Man and Machine, standardisation and the geographical layer cake


Layer cake picture

Since the advent of writing in the Bronze Age, when human beings began to transfer their spoken communications and tacit knowledge into documented forms, information has stacked up like layers in a layer cake. Ephemeral as physical documents may seem, they somehow prevail through time, until conservation and preservation, digitising, retrieval and referencing gives them a permanence that somehow we can no longer live without.

Now we are firmly in the information age, where life relies completely on systems created by the knowledge and information that has accumulated over time. Floridi (2010) writes about how certain discoveries modified all future scientific and conceptual knowledge and understanding, and “In changing our understanding of the external world they also modified our conception of who we are”. It is not possible to unknow what we know, to go back to the world before the wheel.

Our information layer cake now acquires a geological significance.
Lulworth cove along Jurassic Coast, England

With information and knowledge already in place to shape the planning and springboard the decisions of the future, information is therefore a source of power.

METADATA – You mean librarians actually rule the world?

Library superhero

If you know what you are looking for, knowledge may well be power, but it is only as much use as the nearest good information professional who knows how to find it, using metadata as the key tool on their handy tool belt.

STANDARDISATION – Common Sense intervenes – The rule makers- Bibliographic metadata

By the mid 1800s, having got as far as a national collection at the British Museum Library and discovered a dire need for better housekeeping, the notion of a global standard for cataloguing records began to take root, led by Antonio Panizzi’s ground-breaking “Rules for the compilation of the catalogue”, which later became simply referred to as “the 91 Rules”. This was the point of no turning back, and Panizzi’s system had a long influential shelf life before paving the way for the later Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, the Dewey Decimal Classification and Ranganathan’s Colon Classification. (Gartner, 2016, p.24). By now the most successful and widely used systems for information metadata had adopted numerical codes in place of words, and showed an appreciation of the value of more adaptable, fluid classifications.

MAN and MACHINE – Digital metadata

Luckily what humans lack physically, they make up for with the capacity to invent solutions to problems posed by their limitations -solving the problem of information processing and storage capacity has been no exception. The next development of metadata codes for analogue information records was to move onto codes which could be created and read by machines. The power of the simple question “what-if” led to systems which could electronically edit, update, transfer and share material, be it digital or analogue. (MARC- Machine-readable Cataloguing), new coding languages that produced the World Wide Web, linked data, and BIBframe (bibliographic linked data).

After everything that was said about it being impossible, the idea of collecting all the world’s information in one place is not going to go away.


Before the home computer became widespread, it wasn’t clear to the non-specialist, what computers were capable of, or how their use was growing. Looking at modern-day issues surrounding privacy, security and the darker side of Search Engine Optimising, perhaps people in the 1980’s were right to feel that slight frisson that you get from a brush with the little known and the vaguely suspicious.

As computers began to weave their way out of the laboratory and into the working and home environment, various sources attempted to explain the technology to the general public, most of whom were still unaware that a white coat and a degree in mathematics or engineering was not strictly necessary to operate a computer.

In the series The Computer Programme (BBC2, 1982), journalist Chris Serle advised “Don’t expect the computer revolution to happen tomorrow, it’s going on all around us.”

Interviewed for the same episode, Rex Malik posed the question, ” what is the social consequence, because there will be one.”

Floridi (2010, p.7) chooses a tree to compose an analogy to help us look between our fingers at the issues of ethics raised by the overwhelm of data in the modern age. This tree is “a tree that has been growing its far-reaching branches much more widely, hastily, and chaotically than its conceptual, ethical, and cultural roots.”


manpower …  resources

legality  …      ownership   …        royalties    …       PERMISSION   …         leaks

follow-up  …          safeguarding      …             control


So, what are the social consequences?

Instead of the icing on the cake, we have an elephant in the room, that being the ethical implications related to the management of Floridi’s “infosphere”. (2010, p.9)

With social media you can make the news yourself, however valid or invalid the points you make. If the back team of a world leader can adjust the frames of a video to give a distorted view of the truth, as happened at the recent news conference with Donald Trump and Jim Acosta following the US midterm elections, it seems we cannot trust what is reported, what we read, or what we see. Statistics can demonstrate whatever point needs to be reiterated, politicians are trained in the art of giving convincing answers to questions that they do not know the answer to, or they might even boldly state a known untruth.

Has more information given us more power? Yes and no.

Information, good or bad is starved if not communicated. Blind faith in the written word may be already at an end. Our power is in our choice to observe carefully or ignore; to accept, deny or to keep on looking.



The Computer Programme “It’s happening Now” BBC 2 1/1 (1982): Available at:

Accessed: 1 November 2018

Floridi, L. (2010). Information: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press Chapter 1: The information revolution p. 3-18

Gartner, R. (2016). Metadata; Shaping Knowledge from Antiquity to the Semantic Web. Springer International Publishing Switzerland




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2 thoughts on “Man and Machine, standardisation and the geographical layer cake

  1. Great Post addressing some of the most pressing technological and political concerns we face. Indeed, it may no longer be appropriate to distinguish between ethical debates in tech and politics. Each is becoming a synonym for the other.


  2. Hi Joe, thanks so much for your comment – its not easy to make a quick response! Tech and politics are so deeply intertwined in what should/could be a very healthy relationship. Human mindsets are often still in catchup mode, operating in a time-honoured belief system even though we now we have the means to find out the truth about how politicians actually vote, and see the gap between that and what they say. Having used Twitter more extensively since the start of this course, I’ve seen commentators using the platform when there is just not the time to get an article out, offering facts only to be slapped down by self interested discreditors ! Amazing times.


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