What Is Information? Some Notes Toward an Answer

Information is a word commonly—but imprecisely—used. The entry for “information” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the acknowledgement that the “detailed history of both the term ‘information’ and the various concepts that come with it is complex and for the larger part still has to be written.”

Philosopher of information Luciano Floridi points out that information has been a concept “in the background” for some time—“the Cinderella in the history of philosophy”—but that it is an “impoverished concept” worthy of much more attention:

To paraphrase Molière, Western philosophy has been speaking informationally without knowing it for twenty-five centuries. We have always relied on Cinderella working hard in the house of philosophy. It is time to acknowledge her great services, by designing the philosophy of our time to be properly conceptualized for our time.

Building on Floridi’s helpful map of the “conceptual labyrinth” of the meaning of information, I would like to present a definition of information as a process. Before doing so, it is important to understand how the meaning of the word has shifted over time and the different ways the word is used today.

Shifts in Meaning

In “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History,” John Durham Peters identifies four significant shifts in the meaning of the word. In its earliest classical Latin form, informatio, information meant the formation of an idea or an item of knowledge—an understanding that extends back at least to Classical Greek philosophy. In post-classical Latin (circa the fifth century), as informare, information took on the additional meaning of instruction or imparting knowledge.

The first significant shift Peters identifies is during the late middle ages, when interpreters of Aristotle used information more broadly to account for the order of the universe: material objects were shaped from within by the forms that in-formed them. In this sense, “information had to do … with the active shaping of the world and with the conferral of form on matter.”

The second shift, associated with British empiricism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a shift away from metaphysical forms related to the world at large toward the evidence of individual senses. The human mind, informed by sensations from the world, became the site of information. Information, Peters claims,“drifted from cosmos to consciousness … from structure to stuff, from form to substance, from intellectual order to sensory impulses.”

Peters’s third and fourth shifts occur with the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and modern technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First the state, as the aggregator and organizer of quantifiable information, became the comprehensive knower and shaper of reality at a scale that was more like a god’s than a human being’s. Next, with new technologies information became a form of knowledge even more mathematical, efficient, abstracted, and aliened from individuals’ embodied lives. Thus, we are now required to acquire various information and digital literacies to understand how information and information technologies—and the entities that control them—are forming us.

Uses Today

Today, the word information is used in a few different ways. It can be used in a technical or quantitative sense, which is concerned with patterns of difference and the reduction of uncertainty. A second sense is close to the classical Latin informatio, to give form or shape to an idea. The third and most common use is closer to the post-classical Latin informare, to impart meaningful information or knowledge.

Arthur Peacocke brings together these three senses of information and adds a fourth. Information in the technical sense becomes shaped information, which is then conveyed as meaningful information. To complete this process, Peacocke adds the disclosure and reception of information. With this addition, Peacocke takes a step toward reintroducing the notion that information is for formation. He also helps us see information as a process: the selection, shaping, impartation, and reception of information.

Given our knowledge of genetics and information automation, it is worth noting that human agents needn’t be present throughout the whole information process. Information can be generated and transmitted without the presence of a creative, informing, or informed person.

The Human Process

But when we think about the distinctive human process of creating information, we can speak of a process that includes selection, communication, and formation.

This process begins with the discovery and selection of meaningful data. Then, as information agents, we communicate that content through language and information artifacts. If our intentions are realized, our mediated messages impact and form others.