What is Information?
Raymond D. Maxwell
The Catholic University of America – School of Library and Information Science
What Is Information?
This essay attempts to answer the question, “What is information?” Beginning with historical antecedents, I will arrive at an approximation of a definition using various ranges of thought as described in assigned readings and class discussions. Following a brief analysis of information’s superstructure and substrate of current ideas about information, I will offer a short concluding statement.
Case (2002) cites an early mention of information by Chaucer between 1372 and 1386. Perhaps an even earlier allusion to information may be found in Plato’s Timaeus, where he wrote about the Muses transmitting knowledge about harmony directly to the soul of man:
“And harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of the Soul within us, was given by the Muses to him who makes intelligent use of the Muses, not as an aid to irrational pleasure, as is now supposed, but as an auxiliary to the inner revolution of the Soul, when it has lost its harmony, to assist in restoring it to order and concord with itself.” (Plato, Great Books, 1952, p. 455).
It is possible the allusion was an early attempt to define/describe “information.”
Synthesizing all the readings, a series of “ranges” of thought repeated themselves. I struggled to restrict these “ranges” to the following: narrow vs. broad definitions; static vs. dynamic definitions; structured vs. less-structured definitions.
Case takes a decidedly broad, if not vague definition of information. Case (2002) cited from Bateson as a definition for information, “any difference that makes a difference to a conscious, human mind.” (Bateson, 1972, p.453) Surveying the literature, he expands the definition to include from Miller “any stimuli we recognize in our environment.” (Miller, 1968)
Rubin takes a much narrower view, describing information as “an aggregation, organization or classification of data….that has been assigned meaning,” later suggesting that that meaning “must be previously unknown to the recipient.” Case (2002) also made the distinction between the narrow restrictions requiring that information be useful, intentional, and true, and broader definitions that were perhaps more inclusive. By definition, narrower definitions also tend to be more structured ones, while broader definitions tend to be less so.
I found Bates repetition of the doctor/actor analogy (Bates, 1999), where the actor has better acting skills and so “represents” a doctor on film or on the stage better than would someone who was actually a doctor, fell a bit flat, and for me, resulted in a rather static description of the distinction between the content of information and the form, organization, and structure of information. Much more dynamic and satisfying for me was Case’s description of information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, and information-as-thing (as cited in Buckland, 1991).
My definition for information in the 21st century would err on the broad side. Though “document” and “information” are not synonymous, I would be more inclined to define information using some of the “document” constructs, i.e., elements of the Briet manifesto (Buckland. 1997). Information, like documents, should have materiality, intentionality, and phenomenological position. I would omit the need for information to be processed. I see that inclusion as less than necessary, although I understand it from the perspective of colonialism, the prevalent political construct of the time of the manifesto. The 21st century should have a more post-modern aspect in that regard.
Superstructure and Substrate of Information
Rubin’s Chapter 7 provided a comprehensive overview of information science, in the process building a superstructure to house a robust understanding of the various components and properties of information (Rubin 2010). He cited and amplified the following three big questions (Bates, 1999) addressed by information science: the physical question; the social question; and the design question. His section on emerging fields in information science demonstrated the evolution of information to its present (and potential future) state as the new lubricant of the world economic engine, as well as its essential role in such diverse fields as competitive intelligence and national security.
Bates (1999) description of the below-the-waterline features of information science, aspects not so readily apparent to the uninitiated, provided a panoramic view of methods, values, and most importantly, the steps of the mental transformation we all must make as we embark on a new, exciting, cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary career path.
Rubin’s (2010) analysis of internet usage and the role that usage could possibly play in the massive proliferation of new information drove me to the internet for more recent statistics. I discovered that the world regions with the highest internet usage growth rates over the past twelve years (2000-2012) (Africa (3607%), Middle East (2640%), and Latin America (1311%)) actually have relatively low rates of penetration (% of population actually using the internet). Africa is woefully low at 7.0% penetration. Latin America and the Middle East both remain well under the 50% penetration level (Internet World Stats, 2013). It is ironic that the regions with the greatest growth rates still have the furthest to go in terms of net new internet usage. It is a safe bet to assume that these regions also have the lowest levels of access to information and, consequently, the lowest levels of overall economic development. This bodes well for information professionals interested in contributing to these regions in the future