#FLS 2 – What is Information

Information is usually defined in lay terms as “that which informs…that which answers a question. Here is an information question:  How much information of what type is in the pictures below?

One answer for this first box could be:

A picture of an actual glass box sitting on a table.

An answer for the second box could be:

This is a picture of an imaginary box on a table of definite size defined by the specific, but unknown values, of the height H, width W and length L of its three sides, which give a specific volume V equal to H times W times L . This picture could also represent all possible boxes that fit on the table, which could be constructed for positive values of H, W, and L—a virtual infinite number of possible boxes.

What if we delete the box and table, leaving only the letters H, W and L in the picture?

Since we have a’ priori (known before the question) information that H, W, and L are, in fact, the height, width and length of box sides, we can say that all possible boxes can be specified by just three sets of positive numbers.

These three examples suggest three important insights about the fundamental nature of information:


The first insight says that information is about something, not about nothing, whether the ‘something’ is an internal pattern of pure imagination or an external pattern of concrete experience; we can imagine a baseball being hit out of the park for a homerun or experience it actually happening, even if we see it as pixels of light on a television or mobile screen. Note that “distinction” means “count-ability”—the basis for numbers and, therefore, math.

The second insight acknowledges that information exchange between, say, any A and B, is impacted by all the other connections from other nodes to any A and B from the fabric of the world’s social and natural networked reality. No person or thing or system is an island—all is interconnected one way or another. This has been a mystical notion for eons but is now a practical and visible reality on earth via its social, energy, and economic globally interconnected networks of information flowing at the speed of light.

If information content is king, then information context provides the new control  points that can keep information flowing smoothly to the benefit of all.

Finally, the third insight tells us where the nexus of power is located that is reshaping society for the #FrictionLessSociety.  Abstract information system designs (cloud-based Internet of Things-IoT, for example) are shaping all of the physical realities that determine life on this planet at a time when there is very little shared knowledge or public discussion of what information is and what we are doing with it to change society.

We are willingly giving away for free all of our most personal information in exchange for communication and entertainment devices at home and work, which are making jobs rapidly disappear because of the technology whose development we are enabling! Is this a good idea? If an alien nation wanted to take over earth,could there be a better plan than what we are blindly doing to ourselves?

I personally believe this is all happening mostly by accident primarily because everything is happening so fast. The experts don’t even agree on what exactly information is even as they push forward developing ever more complicated information systems.

In addition, we are sneaking up on quantum computers and have been using quantum physics for 100 years without having a reliable theory that makes sense even though we continue to design computer chips that use “quantum recipes” to make technology work without having understandable science that can tell us what risks we might be taking. Think of making soup without any understanding of what ingredients make it taste good.

One of the most readable sources for calibrating the current state  of our understanding of information (non-technical language backed up by technical references)  is the following report: Bawden D. & Robinson L. (2013). “Deep down things”: in what ways is information physical, and why does it matter for information science? Information Research18(3) paperC03 – http://www.informationr.net/ir/18-3/colis/paperC03.html#.WaV8gz6GPIU


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