What Is Information?
Information Crops and Weeds

An Abstract Colloquy
with Some Maybe Not So Pointless Conclusions


Special Edition

In a recent issue, I wrote:

It has struck me for quite a while that we don't have any conception of information except that of the information theorists who don't mean by "info" what the rest of us mean by "info." ... Here's one of the most important words of the second half of the century and, as far as I can see, it's just about totally un-thought.

But I expect I'll hear from a few of you pointing out the major and obvious works I never heard of. Thanks in advance. Sigh.

I didn't have long to wait. Chris "RageBoy" Locke weighed in ... and cc'ed his sister, Liz. (Yes, RB has a sister. People find this as hard to imagine as thinking of me behind the wheel of a car. In RB's case, it's because we simply can't believe that he was of woman born and was not instead conjured to life from a satchel half filled with animal parts and bad wine. In my case, it's simply that I exude an air of edgy dangerousness that drives women wild. Or so I choose to believe, for the alternative is that I have the air of a doughy adolescent barely capable of applying Brilliantine to the right end of my body.)

Herewith the exchange. (By the way, at the end of this colloquy, I present the One True and Right answer. But no peeking ahead.)



Here's the reply I received from Chris (RageBoy). (Chris, as you must know by now, edits EGR and is the official Scourge of JOHO). Like a special "origins" issue of the Superman comic, Chris actually explains how we came up with such a ferschlugginer name for a 'zine (and not something sensible like "JOHO"):

"Entropy Gradient Reversals
All Noise - All the Time"

That's been EGR's tagline since May 1 1996 -- over forty-five years ago. The point being, of course, that if you try for TOTAL NOISE, you fail (as predicted by a subtle permutation of the Second Law of ThermoIronics), thus inadvertently producing some signal. This forces you to: a) try to find out where it is (i.e., precisely which part of the noise is "signally"), and b) try to figure out what you meant by that. ... Thus is the gradient of entropy reversed -- at least locally and rather loosely construed.

Chris continues:

Looking at the etymology, one might suspect that the word ["information"] means "to shape someone inwardly" -- which was probably initially more akin to imparting wisdom than to filling someone's head with datapoints.

or to "form an impression" = be shaped by something. Thus, we can assume (I think) that being informed and being impressed once bore some relationship.

I'd bet that in the Western history of the word (and it's a Western word, so why not?) the whole theory of Platonic forms/ideals comes into this somehow. The archetype of freedom is "pressed" into my mind and I am thus "in-formed" by it. Also, maybe there was a strong influence from early writing of the cuneiform variety in which a stick was used to press into clay, "in-pressing" and "in-forming" the substrate -- and thus, by extension, the person deciphering those impressions.

But I'm speculating (i.e., "mirroring") there...

From a different tradition altogether, the Navaho say "walk in beauty" -- which, when done right, I imagine constitutes their form of getting it.

Finally, from the non-human world, there are geese flying "in formation" -- but to whom they are flying it, we may never know. Perhaps it's more like some Great Symbol, a banner waving in the morning sky, a prayer flag supplicating unknowable gods to remove our blindness.

Finger indicating moon-illuminated finger. You can quote me.

Here's my reply:

For Aristotle, knowing something meant having your mind "formed" by the essence (form) of the thing known. But, as with the word "document," the word got radically shifted out of context by computerists. Unlike "document," "information" had a stipulated meaning when it entered the computer world, but it has since been so stretched and misused that it actually has no meaning (as with "document").

I think.

(Therefore I am not sure?)

Now Chris's sister Liz signs on:

I'll only add to the in-formation rap that I always end up thinking about information and reproduction when this comes up. The female forms, but the male informs: it's an old premise in western thought, and representative of a deep mind/body, male/female split in western consciousness. Ever met a female homunculus?

The cuneiform reference is relevant. Check out Page DuBois' Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women: the female is the raw material (matter, mater) required for the embodiment and later transmission of information (meaning a full range from simple sentience to knowledge and wisdom) and so she is represented as clay tablet, field, furrow, oven...

I suppose this implies that informers are fuckers and the well-informed are truly fucked.

(This message constitutes strong evidence for the gene theory. The Locke stock is barrelling along.)

Chris wrote:

Reading this from a slightly more positive perspective, and without specific reference to gender, it is possible (slightly; certainly not inevitable) that those who "open" themselves to information may become "pregnant with meaning."

Liz replies to this:

Jeanne Cocteau, who called himself The Poet (as you know I write about him only because I have to) loved the idea of being pregnant with meaning... now... if only the women would just go away...

Poets and alchemists come to mind (no pun intended, but...).

but, poor men, so many only cum to mind...


present company of poets/alchemists excluded, of course.


Oooh, you're so nasty! Bad girl, bad!

However, to keep up the high level of exchange here, the following are apropos:

World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science


The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention

David Noble is an interesting dude, even if he's NOT a woman.

Me again:

It certainly has something to do with the passivity of perception, a way in which the world molds us. We take this passivity as the mark of truth and reality: if we are molding our own impressions then we are being subjective.

Of course the emotions were also considered to be defined by our passivity; they are what move us (against our will -- back when will was considered to be one of the primary facets of being human, before "will" got squeezed out by the "conscious" and "unconscious" minds). The active components of the human mind were the act of judgment (in which we conjoined two terms to achieve a higher truth ... or to go wrong) and will. Activity and passivity were central organizing characteristics for this view of mind. Obviously, historically these terms have also been assumed to have gender associations, with men being the thinkers (judgment) and women being the feelers (e-motions).

But where does the current idea of "information" fit into this? I think it's a word with almost no context any more.


Ok, after that decidedly (and appropriately) non-rigorous round of reflection (um, speculating, um, mirroring), I get the last word. Yeah, it's a power trip. What do you think publishing a 'zine is about?

These things we can take as true or very probably so:

The term information was defined rigorously in Information Theory in the 40's (Claude Shannon), but that definition has little to do with how you and I use the term. Shannon defined information in a way formally similar to energy (where the opposite of information is noise which is formally similar to entropy).

The word's origins probably go back to a theory of perception and knowing that says that the mind is in-formed by the eternal essence (form) of that which is known.

This is directly mixed up with the notions of action and passivity (because perception = being formed by the "external" world and subjectivity = shaping your own perceptions), and, this means, given our history, that it's mixed up with deeply held cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity.

But does any of this get us toward understanding what we (all) mean by information? Well, sort of.

Here's how I think the term's arc of meaning has developed:

1. Before the personal computer revolution, "information" meant factual statements, and "news" in particular. E.g., "I have some information about the planned invasion."

2. The Information Theorists stipulated a precise meaning for "information" (signal vs. noise) that still holds within that domain. The rest of us don't care.

3. The Computer Scientists stipulated a meaning for the term that contrasts it with mere data: information is the relationship among data (and data is the stuff in databases). Intro to Computer Science students are still taught something like this definition.

4. As the personal computer became commonplace, most of the data in computers wasn't coming from databases. It was coming from word processors, spreadsheets ... and now from every sweaty pore of the Worldwide Web. Thus, the neat distinction between data and information was lost. "Information" became a catch-all term closer to its non-computer sense (#1): factual statements we care about for whatever reason.

Let me repeat that in a larger font:

Information consists of
factual statements
we care about
for whatever reason

Well, we've labored mightily to bring forth this mouse. Here are two reasons to care:

1. We hear a lot of loose, pseudo-scientific talk in computer and government circles as if "information" were carefully defined and highly valuable, when in fact "information" is one of the vaguest and loosest of terms.

2. If traditional Computer Science deals with the old idea of information as conclusions drawn from a database, then maybe we need a New Computer Science that deals with information as it actually is: factual statements we care about. This science would help guide us towards what we care about, and would help us figure out which statements are worthy of how much belief...and whether all information these days has to be verbal.

Information Science was created as the domain of white-coated technicians who are uncomfortable with anything smaller than a mainframe and anything more organic than what fits into a rows-and-columns view of the world. But today's information consists of the weeds, not the crops.

We need a science (= way of knowing) that understands that.

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