a thoroughly academic dispute about the nature of “information”

by Sebastian Benthall

I had an interesting conversation with Ashwin Matthew, a colleague in my department. Among other things, we were talking about the construction of the modern concept of information. You might expect that at a School of Information we’d have this issue thoroughly ironed out by now, but in fact, the opposite.

Doing my best to characterize the debate, it’s this: information seems to be very important. Why is that? Is it because a bunch of institutions and/or social powers have an interest in promoting a concept of information that reinforces their power? Or is it because there is a real thing, which we call information, which is out there in the world and influential whether we understand it or not? To put it another way: is “information” an ideological construct or does it pick out something real in the world?

Ashwin calls the social order that depends on the information ideology the Information Society, which passes the Wikipedia test for ‘is it real?’. So does information per se.

I want to call the view that “information” is an ideological construct information antirealism. An argument for information antirealism comes from Geoffrey Nunberg’s “Farewell to the Information Age”, which notes that the modern usage of “information” is historically recent and asserts that this usage is the result of a confusion (either intentional or otherwise) of other meanings. I want to call the view that information is a real thing in the world that we should be paying attention to like scientists information realism.

I would say that I am an information realist. However, if there was ever somebody thoroughly embedded in the information society, it would be me. So, naturally, I would believe the ideology of that society, which is information realism. Ashwin, I believe, would rather bracket the term “information” out so as to be able to critique the Information Society. That seems like a worthy endeavor to me.

But I got to say that I think “information” as a concept has more going for it than its ideological role in supporting the information society. Rather, I think it supports the information society because it reflects a truth about the universe. Just because there is a lot of hype around something doesn’t make it unreal. The Bronze Age was pretty psyched about bronze (I’m guessing). There was certainly a class of people who benefited from bronzeworking. But what made them so powerful wasn’t “bronze” as an ideological construct, but rather their mastery of a part of reality, bronze.

By way of analogy, I’ve been reading Piaget’s “The Child’s Conception of Time” for a class. In it, Piaget describes the cognitive evolution of the concept of time. Piaget relates that as toddlers, children confuse time and space, thinking that something that has traveled greater distance must have taken more time (not understanding how velocity plays a mediating role). Later, children develop “articulate intuitions” of things like succession and duration, but these do not fall into any kind of ‘operational order’. By this Piaget means that when we discuss timing and aging with children at this stage, they will articulate statements about succession and duration but what they say will seem to be full of contradictions or naivete. For example, they will believe that over time, their age will “catch up” with adults. At the last stage, the child achieves an “operational synthesis” and discovers or constructs a sense of time that is homogenous and uniform and the sort of thing that allows you to effectively use clocks.

So, here’s a proposal: that the modern concept of information is an “operational synthesis” of other, more naive “articulate intuitions” about information that have occurred historically.

What is an “operational synthesis”? Well, it’s constructed. But it’s a construct that gets a lot done. You might say that a good operational synthesis is true in at the very least a pragmatist sense.

So, maybe our modern understanding of “information” is as legitimate as the modern understanding of “time”. Which is to say: resistance is useless, prepare to be assimilated into the Information Society.

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