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Information is the opposite of information

The ordinary language use of “information” in some ways is the opposite of the technical sense given the term by Claude Shannon — the sense that kicked off the Information Age.

Shannon’s information is a measure of surprise: the more unexpected is the next letter a user lays down in Scrabble, the more information it conveys.

The ordinary language use of the term (well, one of them) is to refer to something you are about to learn or have just learned: “I have some information for you, sir! The British have taken Trenton.” The more surprising the news is, the more important the information is. So, so far ordinary language “information” seems a lot like Shannon’s “information.”

But we use the term primarily to refer to news that’s not all that important to us personally. So, you probably wouldn’t say, “I got some information today: I’m dying.” If you did, you’d be taken as purposefully downplaying its significance, as in a French existentialist drama in which all of life is equally depressing. When we’re waiting to hear about something that really matters to us, we’re more likely to say we’re waiting for news.

Indeed, if the information is too surprising, we don’t call it “information” in ordinary parlance. For example, if you asked someone for your doctor’s address, what you learned you might well refer to as “information.” But if you learned that your doctor’s office is in a dirigible constantly circling the earth, you probably wouldn’t refer to that as information. “I got some information today. My doctor’s office is in a dirigible,” sounds odd. More likely: “You’ll never guess what I found out today: My doctor’s office is in a dirigible! I mean, WTF, dude!” The term “information” is out of place if the information is too surprising.

And in that way the ordinary language use of the term is the opposite of its technical meaning.

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3 Responses to “Information is the opposite of information”

  1. If you told me your doctor’s office was in a dirigible that particular bit of our comm stream would end up in my error detection / correction circuitry. I’d be looking for noise interference with our signal.

    IMHO, “surprise” is a subjective response that will vary from subject to subject based on the context they bring to the information. Surprise doesn’t change the actual content of the information signal.

    For the sake of argument: are you surprised I have a different view? Is that information?

  2. Why do we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?

    (old joke, I know, but somehow it felt right here, as a Zen sort of reply)

  3. […] Information is the opposite of information-┬áDavid Weinberger, February 15, 2012 […]

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