information

“There’s a war out there, old friend, a world war.  And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information.  What we see and hear, how we work, what we think, it’s all about the information!”
–Cosmo to Martin Bishop, in Sneakers

The status of “information” is an essential consideration in the theory of media.  The present age is often given the sobriquet of “The Information Age” where information is itself a product, produced by industry, and developed and maintained by “Information Technology.”  This contemporary use of the notion of information treats it as an entity independent of its source and recipient, as opposed to being a relationship between the two.  This treatment of information seems to develop in the second half of the twentieth century, and is a departure from the earlier uses of the word.

That we now commonly speak of information in concrete terms seems obvious.  Computers store greater and greater amounts of “information.” Genes transmit “information” from one generation to another.  In the cited passage from the movie Sneakers , information is a source of power.  “It’s all about the information,” rather than information being about something else .

The Oxford English Dictionary [i] (“Information,” “Inform”) locates the first uses of the word in English in the fourteenth century.  These early uses fall into a category of forming the mind of someone, to train them or teach them.  Other early uses of the word (and, about a half-century earlier, as the verb “inform”) evoke sense of arranging something, such as a written text.  Here the word refers, not to the physical act of writing, or creating written or spoken words, so much as determining the order of the words to be communicated.

These early uses of the word, more directly evoke a connection between “information” and the word at its root: “form.” Information–the action of informing–means to determine the form of something.  This is most comprehensible in an Aristotelian notion of forms, in that the form itself is determined by the empirical evidence of the world.  A Platonic sense of forms would begin with the form and explain the rest of the world in terms of it.  The process of information is a process in which the form is determined, or which understanding of the form is conveyed to another.  To form one’s mind is to instil a notion of a form, to array the thoughts already present in the mind.

The first use of information as an English noun in a sense other than referring to the action of informing (in the above senses) comes in the latter half of the fifteenth century, in the sense of “knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event.” (“Information” 3a) While this sense does treat information as something other than an action, it is used as an object of that action–a slight but significant shift in meaning.  This sense of the word distinguishes information from a person or agent, one who informs, but does not permit them to be independent of one another.  Information is the medium between one who is informing and one who is informed.

This separation comes only in the twentieth century, with the advent of electronic media, though it has roots in nineteenth century science which mark an important necessary shift in the perception of [reality, (2)].  It is through this shift that the modern notion of information becomes possible, ultimately giving rise to the conception of media as entities in themselves and consequently as entities subject to study.

The development of field theory in the study of electromagnetism gives rise in the science in a perceptive shift in the notion of causation in the natural world.  Simple notions of physical causation were incapable of explaining why one object could exert a force on another across a distance, even though the mathematics of this effect were understood since Newton.  Maxwell credits Faraday, in the 1830’s with the shift in understanding electromagnetic phenomena, not as mathematical constructs, but as mediating fields.

Faraday, in his mind’s eye, saw lines of force traversing all space where the mathematicians saw centres of force attracting at a distance: Faraday saw a medium where they saw nothing but distance: Faraday sought the seat of the phenomena in real actions going on in the medium, they were satisfied that they had found it in a power of action at a distance impressed on the electrical fluids. (ix, emphasis added)

This assignation of “real” to the “actions going on in the medium” indicates a shift, of the scientific perception of reality away from the material.  More importantly–insofar as the development of the notion of information is concerned–this shift gave rise to Maxwell’s treatment of electromagnetic waves to be considered as real, as well as media.  The fields are, in effect, a type of information, enabling the prediction of electric phenomena.

The early twentieth-century saw electromagnetic waves used in communication, in radio and later television.  In this context, and particularly in use in radar during the Second World War, the electromagnetic signals used in these devices began to be referred to as “information.” That this change should occur is less surprising in light of the particular shift in the science of the time, which gave rise to these devices.  Because electromagnetic fields were seen as real as entities in themselves, and simultaneously as media–not only mediating forces between charged particles, but now mediating signals between radio transmitted and receiver–that something which mediates, which informs, becomes considered as an entity itself.  This gives rise to the modern notion of “information.” This is perhaps best illustrated in the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of information as: “Separated from, or without the implication of, reference to a person informed: that which inheres in one of two or more alternative sequences, arrangements, etc., that produce different responses in something, and which is capable of being stored in, transferred by, and communicated to inanimate things.” (OED, “Information” 3c)

This definition not only indicates the shift to the modern notion of information, one which has separated the “reference to a person informed,” its earliest quoted usage is in reference to “the amount of definition in the [television] picture, or, as the engineers put it, the amount of information to be transmitted in a given time.”

The modern notion of information develops not only at the same time as, but intrinsically linked with, the invention of modern, electronic media. The media that made use of electricity adopted the terminology and thought about information to be used. Although the modern understanding of information has been projected onto earlier media [ii] the study of media themselves seems to have progressed from this change in understanding.

Perhaps most notable is the rise of “Information Theory” and “Information Technology.”  Information theory, the study of the movement of information, is largely developed just after the Second World War with the development of computers (Borgmann 132). While this initial development still retained close ties to its electromagnetic origins–information is stored in a computer as an electric potential in a vacuum tube or, later, in transistors–it was almost simultaneously applied to other fields of study.  “This is a theory so general that one does not need to say what kinds of symbols are being considered–whether written letters or words or musical notes, or spoken words, or symphonic music, or pictures.” (Weaver, in Borgmann 132)

Information theory, the study of the movement of information, is a clear indication that information is no longer just a relationship between entities.  Information itself moves, and has relationships within itself and with other entities.  This is seen in contemporary science, particularly in physics, computer science and in genetics.  This is also seen in, and is the foundation of, the study of media.  Aphorisms such as McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” state quite explicitly that information is itself an object of study: That we can examine information about information. [iii]

Adam Shapiro
Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies
Winter 2003

NOTES

[i] Confining this historical approach to the uses in the English language excludes earlier uses of the closely related Latin words, as well as Latin uses which continue beyond the fourteenth century.  This exclusion is mitigated by the facts that the Latin uses are also in the same senses as these earliest English uses, and that the shift in meaning towards modern conceptions of “information” occurred well after English replaced Latin as the principle language of philosophical, literary and scientific writing.

[ii] Statements such as McLuhan’s “Radio provides a speed-up of information that also causes acceleration in other media.” (267) or Daniel Headrick’s book, which examines information technologies from 1700-1850, are some examples of reading this modern notion of information into media which predate this use of the term.

[iii] This may possibly be the transition point from what was referred to as the “modern” meaning of “information,” where information is treated as an entity in itself, to the “post-modern” meaning, in which information is about other information.  Information is not only an object of study, it is the object of study.

WORKS CITED
Borgmann, Albert. Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. Chicago: U Chicago Press 1999.

Headrick, Daniel. When Information Came of Age. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.

Maxwell, James Clerk. A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Vol. 1. New York: Dover, 1954.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media.

Robinson, Phil Allen, dir. Sneakers. 1992.

Weaver, Warren. “Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Quoted in Borgmann.