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What is Information, Exactly?

In recent history there has been an interesting trend toward the ‘reification of information’ - information presented as a third fundamental reality:

  • Matter
  • Energy
  • and the newcomer: Information.

Some talk about information being exchangeable with matter and energy, much as matter and energy are related in Einstein’s famous E=mc2.

While it’s certainly true that the concept of information is central to quantum mechanics and other established theories in physics and mathematics (and that quantum mechanics, in turn, is intimately related to microelectronic circuit design), does it deserve this much emphasis? A few go so far as to see computers as somehow special (or even ‘holy’) since they deal exclusively with this fundamental aspect of reality that we call information. Similarly cyberspace - the internet - is a holy space where we might expect to find God, because it deals in the currency of pure information.

I find this quite unconvincing. Why the confusion? I believe the main source is the varied ways in which we use the word information.

Here are a couple of rough definitions:

A] Information: Human-consciousness-level symbols needing a context to give them meaning. For example, the price of an airline ticket or a book.

B] Information: the degree of order or complexity of a system.

Definition B] is one that figures in discussions about mathematics, quantum mechanics, signal to noise ratios in data-sets etc.

These are very different. In fact it’s possible to represent information (type A) in ways that are more or less complex,Using compression, for example. i.e. in ways with more or less information (type B)!

My point is that information as defined in A] (e.g. a $200 airline tickets to San Jose from Seattle) does not belong in discussions about fundamental aspects of reality.

Therefore, inasmuch as cyber-technologies and the Internet deal with airline tickets or books, this is information as defined in A] and not B]. So, it does not follow that the Internet is necessarily accessing a fundamental level of reality even though it deals with information.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Adrian Wyard

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