversies as climate change, creationism and President Obama's birth certificate.

Discerning reliable information from its opposite is not as easy as simply conflating the authoritative or official with accuracy, for governments and institutions bring their own structural biases to data collection and distribution that can distort and disguise important social and economic realities. Here in Canada – and in the face of howls of protest – the Conservative Harper Government chose in 2010 to scrap the long-form Census in favour of a shorter and voluntary one. Opponents fear that vulnerable populations will be dramatically underrepresented, but it remains to be seen if this will be borne out as the data is only now beginning to be released. To cite another example, Marilyn Waring revealed in her book If Women Counted how mainstream economic indicators woefully distort reality by omitting or discounting the economic contributions of women in non-paid family, community and supportive roles.

It is of course also untenable to give equal weight to the cacophony of voices in the Web, where anybody with a keyboard has the opportunity to make their views known, where ideological partisans have been caught re-writing inconvenient Wikipedia entries, and where authoritative appearances can sometimes disguise outright falsehoods (even humorously so). Even that linchpin of sound academic practice, the peer-reviewed journal, is not immune to controversy and confusion, as the recent scandal at the scientific journal Life over a disputed published paper demonstrates.

All this is not to say that the task is hopeless; far from it. The unprecedented richness of our information environment brings with it tremendous opportunities to enhance existing knowledge and develop new forms of knowledge, to inform policy debates, and give voice to constituencies whose perspectives have, for too long, been silenced or disregarded.

Instead, the search for valid and reasonable information is an ongoing and difficult process of negotiation and reflexivity, one in which we must be able to both compare the claims made by data and their interpreters, and to account for our own relationship to these claims. After all, inasumuch as institutions and authors alike bring their own biases to bear on their outputs, so too do we bring our own preconceptions – and indeed, entire world-views – to our investigations, and these can give shape to our facts, rather than visa-versa. We cannot eliminate these tendencies, only account for them.

In my next post, I shall illustrate such practice by comparing and contrasting two planning-related websites against evaluative criteria.


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