What exactly is information, and what is it to “be informed?” Let’s take this in two steps. First, watch this hour-long documentary from the BBC about information and the evolution of “information technology.” I think this is very nicely done.
Now, here’s the basics in text. Information, to put it simply, is the mechanism by which we make order out of chaos. The universe is naturally biased towards chaos….or at least the struggle between brief instances of order and their return to chaos. We can even see the human being in terms of information. At conception, a tremendous energy produces a new life. A new order is given shape and new organizations of matter and energy are set in motion. Eventually, we grow old and die…the order undergoes a constant transformation until finally our matter and energy are scattered to the winds, so to speak.
Okay…that’s too out there, maybe. You might be finding out how difficult it is to define information in a simple, easy to understand form. We usually think of information as a thing that, when shared and collected, results in knowledge. Knowledge is often linked to the concept of information. In a mathematical sense, the path to understanding information that many media scholars take, information is a difference that makes a difference. It’s something that we pick out of our environment as significant and name. The name sets up boundaries around the thing or concept so we can relate it to other significant things and concepts. That name tells us what something is and is not. So, information takes on symbolic forms as humans do their thing. The sound d-o-g is arbitrary as it relates to the fuzzy creatures with whom we share our homes. We made it up. The letters that spell out the sounds are also arbitrary. Symbols are a key form of information that sets humans apart from other animals. We figured out how to use information in a highly sophisticated way.
We construct our entire world out of symbols and live by them. What’s significant and what’s not….we perceive, differentiate, name, communicate, and build culture. That’s human work. Once upon a time, we did this work by speaking and storytelling. We eventually found an efficient way to have our ideas shared over space and time when we developed writing (and reading). Nowadays, we have the many symbolic forms found in photos, video, and in all the digital forms that allow instantaneous exploration and sharing. The problem of not having much stored information about the world meant that we lived in a superstitious and tribal manner, only relating closely to those immediately around us…who had the same information that we did. We solved that problem when we developed writing and people far and wide had equal access to the same information and the same system of coding and decoding. We suddenly had a lot more in common. Today, we have the opposite problem. We can communicate effectively and immediately with anyone anywhere, in principle, and Google (among others) has given us the shared pool of information at our fingertips. We no longer have to know anything, since we can instantly access everything.
Neil Postman spent the better part of his later years worrying about our new state of living. In a world with little information shared amongst people, ignorance was a matter of lacking experience or data. In today;s world, ignorance is a matter of trust in technology to do the thinking for us, and the matter of meaning. With little information (order) any small bit means a whole lot. With a lot of information every small bit is equal in most ways and order flips into its reverse…chaos. Google represents a form of meta-information , or information about information, order to make sense of a vast quantity of “orders.” The order became so complex as we compiled and shared that we could no longer deal with the complexity. We needed help. This video of Postman on Richard Heffner’s PBS program The Open Mind tells part of the story…it has a transcript as well, which is helpful information.
So…are we informing ourselves to death? Do we know a lot about things that have little impact on our lives? Are we over-entertained and under prepared for civic life? Is information cheap and therefore afforded little respect….freely given and so inevitably taken?