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Reading Note: Capabilities as information system assessment criteria

I am used to consider criteria such as human rights, exercises of power, effects on one or many lives, as well as informatics and society implications for doing social assessment of interpersonal information systems.

After hearing a lecture from Martha Nussbaum, I consider that it would be useful to also include consideration of capabilities. That would not provide brand new criteria, but certainly an additional angle to look at them.

The capabilities approach” is “an outcome-oriented view that seeks to determine what basic principles, and adequate measure thereof, would fulfill a life of human dignity.” (Wikipedia, “Martha Nussbaum“, August 5, 2014)

Nussbaum identifies 10 core capabilities that, in her eyes, should be supported by all democracies:

  1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
  3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
  4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
  5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
  6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
  7. Affiliation.
    1. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
    2. Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin and species.
  8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Control over one’s Environment.
    1. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
    2. Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.”

(Wikipedia, “Capability approach“, August 5, 2014)

This list of core capabilities is non exhaustive. Indeed, it can be enlarged.

For instance, outside welfare economics, one can add other capabilities that are pertinent to interpersonal information system, such as « privacy » as defined by Rohan Samarajiva as “the capability to implicitly or explicitly negotiate boundary conditions of social relations. This definition includes control of outflow of information that may be of strategic or aesthetic value to the person and control of inflow of information, including initiation of contact.” (Rohan Samarajiva,”Privacy in Electronic Public Space: Emerging Issues”, Canadian Journal of Communication, North America, 19, Jan. 1994. Available at: <>).

A capability standpoint also reveals that such information inflow and outflow are far from exhausting this basic definition. Some “interflow” should also be considered: how, for example, intermediaries such as the Facebooks or Googles screen how one can be in contact with other or not, and how they could engage or not once contact is made.

As well, a capability standpoint can include an informational variation on the Practical Reason core capabilities. That is the capabilities to get, produce, process information to serve one’s own personal or collective goal.

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Reading Notes : Cavoukian, Ann. A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction

About: Cavoukian, Ann. A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction (Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada, 1973).

Cover of: Cavoukian, Ann. A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction (Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada, 1973)

Tweets from Privacy by Design (@embedprivacy) signaled the publication of A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction (18 pages PDF document). As I am currently working on a related subject, I read it at once… and was disappointed. The actual primer on what is metadata is only two pages long, rather minimal, inaccurate and not quite convincing.

Metadata (formal definition):

Metadata is (…) essentially information about other information, in this case, relating to our communications.”

In this case : “Metadata is information generated by our communications devices and our communications service providers, as we use technologies like landline telephones, mobile phones, desktop computers, laptops, tablets or other computing devices.”

Cavoukian, 2013, p. 3

Metadata (descriptive definition) : Metadata includes information that reveals the time and duration of a communication, the particular devices, addresses, or numbers contacted, which kinds of communications services we use, and at what geolocations. And since virtually every device we use has a unique identifying number, our communications and Internet activities may be linked and traced with relative ease – ultimately back to the individuals involved.”

Cavoukian, 2013, p. 3


As presented in the document, these two definitions are at odds with one another: the formal one referring to information items about other information items; but not the descriptive definition which is rather referring to information about processes. But computer specialists do recognize many kinds of metadata, even though they might use different typologies.

The few lines entitled “A Day in the Life…” (pp. 3-4) provide a good illustration of how (processes) “metadata created by the devices that two individuals use to communicate with each other can reveal a great deal” about them.

Finally, the section “Metadata May Be More Revealing Than Content” (pp. 4-5) reads more like a series of arguments from authority than as an actual demonstration.

Need for evidenced arguments

Coincidently, answering engineering students in a lecture made at Polytechnique Montréal last week, I had to remind that an information set would be metadata, not by some intrinsic nature, but merely by the context of its initial production and use. Classically, the term data referred to information items that are available (or to be produced) for the solution of a problem or the completion of a reasoning, an inquiry or a research. As soon as one so uses “metadata” (what ever the type), they become “data”. Thus, no longer are “metadata”.

From the very first universal purpose computing machine, computers – and digital devices since – require metadata to work. And they also produce other metadata as by-products of their processes. And from the dawn of informatics, those metadata were at once reused as data.

There is nothing new with using metadata to produce knowledge about people. A classic example is the introduction of the computerized cash registers. As the machine processes the customers’ purchases, it produces clock metadata than can be used to asses the clerks’ speeds to punch (now scan) items, to take payments and give change, to pack the goods and pass to the next customers.

Anytime an operation is linkable to a human user, the operations’ metadata can be exploited as data about this human user (and anyone related to that person). Videogames provides good examples of how the same outputs can simultaneously be processes’ metadata and players’ data.

These relative artificiality and mutability of the distinction between data and metadata become obvious when one considers (as these tweet structure maps show) that making a tweet of a maximum of 140 characters can easily require the production of between 500 and 1000 characters of metadata which include… the tweet message itself !

And indeed, the “metadata”/”data” relative weights in todays’ particular instances can often be startling… if one can still distinguish between the two.

Also, need to make evidences evident

How come that there is no readily available button on which I could click to see the whole tweet actually produced, not only the message I wrote and sent?

Or how come that there is no readily available command to display what information my mobile phone service actually produces minute by minute?

And as I pointed out to Polytechnique’s engineering students: if NSA’s work is essentially done with computerized devices, how come Congress does not have a dashboard that harness the metadata about what kinds of operations NSA actually does? If such metadata would have been available, could Director James Clapper, been able to lie so easily about NSA’s operations before Congress? And Congress only discovering it through documents leaked by a whistleblower? After all, would it not be only metadata about systems’ uses, not data from the individual intelligence operations themselves? 😉

Such are questions of critical and practical political significance. Because they breed other questions about who decides the production of such information. About its uses. About who control them. About their consequences. And so on. Of critical and practical significance also because they could turn a defensive stance into one of political affirmation. Such questions stem from an understanding of the nature of what information and information processing are. This is why it is so important to deepen and strengthen such understanding as well as to popularize it and make it useable by all citizens.

So if you know any instructive work on the subject…

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A Few Notes from Luciano Floridi’s book The philosophy of information

From : Floridi, Luciano. The philosophy of information (Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).


Good problem / Open problem / Reseach Method

« Good problems are the driving force of any intellectual pursuit. Being able to do valuable research hugely depends on having good taste in choosing them. Now, for Hilbert, a good problem is a problem rich in consequences, clearly defined, easy to understand and difficult to solve, but still accessible. Again, it is worth learning the lesson, with a further qualification. We saw in chapter one that genuine philosophical problems should also be intrinsically open, that is, they should allow for genuine, reasonable, informed differences of opinion. Open problems call for explicit solutions, (p. 29 ) which facilitate a critical approach and hence empower the interlocutor. »

Floridi (2011) p. 28-29


Good problem / Reseach Method

« Hilbert thought that mathematical research has a historical nature and that mathematical problems often have their initial roots in historical circumstances, in the ‘ever-recurring interplay between thought and experience’. Philosophical problems are no exception. Like mathematical problems, they are not contingent but timely. »

Floridi (2011) p. 28


Solution / Explicitness / Rigor / Research Method

The more explicit and rigorous a solution is, the more easily it is criticizable. Logic is only apparently brusque. Its advice is as blunt as that of a good friend. The real trap is the false friendliness of sloppy thinking and obscure oracles. Their alluring rhetoric undermines the very possibility of disagreement, lulling the readers’ reason to sleep.

Floridi (2011) p. 28


Information / Epistemology

« The informational circle: How can information be assessed? If information cannot be transcended but can only be checked against further information—if it is information all the way up and all the way down—what does this tell us about our knowledge of the world?

The informational circle is reminiscent of the hermeneutical circle. It underpins the modern debate on the foundation of epistemology and the acceptability of some form of realism in the philosophy of science, according to which our information about the world captures something of the way the world is (Floridi (1996)). »

Floridi (2011) p. 40


Information / Epistemology / Model / Information Modelling / Reseach Method

« The semantic view of science: Is science reducible to information modelling?

The semantic approach to scientific theories (…), argues that

scientific reasoning is to a large extent model-based reasoning. It is models almost all the way up and models almost all the way down. (Giere (1999), p. 56).

Theories do not make contact with phenomena directly, but rather higher models are brought into contact with other, lower models (see chapter nine). These are themselves theoretical conceptualizations of empirical systems, which constitute an object being modelled as an object of scientific research. Giere (1988) takes most scientific models of interest to be non-linguistic abstract objects. Models, however, are the medium, not the message. Is information the (possibly non-linguistic) content of these models? How are informational models (semantically, cognitively, and instrumentally) related to the conceptualizations that constitute their empirical references? »

Floridi (2011) p. 41


Data / Information / Materialism

« Wiener’s problem: What is the ontological status of information?

Most people agree that there is no information without (data) representation. This principle is often interpreted materialistically, as advocating the impossibility of physically disembodied information, through the equation ‘representation = physical implementation’. (…) Here, let me stress that the problem is whether the informational might be an independent ontological category, different from the physical/material and the mental, assuming one could draw this Cartesian distinction. Wiener, for example, thought that

Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day. (Wiener (1948), p. 132)

If the informational is not an independent ontological category, to which category is it reducible? If it is an independent ontological category, how is it related to the physical/material and to the mental? »

Floridi (2011) p. 42

"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesReading Notes

2012 Map of a Twitter Status Object for Dummies

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Many probably have seen the Map of a Twitter status object below. Produced by Raffi Krikorian, from Twitter’s engineering department, this one-page chart quickly became popular. This was because it illustrated in a single image that a Twitter message was not a mere line of text up to 140 characters.

Although this document and its annotations are addressed primarily to API developers, it had a strong educational value. I have used it often. You had to see how wide the eyes of information law students opened in surprise and curiosity! That chart made easy to pass on the message we must do our homework when assessing informational practice. That we not be satisfied with only the visible information items and processes. That we must understand what actually happens in the black box. Even ask a hand to computer technologists.

I was writing a new book chapter entitled “Production Inputs“. It explains that handling of information objects allows us to produce new ones. However, this task requires, often without our realizing, the production of even further information objects, either to carry it out, or to describe it. The example of the 140 characters tweet which, in fact, features thousands of characters of code lines seems great to illustrate this point.

So I undertook to produce a new chart that would be updated, clearer as well as, more easily readable and understandable by non-specialists.

Partial List of Information Items Linked to a Tweet (small)

The result is this chart spreading over two pages. But it would have taken three to be exhaustive. Please, click the following to access :

Among many things, this exercise revealed to me the existence of fields for blocking messages or entire users’ accounts at the request of public authorities, of holders copyright, or of others. It also revealed that this map is not only that of a tweet, but also of all the information items coproduced with it. To the extent that all these items are available in practice, the distinction is perhaps only one of nuance. From a pedagogical point of view however, this is worth mentioning.

Further revelation, I also found a few syntax, description and field’s status typos in the original chart from Krikorian. Far from being a Twitter engineer, I would be very grateful if you would signal to me any typo or error in the new chart proposed here.

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Worth reading: Adam Thierer’s review of ‘Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Int…

Worth reading: Adam Thierer's review of 'Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom'

Not only because of the growing power struggles over networks and contents, but also because of the crucial political debate about which strategies to maintain and expand freedom and democracy.

Thierer does nail some good critics, such as his section arguing that to treat Google and Facebook as "sovereign" (kind of Googledom, Facebookistan) is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But sometimes his critics of MacKinnon may read as weak as his presentation of her own case. His definition of "sovereign" reads a bit too classical XIXth century for contemporary realities. I also find his quest for a Net free from State intervention as naive as the quest for enlighten State regulation. The very protection of 47 U.S.C. § 230 he applauds because it shields online operators from liability for information posted or published on their systems by users actually is a State intervention that, not only has permitted the Yelp, Twitter, eBay to flourish, but also permitted them to become sort of public services.

Thierer recommends reading this book: I will certainly follow it. And I definitely recommend reading his take on it. I will certainly re-read it, and study both.

Rebecca MacKinnon’s new book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, is well-researched exploration of the forces driving Internet developments and policy across the gl…
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From Michel Cartier’s Formal and Informal Groups to Personal and Impersonal Groups for PIP

Reading Michel Cartier’s Les groupes d’intérêts et les collectivités locales (Interest Groups and Local Communities)*, I came across the diagram entitled “A Society Operating by Levels” that distinguishes between:

  • individual and couple (circle representing a human head);
  • informal groups (circle filled by seven human heads);
  • formal groups (circle filled by three groups of four to six human heads interconnected with each other); and
  • society (circle representing a globe).

Michel Cartier 2002

Formal group: “Group of people who demand a better quality of life and operate from the adhesion and participation of its members.”

Informal Group: ” Familiar small group operating face to face”

Michel Cartier, 2002 100

I was particularly struck by the distinction between formal group and informal group. This led me to wonder whether there was a conceptual difference to be made in the Picture of Interpersonal Information Process (PIP) model between formal and informal group or population. (more…)

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Sources of free icons to represent interpersonal information processes

Dominique Lamy of Branchez-Vous! Techno recently presented sources of free icons. Among the eight sites, three offered icons useable to produce pictures of interpersonal information processes (PIP).

Iconshock offers nearly a million icons, a number steadily rising. Only a few collections, however, are offered free without conditions. A small number of icons that must be found can be used to describe the processes themselves. Many others to describe the processes’ actors.

Iconza provides free a small number of 112 relatively simple icons whose colors can be customized before uploading.

Iconpot is a directory of free icons collections.

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