What is Information?

What is Information?

Information is my lifeblood. As a communication scholar, I study information in all its forms. How it entertains us, how it shapes our politics and our social lives, how it is embedded in technology and enables economies. But what is information?

At a physical level, information has been defined as that which is not random. Claude Shannon, a pioneer of information theory, helped us understand the capacity of a communication channel—when those capacities were frequently stressed by the needs of war (he wrote in the 1940s and 1950s). He saw information in that which is not random; Information is "not noise."  What was unpredictable added information.

Shannon’s mathematical models of information are helpful in creating and revealing the information hidden by cryptography. It also helps manage the volume of information by letting us more effectively implement compression algorithms. But it remains a technical description and oriented to machine solutions. 

Social psychologists developed a more human-oriented view of information. For Gregory Bateson, information was the "difference that makes a difference." In other words, those signals that humans care about, that have an impact, that is what is important. In developing his theory of an "ecology of mind," Bateson looked at information as what is meaningful to humans.

Bateson's definition is certainly catchy, and worth remembering next time you tune your radio between stations (a vanishing possibility these days in the era of digital audio) and hear static, a difference that doesn’t make a difference. But what does it take to create information? Definitions are one thing. What about some help creating information? We are a professional school, after all, and we need to be practical.

When I am trying to explain information I find that it is helpful to ask people to imagine a pyramid of human communication:

  • At the bottom is a big layer of data. This is the bits and pieces of life that have not yet been organized into anything coherent.
  • Above that is a layer of information, which is useful and meaningful, but requires some work if we are going to do anything with it.
  • Next is a thinner layer of knowledge. This is information that has been turned into action.
  • Above that, on the tiny little triangle at the top of the pyramid, rests wisdom.  

Information does not stand alone. It lies on a continuum that starts with data and ends with wisdom. 

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about the work that has to happen to move up the pyramid.

Sources:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Shannon, Claude Elwood. "A mathematical theory of communication." ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review 5.1 (2001): 3-55. Original available here: http://www3.alcatel-lucent.com/bstj/vol27-1948/articles/bstj27-3-379.pdf