secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

What is this Slippery Thing Called Information?

In 1981, Rupert Sheldrake (113) observed that information was a “fashionable word.” We live in an information age and in an information society, which is composed of the information poor and the information rich. We are advised about how to exist within an information glut. A symptom of postmodern ennui, individuals suffer from information overload and information anxiety. It is no small wonder there are “conditions of information,” for if we believe Capurro, Fleissner and Hofkirchner (1997:218) everything is information. We collectively and literally swim in a world chock full of in-formative possibility and promise.

Plato and the Forms

Modern understanding of the concept of information arises from the Latin word informare, meaning to “give form to.  Specifically, information is derived from the concepts of:

Informatio in (within) tio (action, process) forma (form, shape, pattern)

For Plato, in-formation was closely intertwined with eidos and morphe, the central ideas of the ideal forms, the eternal realm of pure essence. Both have a relationship to epistemology and to the possibility of attaining knowledge of the world/being in the world. Without the unchanging forms, we wouldn’t arrive at any knowledge of the world or ourselves. Platonic ideals survive in biology today (Oyama quoting Lewontin 137), especially among developmental biologists.

Eric Havelock (263) tells us the forms enjoy an independent existence; they are permanent shapes imposed upon the flux of action and shapes which, while they can be viewed and understood by the psyche, and cannot be invented by it.  Everything real has a form, be it an atom, or a mind – that which has no form has no being (Tillich 1981: 54). In this way, the concept of information is closely tied to epistemology and ontology. Epistemology – meaning –  involves a decoding, the making sense of structure, form, organization, and pattern in an attempt to bring about order. Ontology, on the other hand, poses questions related to being and the process of becoming and existence – indeed form.

As a source of form, information is critical in shaping worlds. Sheldrake (1981:64-71) observes that information:

…is seen to reside in molecules, cells, tissues, “the environment,” often latent but casually potent, allowing those entities to recognize, select and instruct each other, to construct each other and themselves, to regulate, control, induce, direct and determine events of all kinds.

For example, lymphocytes, like wasps, are genetically programmed for exploration and carry specific information in their surface receptors; it seems to be in the nature of biologic information that it not only stores energy but also instigates a search for more (Thomas [1974], 1978: 93). This notion is reminiscent of Whitehead’s (289) creative advance (a principle of novelty) in that Nature is never complete; it always passes beyond itself, on the move towards becoming. This “becoming” is infinitely informational.  These ideas suggest that information also concerns exchange. One can imagine information as a form of currency (or via Bourdieu’s social capital) in human systems that communicates and strengthens collective bonds. Buckminster Fuller and Kiyoshi Kuromiya (1981) believe that information gathering is the primary human activity.

Definitions of Information

Claude Shannon, summarized the problem in defining information in 1953. Shannon wrote

The word “information” has been given many different meanings by various writers in the general field of information theory. It is likely that at least a number of these will prove sufficiently useful in certain applications to deserve further study and permanent recognition. It is hardly to be expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field. (105)

Originally developed by “telephone engineers,” such as Wiener, Shannon and others, early information theory was cybernetical, steeped in concepts such as channel, receivers and transmission of messages within a closed system. Norbert Wiener, considered by many to be the father of modern cybernetic theory, thought of information as containing both facts and communication; Shannon, a mathematician for Bell Labs, considered information in data processing terms such as “channel” and “noise,” which set the stage for encryption and the creation of faxes, email, and data processing and transfer – perhaps even social media. This type of theory, Sheldrake writes, can’t really help with understanding open systems and their development as those “mechanistic biologists who speak of genetic information, do so if there existed a well defined meaning – this is an illusion. The jargon of information theory is borrowed, and the rigour is left behind” (Sheldrake 1981:57).

Perhaps information remains “ultimately undefinable or is a situation like “an intuitive first principle like energy, whose precise meaning always seems to slip through our fingers like shadow” (Gatlin 1972:25).  This shadow state, however,  has not prevented a multiplicity of definitions of information, including:

  • Information is a process which occurs within the human mind when a problem and data useful for its solution are brought into productive union (Hoshvsky and Massey, 1968).
  • Information is data produced as a result of a process upon data. That process may be one of transmission…it may be one of selection, it may be one of organization; it may be one of analysis (Hayes, 1969).
  • Information is data that have been processed and are meaningful to the user (Ahituv and Neumann, 1983).
  • …Information in the sense of telling and being told is always different from knowledge and a state of knowing; the former is a process and the latter a state (Machlup, 1983).
  • Information …is a popular term for a cluster of perceptions brought to our attention, but not yet fully assimilated. Knowledge is perceived as a state, at any particular time, of relations known that are expressed in a system of knowing that has been already acquired by an individual (Nitecki, 1985).
  • Information has come to denote whatever can be coded for transmission through a channel that connects a source with a receiver, regardless of semantic content (Roszak 1986: 13).
  • Information is something than happens between the knower and the known (Miller 1987: 4).
  • Everett M. Rogers (1995:12) writes “technology is information, and transfer is a communication process, and so technology transfer is the communication of information.”
  • Information suggests a practical chunk of reified experience, a unit of sense lodged on the hierarchy of knowledge somewhere between data and report, it emerges from the spark gap between mind and matter (Davis: 1999: 81).
  • Information is something that describes an ordered reality and has some knowable, or at least idealized, isomorphic relationship to that reality (i.e., it represents in an identical way the form and content of reality)…information instructs us (Dervin, 1999).
  • Information has form…it is generated by a particular coding system and through the use of certain materials which make our system tangible and give them life…information is not reality. It is an abstraction of it (Postman, 1999).
  • Information is a modern source of form (Oyama 2000: 2).

Paul Virilio (2000: 60) writes that information is of two kinds: knowledge information and organization information; anthropologist David Casagrande (1999) tells us the term “information” has been used to describe a variety of organizational forms from genetic structure to cultural systems. Gerbner (1988: 14) adds “what we call information is driven not by what is, but by the information seeker’s way of being in the world.”

The nature of information as characterized by John Perry Barlow (1994) and Jim Gilligan (1997) is intriguing. For Barlow, information is a verb, an activity; a relationship, and a life form; for Gilligan, information is also a verb and a process of changing states. These ideas highlight Gregory Bateson’s (1987) notion that information is the “difference that makes a difference.” In other words,  information as verb or “/ing” gives rise to possibility and form, or as Neil Postman (1992) observes in Technopoly:

…if you remove a species from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus that one species: you have a new environment and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival. This is how the ecology of information works as well. New flows of information can change everything.

We are accustomed to thinking of information as static due in part to the physicality of communication and transmission of data and facts (e.g. books and newspapers). But a mechanistic concept of information based on dualistic and static concepts cannot account for qualities of wholeness or instances of creativity (Miller 1987: viii), or for that matter, lines of flight (Deleuze and Guattari). To this end, Luciano Floridi (2002, 2004) proposed a new field of study to investigate the nature of information, the philosophy of information or PI. PI is concerned with

(a) the critical investigation of the conceptual nature and basic principles of information, including its dynamics, utilisation, and sciences, and (b) the elaboration and application of information-theoretic and computational methodologies to philosophical problem.  (2002:137)


Works Cited

Ahituv, Niv, and Seev Neumann. Principles of Information Systems for Management. Dubuque, IA: W.C. Brown, 1982.

Barlow, John Perry. “The Economy of Ideas: A Framework for Rethinking Patents and Copyrights in the  Digital Age.” Wired 2 no. 3 (1994):

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind : Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1987.

Capurro, Rafael, Peter Fleissner, and Wolfgang Hofkirchner. “Is a Unified Theory of Information Feasible? A Trialogue.”Ed. W. Hofkirchner, World Futures 49 (1997): 213-234.

Casagrande, David. “Information as Verb: Re-conceptualizing Information for Cognitive and Ecological Models.” Georgia Journal of Ecological Anthropology 3 (1999): 4-12.

Davis, Roy W. “Public Access to Community Documents: A Fundamental Human Right?” European Integration Online Papers 3 (1999), no. 8.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Dervin, Brenda. “Given a Context by Any Other Name: Methodological Tools for Taming the Unruly Beast.” Information Seeking in Context Proceedings of an International Conference on  Research in Information Needs, Seeking and Use in Different Contexts, August 14-16, 1996, Tampere, Finland. Ed. Vakkari Pertti , Reijo Savolainen and Brenda Dervin. London: Taylor Graham, 1997. 13-38.

Dervin, Brenda, ed. Rethinking Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989.

Floridi, Luciano. “Open problems in the philosophy of information.” Metaphilosophy 35, no. 4 (2004): 554-582.

__________. “What is the Philosophy of Information?.” Metaphilosophy 33, no. 1‐2 (2002): 123-145.

Fuller, R. Buckminster, and Kuromiya, Kiyoshi. Critical Path. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Gatlin, Lila. Information Theory and the Living System. New York, Columbia University Press, 1972.

Gerbner, George. Violence and Terror in the Mass Media. Paris : UNESCO, 1988

Gilligan, J. “Patterns on Glass: The Language Games of Information.” Philosophical Aspects of Information Systems. Ed. R.L. Winder, S.K. Probert, and I.A, Beeson. Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis. 1997. 65-72.

Havelock, Eric. Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Hayes, R.M. “Education in Information Science.” American Documentation 20 (1969): 262-365.

Machlup, Fritz. “Semantic Quirks in Studies of Information.” The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages. Ed. Fritz Machlup and Una Mansfield. New York: Wiley, 1983.  641-71.

Miller, Gordon Lynn. “Resonance, Information and the Primacy of Process: Ancient Light on Modern Information and Communication Theory and Technology.” Diss. Rutgers, 1987.

Oyama, Susan. The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18thCentury: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. New York: Knopf, 1999.

_________. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Roszak, Theodore. The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Shannon, Claude Elwood. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949.

Shannon, Claude E. “The lattice theory of information.” Information Theory, Transactions of the IRE Professional Group on 1, no. 1 (1953): 105-107.

Sheldrake, Rupert. A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation. London: Blond and Briggs, 1981.

Thomas, Lewis. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York : Penguin Books, [1974], 1978.

Tillich, Paul. Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications. New York : Oxford University Press, 1960.

Virilio, Paul. Polar Inertia. Trans. Patrick Camiller. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. New York: Wiley, 1948.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Ed. David Ray Griffith, and Donald Sherburne. Free Press, New York, 1978.


Also see:

Foundations of Information Science (FIS) listserv at

Media Ecology Association

Craig Simon, What’s at Stake in the Information Debate. (Slideshare; discussion of the Anton-Strate-Veritasium dialogue on the nature of information:

tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique: Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society

Written by S.

August 21, 2014 at 10:15 pm