Sunstein & “social knowledge”

On the XMCA list (eXtended Mind, Culture, & Activity), Mike Cole asks,

Sunstein argues for Dewey’s notion of social intelligence, I gather? At least as a potential and perhaps afforded by our current infotopia?

Trying to make connections across discourses, I might have been misleading in the post Mike was responding to, where I had written:

Cass Sunstein is on BookTV this weekend talking about a new book on how wikis and open source software, etc are being used in processes of social knowledge and decision-making. See

Actually, “social knowledge” is not a term that Sunstein himself uses. Sunstein is discussing processes in which “information” is socially aggregated in ways that produce results that can be better–but sometimes can be worse–than the results obtained by the expertise of individuals. Theoretically, Sunstein is not in the ballpark of either cognitive psychology or semiotics.

He’s coming, rather, from a framework of political & economic theory, as reflected in a blurb on the back jacket of his book, in which Robert MacCoun (Berkeley Public Policy & Law Prof.) writes that

Cass Sunstein’s new book is a lively illustration of emerging mechanisms for collective rationality never anticipated in the classic writings of Madison, Marx, or Milton (Friedman).

Sunstein’s blog post On Aggregating Information: Hayek, Blogging, and Beyond (July 2005) displays this theoretical orientation. His other posts on that blog extend this discussion, including a post on Hayek v. Habermas.

In a response to his first post (linked above), Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales comments:

I just wanted to say that Hayek’s work on price theory is central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project. Possibly one can understand Wikipedia without understanding Hayek, since perhaps my own theories of how Wikipedia works are false. :-)

But one can’t understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek.

Sunstein quotes this comment on pp. 156-7 of his book.

In one of his own posts, Wales issues a call to “Free the Curriculum!

Earlier in this post, I wrote that

Sunstein is discussing processes in which “information” is socially aggregated …

My reason for putting “information” in quotation marks is that I’ve become increasingly concerned about and interested in the idea of “information” that is now taken for granted, which obscures (at best) an older, pre-positivistic idea of information that is more in tune with Dewey’s thinking (to bring this back to Mike Cole’s question, with which this post begins). The positivist degradation of understanding about meaning is discussed in a paper to appear early in 2007 in the special issue of Semiotica edited by Donald Cunningham on semiotics and education. In my paper “Education à la Silhouette: The need for semiotically-informed curriculum consciousness,” I discuss the difference between how C.S. Peirce (and Dewey, following Peirce) understood meaningful signification as a matter of signs potentiating meaning in the interpretive responses to those signs. In this understanding, the sign is something that potentiates, not something that contains and conveys meaning.

The earlier view of “information” had to do with entering into the formation (e.g., of someone’s understanding, awareness, character, etc. This is reflected in European languages that use cognates of “formation” or “Bildung” in their common words for education.

Now I’m seeing examples in a wide range of domains all over the place. To use an example that involves Dewey, consider the 2002 book

in comparison with Dewey’s 1910 classic

In the future I will be writing more about the crucial difference between these two senses of “information.” They are such different ideas that I need to adopt different ways of signifying them. For now, I’m thinking of differentially using “in-formation” juxtaposed with “info-mation.” It seems to me that this could work. What do you think?

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