Thursday, September 18, 2008

What We Know: Knowledge and Power from Subway Maps to Electoral Maps

Knowledge is power, said a certain French Foucault. To borrow that notion from him, if I may, it is outstanding the amount of information available in this country for public access, not only about the elections, but also about everyday mundane things, such as schedules, maps and phone numbers.

The amount of reliable information available for public access, I think, is a good measure of democracy. On a basic level, the availability of maps, phone directories and even street signs not only make life easier, but, essentially, empower the individual citizen to take more control of their life and make better decisions.

The same applies to politics. That the presidential candidates must disclose information about where they get their funding, that they care to inform the voters about their stances on a variety of issues time and time again, and that investigative journalists are able to verify whether they are telling the truth or not, makes the whole process more transparent, less mysterious and definitely more participatory.

There is thus real (if not always intelligent) debate, based on actual facts, knowable to large numbers of people. For those of us used to rumor based politics and street directions which are wrong about 80% of the time and for whom maps are an exotic and foreign thing, this is something to be reckoned with. Information is a resource and like any resource it is unequally distributed. The availability and dispersion of credible facts in a society can change the way that society functions. That is not to say that this system is flawless, or that the public is well informed. In fact, I doubt that any public is well informed, but some seem to be better informed than others.

Sure, there are epistemological problems regarding the American citizen's relationship with information and it is perhaps a relationship that is less critical than it should be. Corporate advertising and the sheer number of media outlets makes it difficult to sift through and assess the facts. But within this same context there exists, for example, an outstanding level of statistical information (with all the qualms I have about relying on statistical information) available about demographics, politics, public attitudes and economics. That alone means that, at the very least, social scientists do not have to rely on their own whimsical impressions when it comes to making informed analysis; something more common in our area of the world.

I am impressed. I am impressed by the existence of the polls, by the census, by social attitude surveys and by subway maps and street signs and phone directories. And for now, I will not problematize the sort of discourse that this information matrix pours into, or the power structures informed by its inequalities. For now, I am just happy and pleasantly surprised with the accuracy of my subway map.


ticknad said...

a great place to visit is the transit museum, located in brooklyn heights it's not far from downtown manhattan. it's really cool check it out.


Kafir said...

If you'll come to the southwestern states, you'll find all that information is available in Spanish as well. Many people think this is a bad thing because it promotes the division of our populace by language. I wonder what your take on it would be.

zeinab said...

Maybe I'll post something on that:)