Information Granfalloons

Karen Coyle, 1999

One of the basic concepts of Bokononism, the secretive island religion of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, is that of a granfalloon. A granfalloon is a recognized grouping of people that, underneath it all, has no real meaning. The prototypical granfaloon in Vonnegut's book is Hoosiers: the main character of the book finds himself journeying to an island nation in the company of fellow Indianans, but other than the fact that they hail from the same state they have no significance in each other's lives.

The opposite of a granfalloon, or at least one alternative, is the karass. These are the people whose lives are entwined in yours in mysterious yet profound ways. Often they are not part of any of your more obvious granfalloons, but in the end it is their presence on this earth that has great influence of the direction of your own life. Recognizing members of your karass is not an easy thing and some you may never identify, but part of the spiritual mission of Bokononists is to celebrate their karass.

My most recent re-reading of Cat's Cradle, and it is a book that must be re-read periodically, came during a decade in which I have been thinking hard about information, libraries and the Internet. I also find myself often having to explain why the Internet isn't a library. One of the most difficult things to attempt to explain in that situation is the concept of a collection as that term is meant in the world of libraries.

It now occurs to me that Vonnegut's distinctions work well, for a library collection is a karass of information, whereas the Internet is a perfect example of an information granfalloon.

Much like people, the real meaningfulness of information is how it interacts with others of its kind. Information that is alone or out of context is inert and cannot reach its potential. Usability is the key to information value, but usability can rarely be applied to any individual information unit. When libraries buy or gather bits of information in the form of books or journals or web sites, they do so with the express goal of making all of the information in their collection usable in the context of the library. A modern scientific treatise should be bolstered by the classical thinking that made it possible. Works promoting one political or moral point of view should sit on the shelf beside those promoting the opposite view. There are millions of invisible hyperlinks between these works that can be discovered by alert readers following Myst-like clues buried deep in the texts.

The Internet, on the other hand, is an assortment of information items that can only be described as: those things that someone decided to produce in machine-readable form and place on the Net, generally since about 1994. There are marvelous and valuable information resources on the Net, and within the Internet there are some groupings that themselves approximate collections. But to be truly useful -- and because human thought did not begin in 1994 and is not all in digital form -- Internet resources must find their karass.

Libraries today are working to integrate Internet resources into their collections by adding select sites and pages to the library catalog and by creating information portals for their users on the library web pages. These Internet sites are chosen for their quality, their stability, and their authority. If your visits to the web look like a random selection from an information slag heap or like the pages were chosen by a marketing department, visit your nearest library -- online or offline, the best place for information.

©Karen Coyle, 1999
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.