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Was there always information?

This article appears in the issue February 2006 [Volume 15, Issue 2]

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"There's always been information," said a member of an information architects mailing list I audit. I think that's probably not true, and it has implications for what we think our businesses are made out of.

The term "information" only came into its current meaning with the invention of information theory and the rise of computers. Before that, "information" meant something very different. Initially, it was (as per the medieval appropriation of Aristotle) the way the essential nature of things shaped the pure potentiality that is our minds. Then it meant something like "news": "Do you have any information about the advance of the enemy?" Then it came to mean the basic set of facts about a topic, as in the "Information Please" almanac.

What exactly do we mean by information? It's a harder question than it seems. As far as I can tell, the term got taken over twice in the past few decades, first by the information theorists who have a mathematical definition of it that few of us care about, and then by the computer scientists who wanted to be able to talk about something more grand than mere data, a term they'd previously hijacked. (It meant "the given," the pure sense data with which some philosophers believed consciousness begins.)

Then, of course, along came the knowledge management folks who wanted a term more grand than "information," and thus "knowledge" was stripped of 2,500 years of philosophical thought and thrown onto trade show booth signage and product packaging willy-nilly. We can only be thankful that the persistent attempts to trump "knowledge" with "wisdom" have not taken root. After all, how could vendors ever trump "wisdom"? "Omniscience management" is a non-starter because God presumably doesn't use a scalable, enterprise omniscience solution.

But I digress.

The change in information is not merely a change in terminology. Over the past 30 years, we have come to believe that information is not merely what we communicate and what computers manipulate. The idea that we live in information has come to make sense. A generation ago, that simply would not compute. Now, even if we disagree with it, we think it's a coherent view.

There are lots of drivers of this change in worldviews, but two stand out.

First, the radical idea that DNA is information now seems commonplace. When the idea was first introduced, it was a head-spinner. How could a molecule be information? But now we are so used to thinking that way that you can shock people by showing them photographs of actual DNA strands. The photos don't look anything like the mythologized depiction of beautifully twisting strands with color-coded ladder rungs running between them. DNA looks sort of lumpy in the photos. (Of course, maybe the photos I've seen were taken on a bad heir day.)

DNA, in fact, is not information. It's a set of atoms that produces complex effects on other atoms. Those atoms are no more information than is a sculptor's hand as she turns clay into art. They are no more information than is a magnet that attracts iron but not plastic or a mail slot through which large packages cannot fit. DNA certainly can be understood as information, and if we can learn more about our fates that way, more power to the geneticists and the stem cells that enable them. But DNA is not information.

Second, The Matrix expressed the old paranoid nightmare of information, and is notable not for the elegance of its expression (did you see the rave scene?) but because it has become a cultural reference point. It is an old idea, expressed notably by Plato and Descartes. But now we have the machinery that could conceivably make it real. How many petabytes of information are there in all the sensory input a person receives? A petabyte is no longer an impossible number. I've already got a terabyte of storage distributed among all the computers in my family. So, we no longer need the plot device of a lifelong dream or an evil god out to fool us. We just need a thousand families' worth of computers and we can imagine all of human experience turning out to be nothing but information.

But, even if The Matrix (or Ray Kurzweil) is right and our lives are nothing but the result of computer information being fed into our neurons, the illusion that convinces us is one in which the world is not made of information. It is a world in which our bodies press into the earth as we walk, and our cheeks are cool with the kiss of a loved one.

The world is not information. Our lives are not information. By informationalizing the world, we impose a layer of translation between us and experience. And by informationalizing our businesses, we oversimplify complex human interactions and relationships. We think of our businesses as input-output machines that succeed if we get the inputs and the processes right. But that's no more true of business than it is of politics, marriage and every other human endeavor.

That life and business are information is a delusion we could do without.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization", e-mail

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