concept of information as we use it in everyday English,
sense knowledge communicated, plays a central role in contemporary
The development and widespread use of computer networks since the end
of World War II, and the emergence of information science as a
discipline in the 1950s, are evidence of this focus. Although
knowledge and its communication are basic phenomena of every human
society, it is the rise of information technology and its global
that characterize ours as as an information society. It is commonplace
to consider information as a basic condition for
economic development together with capital, labor, and raw material;
what makes information especially significant at present is its digital
nature. The impact of information technology on the natural and
social sciences has made this everyday notion a highly
controversial concept. Claude Shannon's (1948) "A Mathematical
Theory of Communication" is a landmark work, referring to the common
use of information with its semantic and pragmatic
dimensions, while at the same redefining the concept within an
engineering framework. The fact that the concept of knowledge
communication has been designated with the word information seems,
prima facie, a linguistic happenstance.
For a science like information science (IS) it is of course important
how fundamental terms are defined; and in IS, as in other fields, the
question of how to define information is often raised. This chapter is
attempt to review the status of the concept of information in IS,
with reference also to interdisciplinary trends. In scientific
theoretical concepts are not true or false elements or glimpses of some
element of reality; rather, they are constructions designed to do a job
possible way. Different conceptions of fundamental terms like information are thus
more or less fruitful, depending on the theories
(and in the end, the practical actions) they are expected to support.
In the opening section, we discuss the problem of defining terms from
the perspective of the philosophy of science.
The history of a word provides us with anecdotes that are tangential to
the concept itself. But in our case, the use of the word
information points to a specific perspective from which the concept of
knowledge communication has been defined. This perspective
includes such characteristics as novelty and relevance; i.e., it refers
to the process of knowledge transformation, and particularly to
selection and interpretation within a specific context. This discussion
leads to the questions of why and when this meaning
was designated with the word information.
We explore this history, and we believe that our results may help
readers better understand the
complexity of the concept with regard to its scientific
Discussions about the concept of information in other disciplines are
very important for IS because many theories and approaches in IS
have their origins elsewhere (see the section "Information as an
Interdisciplinary concept" in this chapter). The epistemological
concept of information brings into play nonhuman information processes,
particularly in physics and biology. And vice versa: the psychic and
sociological processes of
selection and interpretation may be considered using objective
parameters, leaving aside
the semantic dimension, or more precisely, by considering objective or
situational parameters of interpretation. This concept can be
in physical terms with regard to release mechanisms, as we suggest. Our
overview of the concept of information
in the natural sciences as well as in the humanities and social
sciences cannot hope to be comprehensive. In most
cases, we can only refer to fragments of theories. However, the reader
may wish to follow the leads provided in the bibliography.
Readers interested primarily in information science may derive most
benefit from the section on "Information in Information Science," in
which we offer a detailed explanation of
diverse views and theories of information within our field;
supplementing the recent ARIST chapter by Cornelius (2002). We show
introduction of the concept of information circa 1950 to the domain of
special librarianship and documentation has in itself had
serious consequences for the types of knowledge and theories developed
in our field. The important question is not only what meaning we give
the term in IS, but also how it relates to other terms basic terms,
as documents, texts, and knowledge.
with an objectivist view from the world of
information theory and cybernetics, information science has turned more
to the phenomena of relevance and interpretation as
basic aspects of the concept of information. This change is in no way a
turn to a
subjectivist theory, but an appraisal of different perspectives that
may determine in a particular context what is being considered as
informative, be it a "thing" (Buckland, 1991b) or a document. Different
concepts of information within information science
reflect tensions between a subjective and an
objective approach. The concept of interpretation or selection
may be considered to be the bridge between these two poles. It is
important, to consider the different professions involved with
the interpretation and selection of knowledge. The most important thing
in IS (as in information policy) is to consider information
as a constitutive force in society and, thus, recognize the
nature of information systems and services (Braman, 1989).
HOW TO DEFINE
A SCIENTIFIC TERM
and Meaning Theory
is well known that definitions are not true or false,
but more or less fruitful. In a way, people are free to define terms as
they like, but in reality their definitions may encounter problems. In
children’s play, a chair can be defined as a table and vice
versa. This works as long as the children remember and obey their own
decisions and do not apply their own conventions with
outsiders. However, when somebody defines a term in such an
way, that definition will be neglected and will not contribute to
understanding, communication, or the advance of practice.
how different people apply the terms
they use is helpful. Wittgenstein’s (1958a) famous use theory of
meaning emphasizes this
aspect, defining terms by finding out how people actually use them (see
Blair's chapter in this volume).
This aspect also applies to the term information.
Dictionaries such as The
Oxford English Dictionary (1989), provide valuable insights
etymology of a word and how different authors have used it throughout
the centuries (see Appendix). This etymology should be supplemented by
more detailed descriptions
of how the word has been used in different disciplines. The actual
use of terms may differ from their more formal definitions. The
ordinary use of a term like information
may carry other
meanings than formal definitions, implying that conflicting theoretical
views may arise between the explicit scientific
definitions of ordinary use. Because of
this tendency, we must not only compare different formal definitions,
also consider the meaning of a word like information as it is used
in relation to, for example, information seeking,
information systems, and information services.
Studies of how a term has been used cannot, however, help us to decide
how we should define it. When we use language and terms, we perform
some kind of act, with the intention of accomplishing something. The
different meanings of the terms we use are more or less efficient tools
to help us accomplish what we want to accomplish. In this way,
according to pragmatic philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce
(1905), the meaning of a term is determined by not just the past, but
also the future.
We also cite Braman (1989), pointing out how
important it is for information policy to define information
adequately, thus applying this pragmatic principle of definition in
Dependency of Scientific Terms
kind of conduct performed in the sciences is the
production of knowledge and the development of scientific theories. In
this respect, the meaning of terms must be considered in the framework
of the theories they are supposed to serve. In he philosophy of
Chalmers (1999, pp. 104-105) has provided an important analysis of
statements must be
expressed in the language of some theory. Consequently, it is argued,
the statements, and the concepts figuring in them, will be as precise
and informative as the theory in whose language they are formed is
precise and informative. For instance, I think it will be agreed that
the Newtonian concept of mass has a more precise meaning than the
concept of democracy, say. It is plausible to suggest that the reason
for the relative precise meaning of the former stems from the fact that
the concept plays a specific, well-defined role in a precise, closely
knit theory, Newtonian mechanics. By contrast, the social theories in
which the concept “democracy” occurs are vague and multifarious. If
this suggested close connection between precision of meaning of a term
or statement and the role played by that term or statement in a theory
is valid, then the need for coherently structured theories would seem
to follow directly from it.
also considers alternative ways to defining
by, for example, lexical or ostensive definitions. The main problem
with lexical definitions is that concepts can be defined only in terms
of other concepts, the meanings of which are given. If the meanings of
these latter concepts are themselves established by definition, it is
clear that an infinite regress will result, unless the meanings of some
concepts are known by other means. A dictionary is useless unless we
already know the meanings of many words. Newton could not define mass
or force in terms of previously available concepts. It was necessary
for him to transcend the limits of the old conceptual framework by
developing a new one. The main problem with ostensive definitions is
that they are difficult to sustain, even in the case of an elementary
notion like apple. Defining
something like mass in
mechanics, electrical field
electromagnetism or information,
subject or topicality in
information science (IS) is even more challenging. The dependence of
the meaning of concepts on
the structure of the theory in which they occur — and the dependence of
the precision and degree of coherence of
the latter — is thus made plausible by noting the limitations of some
of the alternative ways in which a concept might be thought to acquire
also points out that the typical history of a
it be chemical element, atom, the unconscious, and so forth,
involves the emergence of the concept as a vague idea, followed
by its gradual clarification as the theory in which it plays a part
takes a more precise and coherent form. He argues that Galileo was in
the process of making a major contribution to the building of a new
mechanics that was to prove capable of supporting detailed
experimentation at a later stage. It is hardly surprising that —
contrary to popular myth — his efforts involved thought experiments,
analogies, and illustrative metaphors rather than detailed
experimentation. This situation is understandable if it is accepted
that experimentation can only be carried out if one has a theory
capable of yielding predictions in the form of precise
Chalmers, we propose that the scientific
definitions of terms like information
depend on what roles we give
them in our theories; in other words, the type of methodological work
they must do for us. With regard to the term information Spang-Hanssen (2001,
fact, we are not obliged to accept
the word information as a professional term at all. It might be that
this word is most useful when left without any formal definition, like
e.g., the word discussion, or
the word difficulty, or the
word literature. It might
be that the word information is useful in
particular when we try to rise our professional status in relation to
other professions; it sounds smart and imposing and gives an air of
technicality. I find no moral objections to this sort of use of words;
language is certainly not only for informative uses (“informative” here
refers to the so-called intellectual or factual meaning of a text or an
utterance). However, we must realize that the status-rising effect of a
word may depend precisely on its being used in other fields as well,
preferably in fields having a high status, like engineering and
nowadays sociology. The uses in such other fields actually makes it
impossible at the same time to keep this word as a formally defined
professional term in our field without some risk of confusion; the
words force, energy and effect—used both generally and in physics as
formally defined terms—illustrate this situation.
word information—and combinations
retrieval, information center—have definitely contributed to rise the
public opinion of library and documentation work, which is generally
held to be a little dull, dusty and distant from what is actually going
on in society. Maybe it would be wise to leave the word information
there, were it not for the fact—already mentioned—that several attempts
have been made to define information as a formal term relative to
documentation and information work, and even attempts to define
information as some measurable quantity, corresponding to questions of
the type: How much information was retrieved by the search?
Danger of Applying Persuasive Definitions
kinds of definitions exist (Yagisawa, 1999).
The tendency to use and define terms in order to impress other people
has been called persuasive definition. The definition provided by
Brookes (1977) K(S) + δI
–> K(S + δS) seems to us
serve only such a persuasive function. If we agree with Spang-Hanssen
that definitions are legitimate ways to boost the status of a
profession and research field, we must face the fact that such use can
cause internal confusion and lack of self-respect in the discipline.
Schrader, among others, has demonstrated this outcome. He studied about
700 definitions of information
science and its antecedents from 1900
to 1981 and found that:
literature of information
science is characterized by conceptual chaos. This conceptual chaos
issues from a variety of problems in the definitional literature of
information science: uncritical citing of previous definitions;
conflating of study and practice; obsessive claims to scientific
status; a narrow view of technology; disregard for literature without
the science or technology label; inappropriate analogies; circular
definition; and, the multiplicity of vague, contradictory, and
sometimes bizarre notions of the nature of the term "information"
(Schrader, 1983, p.99)
we can see, the cost of applying persuasive definitions
IS has been extremely high; this approach should no longer be
accepted by journals and authorities in the field. We have to ask more
seriously: What role—if any—should the concept of information play in
IS? In order to answer this question, one must clarify the
role and nature of scientific theories in IS. We suggest that focusing
on the concept of information may have misdirected our
field, and that a closer relation to concepts such as signs, texts, and
knowledge may provide more satisfactory conceptual frameworks for the
kind of problems that IS is trying to answer. When we use the term information in IS, we
should always keep in mind that information is what is informative for
a given person. What is
informative is depends on the interpretative needs and skills of the
individual (although these are often shared with members of a discourse
AND SOURCES OF THE WORD INFORMATION
[A] word never—well,
off its etymology and its formation. In spite of all changes in
the extensions of and additions to its meanings, and indeed rather
pervading and governing these, there will still persist the old idea.
[...] Going back into the history of a word, very often into Latin, we
come back pretty commonly to pictures or models of how things happen or
are done." (Austin 1961, pp. 149-150)
study of the history of a word, its etymology, is not
concerned, as the word etymology itself prima facie suggests, with a
true meaning (Gr. étymon)
that apparently may be the basis of its formation and use; but rather
the interrelation of its different uses (particularly its
translation into other languages and contexts), including its metaphors
metonymies. By examining the history of word uses, we find some of the
primitive forms or contexts that underlie the higher-level scientific
practices. This lessens the expectations we may have with
regard to univocal higher-level concepts, and may help us better
manage vagueness and ambiguity. To question modern
terminology, to look more closely at the relation between signs,
meanings, and references and to pay attention to historic contexts
shifts helps us understand how present and future uses are interwoven.
has Latin roots (informatio).
explore this thread we should examine its entry in The Oxford English Dictionary
(1989, see Appendix). We shall consider two basic
contexts in which information
is used; namely, the act of molding
the mind and the act of communicating knowledge. These two activities
are, obviously, intimately related. But when and how do information and
molding belong together? Based on studies by Seiffert (1968) and
Schnelle (1976), Capurro (1978) explores the Greek origins of the Latin
word informatio as well as
its subsequent development. This
historico-critical background makes possible a better understanding of
the higher-level concepts of information in the Hellenistic period as
well as in the Middle Ages and in modern times. Peters' (1988) view
is highly supportive of these analyses.
Roots and Greek Origins
Latinae (See footnote 2) (1900) gives detailed
references to the uses of informatio
and informo in Latin since
Vergil (70-19 B.C.) until the eighth century. There are two basic
namely a tangible (corporaliter)
and an intangible (incorporaliter)
one. The prefix in may have
the meaning of negation as in informis
or informitas, but in our
strengthens the act of giving a form to something, as in Vergil's
on Vulcan and the Cyclops hammering out (informatum)
lightning bolts for Zeus (Aen.
8, 426) or a huge shield for Aeneas (Aen.
447). Early references to the use of informo
are in a biological
context, for instance by Varro (116-27 B.C.) who describes how the
is being "informed" (informatur)
by head and backbone (Frg.
3, 10, 7). The intangible or spiritual context concerns moral and
pedagogical uses since the second century A.D. that reveal not only the
influence of Christianity —
Tertullian (ca. 160-220 A.D.) calls Moses populi informator; that is,
people's educator or molder —
but in several cases also an explicit reference to Greek philosophy,
particularly to Plato (427-348/7 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.).
Several Greek words that were translated with informatio or informo such as hypotyposis (which
means model, especially in a
(representation), but most
higher-level uses are mostly explicitly related to eidos, idea, typos and morphe; that is, to key concepts of
Greek ontology and epistemology (Capurro 1978). This relationship is
clearly the case with prominent thinkers such as, for instance, Cicero
(106-43 B.C.) and
Augustine (354-430 A.D.). Nevertheless, these higher-level concepts
their roots in the low-level use of these words, particularly in the
primitive context of pottery as well as in the Greek experience of
limitation and shining-forth of what we perceive sensually (phainonemon).
explicitly translates in De natura
(341-270 B.C.) concept of prolepsis
representations of the gods or of things impressed in our souls before
any experience (a priori, as Kant would say) as informatio rei (nat.deor. 1, 43). At the same time
he uses this word
in a rhetorical context — for
instance in De oratore (2,
358) as well as in Orator,
explicitly points to Plato's ideas
(orat. 10) — in
to describe the active and a
posteriori action of the mind depicting something unknown or
helping memory, as part of the ars
memoriae, to better remember a past situation through the
pictorial representation of a sentence (sententiae informatio). Several
references are to the use of informo
in a biological as well as
in a pedagogical and moral context. A particularly interesting one can
be found in his speech Pro Archia.
The Greek poet Aulus
Licinius Archias, Cicero's teacher who was born in Antiocheia, was
accused of becoming illegally a Roman citizen. Cicero points that
Archias learned in his youth the arts, such as writing, by which young
people are usually educated or informed in their humanity ("quibus
aetas puerilis ad humanitatem informari solet") (Arch. 3).
Augustine, we have the influence of Greek ontology and
on the one hand, and of Christian tradition on the other. In De
trinitate, Augustine calls the process of visual perception informatio
sensus (trin. 11,2,3)
and he uses the famous Platonic (Theaet.
and Aristotelian (De an. 424 a
17) metaphor of the impression (imprimitur)
of a ring seal into
wax (trin. 11,2,3). According
to Augustine, the images or
representations of the perceived objects are stored in memory. These
images do not inform, following the Platonic view, the soul (mens) or
the rational intellect (intelligentia
rationalis), but only
reflection (cogitatio); that
the faculty dealing with internal representations (informatio
14,8, 11). Augustine uses informatio
also in a
pedagogical context: Christ is God's form (forma dei). His deeds instruct
and educate us (ad eruditionem
informationemque nostram) (epist.
In De civitate dei, he
describes the process of illumination of the
heavenly community (informatio
civitatis sanctae) (civ.
the Middle Ages informatio
and informo are commonly used
in the aforementioned epistemological, ontological, and pedagogical
contexts by several authors (see Capurro, 1978 for details). The
Aristotelian influence on the higher-level philosophical concept of informatio is shown at best in
the work of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Bussa (1975) lists in his Index Thomisticus 66 references on informatio — 15
them in nominative — and
references on informo.
Schütz (1958) distinguishes in his Thomas-Lexikon between informatio in the sense of
"providing something with a form" in an epistemological or ontological
context and the pedagogical sense of education or instruction.
-> Following Thomas Aquinas' interpretation of the Aristotelian
form (eidos or morphe) and matter (hyle), both principles cause the
unity of an individual being (informatio
materiae) in the sense
listed by the OED: 'the action of 'informing' with some active or
essential quality' (OED II, 7). The Aristotelian theory was called hylomorphism. From a
theological point of view it is
important for Thomas to distinguish between the biological process
giving life on the basis of something that already exists (per modum
informationis) and the act of creation out of nothing (per modum
creationis) (In de causis 18/94).
In other words, there is an
ontological difference —
difference concerning the meaning of being, not just a difference
between beings —
between informatio and creatio. Because of the unity of
human body with the soul as substantial form (forma substantialis)
Thomas underlines, in contrast to Augustine, the unity of the knowledge
process conceived as a double movement of abstracting ("abstractio") the forms (forma, species) — the
Aristotelian eidos or morphe — of
things and of going back to the things in a process of
sensory-bounded intellectual re-cognition ("conversio ad phantasmata"). Thomas'
technici for these processes are informatio sensus and informatio intellectus possibilis (Summa theol. I, 14.2.co/4). He
underlines the role of the active intellect
(intellectus agens) in the
(re-)cognition process. Finally, he conceives
information processes, similarly to Augustine, in a large pedagogical
and moral context, where informatio
means the forming of virtues
(informatio virtutum) as well
as of moral life as a whole
(informatio morum) (Summa theol. III, 110.4.co/15).
and Postmodern Uses of Information
action of 'informing' with some
active or essential quality" had, according to the Oxford English Dictionary "a quite
restrictive use" not only in English, but also in other modern European
languages, and references on "formation or molding of the mind or
character, training, instruction, teaching" date from the 14th century.
the most intriguing question from the point of view of the history of
concerns the ontological use of informatio
the lower-level sense of "molding matter" as well as in the
higher-level sense used by Scholastics as informatio materiae —
obsolete not only in modern languages that, like English, inherited
the Latin word and slightly transformed it into information, retaining
the epistemological meaning, but also, for instance, in German where
word Information was actually
used in the sense of education and
communication since the 15th century. Informatio
a mystical context as in-Bildunge
or in-Formunge; later on in a
pedagogical sense, such as used by Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813)
with Bildung, a term heavily
with higher-level meaning (Capurro 1978,
p. 176). A plausible explanation for the loss of the ontological
higher-level sense is the decline of Scholastic philosophy caused by
the rise of modern empirical science. As Peters (1988, p. 12) states:
the feverish demolition of
medieval institutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the
notion that information consisted in the activity or process of
endowing some material entity with form remained largely unchanged. But
the notion that the universe was ordered by forms fell into disrepute,
and the context of this in-forming shifted from matter to mind. Both
changes inaugurated a massive inversion in the meaning of information.
transition from Middle Ages to Modernity in the use of
the concept of information —
"giving a (substantial) form to matter" to "communicating something to
someone" — can
detected in the natural philosophy of René Descartes
(1596-1650), who calls ideas the "forms of thought," not in the sense
that these are "pictured" ("depictae")
in some part of the brain, but
"as far as they inform the spirit itself oriented to this part of the
brain" ("sed tantum quatenus mentem ipsam in allem cerebri partem
conversam informant." (Descartes 1996, VII, 161). As Peters (1988, p
"doctrine of ideas," developed
initially by Descartes, was central to early modern philosophy, both
rationalist and empiricist. Abandoning the "direct perception" of the
scholastics — the
immediate communion of Intellect and Nature —
Descartes interposed "ideas" between the two. An "idea" was something
present to the mind, an image, copy, or representation, with a
problematic relation to real things in the world. For empiricists (like
Locke), the stream of ideas was the raw material from which genuine
knowledge could be built; for rationalists (like Descartes), it was a
veil of illusion, to be pierced by logic and reason.
the concept of information ceases to be a
higher-level concept until the rise of information theory in the 20th
century. Philosophers such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), John
Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-1776),
and Thomas Reid (1711-1796) criticize scholastic
hylomorphism and particularly the theory of abstraction. Peters (1988,
p. 12) asserts that Bacon's (1967) "Great
the logicians of his day
for receiving "as conclusive the immediate informations of the
sense..." Instead, those "informations" must be subjected, according to
Bacon, to a sure plan that will sort the true form the false. Though
Bacon's usage may not appear irreconcilable with our own, the inverted
pluralization should tip us off that he does not completely share our
prejudices (we should say "the information of the senses"). In fact,
this locution exemplifies a perfectly hylomorphic notion of the
workings of the senses: they are a kind of matter (wax being a favorite
empiricist instance) on which objects of the world may leave their
shapes or stamps. What is interesting here is that the site of
information is being shifted from the world at large to the human mind
and senses. This shift requires no break with scholastic notions of
mind or nature.
this epistemological notion of information(s),
particularly the wax metaphor, was a key higher-level concept
throughout the Middle Ages. Consider Locke's (1995, p. 373) statement: "No
existence of anything without us,
but only of GOD, can certainly be known further than our senses inform
(1988, pp. 12-13)
Information was readily deployed in
empiricist philosophy (though it played a less important role than
other words such as impression or idea) because it seemed to describe
the mechanics of sensation: objects in the world in-form the senses.
But sensation is entirely different from "form" — the
the other intellectual; the one is subjective, the other objective. My
sensation of things is fleeting, elusive, and idiosynchratic [sic].
Hume, especially, sensory experience is a swirl of impressions cut off
from any sure link to the real world... In any case, the
empiricist problematic was how the mind is informed by sensations of
the world. At first informed meant shaped by; later it came to mean
received reports from. As its site of action drifted from cosmos to
consciousness, the term's sense shifted from unities (Aristotle's
forms) to units (of sensation). Information came less and less to refer
to internal ordering or formation, since empiricism allowed for no
preexisting intellectual forms outside of sensation itself. Instead,
information came to refer to the fragmentary, fluctuating, haphazard
stuff of sense. Information, like the early modern worldview more
generally, shifted from a divinely ordered cosmos to a system governed
by the motion of corpuscles. Under the tutelage of empiricism,
information gradually moved from structure to stuff, from form to
substance, from intellectual order to sensory impulses.
developments on etymology are partly covered by the
next section. Here we will conclude that the modern uses of
information show a transition period in which the medieval ontological
concept of "molding matter" is not just abandoned but reshaped under
empirical and epistemological premises. It has been extremely
interesting to observe how the concept of information is closely
connected to views of knowledge. This conclusion is important when we
later analyze the concept of information in information science,
because it indicates a severly neglected connection between
theories of information and theories of knowledge.
AS AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CONCEPT
every scientific discipline today uses the concept of
information within its own context and with regard to specific
phenomena. Can a common meaning for this term be derived, or do we have
agree with the skeptical view expressed by Bogdan (1994, 0p. 53)?
skepticism about a definitive
analysis of information acknowledges the infamous versatility of
information. The notion of information has been taken to characterize a
measure of physical organization (or decrease in entropy), a pattern of
communication between source and receiver, a form of control and
feedback, the probability of a message being transmitted over a
communication channel, the content of a cognitive state, the meaning of
a linguistic form, or the reduction of an uncertainty. These concepts
of information are defined in various theories such as physics,
thermodynamics, communication theory, cybernetics, statistical
information theory, psychology, inductive logic, and so on. There seems
to be no unique idea of information upon which these various concepts
converge and hence no proprietary theory of information. (See footnote
broad philosophical debate continues as to whether the
should address a knowledge process including, as a necessary condition,
a human knower or, at the very least, an interpretative system, or
should exclude mental states and user-related
intentions and be considered as addressing an objective magnitude or
property of beings (Pérez Gutiérrez, 2000; Ropohl 2001).
Between these two positions are different kinds of mediating
theories, including the quest for a unified theory of information
(Hofkirchner, 1999). This controversy reflects the
complex history of the term.
their seminal book The
Study of Information:
Interdisciplinary Messages, Machlup and Mansfield (1983)
views on the interdisciplinary controversy in computer science,
artificial intelligence, library and information science, linguistics,
psychology, and physics, as well as in the social sciences. Machlup
(1983, p. 660) himself disagrees with the use of the concept of
information in the
context of signal transmission, the basic senses of information in his
view al referring "to telling something or to the something that is
told. Information is addressed to human minds and is received by human
minds." All other senses, including its use with
regard to nonhuman organisms as well to society as a whole, are,
according to Machlup, metaphoric and, as in the case of cybernetics,
anthropomorphic. The confusion started with the abstraction of meaning
in information theory (Shannon & Weaver, 1972). Machlup (1983, p.
660) found that human sciences like psychology, economics, decision
theory, and linguistics had adopted the basic human-related meaning,
asserting it with
requirement of truth or
correctness should exclude false or incorrect messages; the requirement
of value or usefulness should exclude messages not helpful in decisions
and actions; the requirement of novelty should exclude repeated or
redundant messages; the requirement of surprise should exclude messages
that the recipient expected; the requirement of uncertainty-reduction
should exclude messages that leave the recipient's state of uncertainty
unchanged or increased; and so forth. No exhaustive enumeration of
persuasive or dictatorial restrictions is here intended.
short, for Machlup, information is a human phenomenon. It
involves individuals transmitting and receiving messages in the context
of their possible actions.
than 10 years later, Kornwachs and Jacoby (1996) edited Information. New Questions to
a Multidisciplinary Concept. This volume displays a general
tendency toward what we might call the naturalization of information.
contribution "Can Information Be Naturalized?," Zoglauer responds in the
negative with regard to semantic and pragmatic information, which is
different from syntactic information; that is, from any kind of
mind-dependent semiotic units as well as functional information whose
interpreter can be a Turing machine and/or any kind of living organism
processing neural and genetic information. Also in this volume Capurro
(1996) defines information as an
anthropological category concerning the phenomenon of human messages,
whose vertical and horizontal structures are related to the Greek
concept of message (angelia)
and as well as to philosophic discourse
(logos). The controversy
surrounding the naturalization of information goes back to the work of
physicists and engineers such as L.
Boltzmann, J. v. Neumann, L. Szilard, H. Nyquist, N. Wiener, and
particularly to R.V.L. Hartley (1928, p. 536) who in his article
Information," argued that, because electrical transmission
systems have to do with machines and not with human beings,
desirable therefore to
eliminate the psychological factors involved and to establish a measure
of information in terms of purely physical quantities."
Weaver discussed the elimination of meaning from the
concept of information
, within the engineering context of signal transmission, in a similar
way with regard to Shannon's "Mathematical
Theory of Communication:"
word information, in this theory,
is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary
usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning. In
fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning and the
other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the
present viewpoint, as regards information. It is this, undoubtedly,
that Shannon means when he says, "the semantic aspects of communication
are irrelevant to the engineering aspects." But this does not mean that
the engineering aspects are necessarily irrelevant to the semantic
aspects. (Shannon & Weaver, 1949, p. 8)
philosophical controversy about the concept of
the 20th century had its origin in cybernetics, because the concepts
of communication and information were conceived at a higher level of
abstraction and not reduced to the communication of human knowledge as
expressed by Norbert Wiener's (1961, p. 132) famous dictum:
information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit
this can survive at the present day." This was of course a
challenge to dialectic materialism. Studies on the concept of
information from a materialistic point of view followed (Karpatschof,
2000; Kirschenmann 1969; Klaus, 1963; Ursul 1970). Wiener's idea of
information as a third metaphysical principle was developed by
Günther (1963), while, according to Titze (1971), information is
a substantial or metaphysical principle but expresses a tendency for
order and evolution. In his seminal work, Oeser (1976) places
information within the context of epistemology as a key concept
concerning the creation of scientific knowledge. He explicitly refers
to the Latin and Greek roots of the term information. Weizsäcker
(1974) also follows this path, as we
shall show in the next section. But, with some exceptions, the
concept of information is not at the core of philosophic research until
the end of the century. The historical review of the concept by
Schnelle (1976) refers to linguistic and cybernetics. Weizsäcker
develops his views on the relationship between language and information
particularly in dialog with Heidegger (1959). In a seminar with Eugen
Fink on Heraclitus, Heidegger also points to the naturalization of the
concept of information in biology; that is, to genetic information
(Heidegger & Fink, 1970, pp. 25-26; Capurro, 1981).
within philosophy of science and analytic philosophy, particularly
since the late 1970s, are related to specific
sciences, particularly physics, biology, and linguistics. As a result
of this development the tendency has been to re-humanize the concept of
information; that is, to place it within a cultural context. But at the
same time, a search continues for a higher level of reflection in which
information and communication, whether human or not, are seen with
corresponding differentia specifica
from the viewpoint of the genus of
interpretation or selection. This higher level of reflection means, on
the one hand, a renaissance
of the ontological dimension of the Greek roots of informatio beyond a restrictive
humanistic view, while, on the other, the modern, but now
de-humanized, perspective of information as knowledge communicated,
rise to what we could call a communicative ontology where not only
living beings (other than humans) but also all kinds of systems are
said to produce, storage, process, and exchange information. This
also explain the rise of information science as a science that is
supposed to be related to (computer) systems as well as to human beings.
Concept of Information in the Natural Sciences
is prima facie something that flows between a
sender and a
receiver. But Shannon's definition of information is quantitative
concerning possible selections from a repertoire of physical symbols.
It is, in fact, as Underwood (2001) remarks, a theory of
signal or message, not of information transmission. Shannon's model of
communication includes six elements: a source, an encoder, a message, a
channel, a decoder, and a receiver (Shannon 1948; 1972, 34, Fig. 1; See
see also Foulger
2004, and Chandler's
critique of this model)
Strictly speaking no information could be communicated
between a sender and a receiver, because this theory is not concerned
communication of a meaningful message, but with the reproduction of a
selection process. Shannon correlates information —
is, the number of
possible choices in order to create a message — and
greater the freedom of choice, the greater the uncertainty; that is,
information. This concept of information seems, as Weaver remarks,
"disappointing and bizarre —
disappointing because it has nothing to do
with meaning, and bizarre because it deals not with a single message
but rather with the statistical character of a whole ensemble of
messages, bizarre also because in these statistical terms the two words
information and uncertainty find themselves to be partners"
(Shannon & Weaver 1972, p. 27)
(1982-1983) gives an overview of the different
approaches to the concept of information in the natural sciences.
According to Mahler (1996), information is a "contextual concept;" in
the question: "What is information?" cannot be stated without reference
to a situation. In the case of quantum physics, this situation is a
dynamic scenario in which "decisions" are carried out by a system
that gives rise to an "information flow." Such decision making,
being arranged by human beings, does not require conscious observers.
Quantum mechanical systems are embedded within a classical environment.
The theoretical model must combine system dynamics and information
dynamics, which are separated within the classical world of
where information can be copied at will. Given the incompatibility of
observables like location and impact, there is no transmission of
encoded information in the individual photons between A and B, local
information coming into being only after measurement. Mahler shows that
this fundamental contextuality can be exploited in communication
scenarios particularly with regard to cryptography. According to
Mahler (1996, p. 117), "information can only be defined within the
is not just out there." In other words, information
is not a pure observable, but a theoretical construct. It is
"interpreted data." As Bennett and DiVincenzo (2000) show, an
information theory based on quantum principles extends and completes
classical information theory. A quantum theory of information offers
benefits not only to cryptography but also to quantum information
processing. A quantum bit or "qubit" is a microscopic system, such as
an atom, or nuclear spin, or photon.
physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von
Weizsäcker conceives information as a twofold category: (1)
information is only that which is understood; (2) Information is only
that which generates information (Weizsäcker, 1974).
Weizsäcker points to the Aristotelian and Platonic origins of the
term to show that the concept of information
is related to form or structure (definition 2). Information means, at
the human level, the concept; not the thinking process itself. In order
for a concept to be information, two conditions are necessary; namely,
it must be a linguistic entity and it must be univocal. A
circular movement between language and information serves as a
scientific thinking (Weizsäcker, 1974). Weizsäcker
(1974, p. 351) stresses that a biological structures, or more
generally, information as
"a measure for the amount of form," is something that can be
potentially known (definition 1). At the
same time, a whole organism is the product of genetic information
(definition 2). Weizsäcker calls generating forms "objectivized
semantics." Information is a property of
material entities: "matter has form, consciousness knows form."
(Weizsäcker, 1974, p. 167) At the level of thermodynamics, actual
information means the opposite of entropy; at the level of
consciousness it has syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic dimensions.
Evolution is the increase of form.
information concept within signal transmission into the context of
thermodynamics and biological evolution. The macro state of, say, the
Latin alphabet used to send a message, makes possible the choice of a
specific letter at the micro level. The same can be said with regard to
chromosomes and a DNA sequence. Thermodynamic entropy measures the
distance between the knowledge of the macro and the ignorance at the
micro level. The probability of possible events takes place within
specific conditions. No absolute concept of information exists
(Weizsäcker, 1985). Contrary to Plato, information should not
be conceived as perennial form, but as changing over time
(Weizsäcker 1992). Finally, Weizsäcker (1974, p. 60) points
"unavoidable circle" between language and information; that is, between
word plurivocity and conceptual univocity, as a characteristic of exact
thinking. The reason is that we are finite
observers and actors within language as well as within evolution. We
cannot, in Kantian terms, understand things as they are in themselves
and therefore we never have fully univocal concepts (Weizsäcker,
the basis of Weizsäcker's twofold concept of
information, Lyre (1998, p. 76) develops "a quantum theory of
(Ur-Theorie) with "basic
the information content of a yes/no decision or one bit of
quantum-theoretic potential information (Ur). Urs are
potential information (Lyre, 1998). This idea of information units
is prima facie similar to Stonier's theory of objective information.
According to Stonier (1990, p. 21)"information exists;" that is,
information exists independently of human thinking (Stonier 1997).
Stonier follows Norbert Wiener's (1961, p. 132) famous dictum:
mechanical brain does not secrete
thought "as the liver
does bile," as the earlier materialists claimed, nor does it put it out
in the form of energy, as the muscle puts out its activity. Information
is information, nor matter or energy. No materialism which does not
admit this can survive at the present day.
and kinetic information is an intrinsic component
of the universe. It is independent of whether any form of intelligence
can perceive it or not (Stonier, 1991). Information may exist in
particular form, comparable to photons, as "infons" (Stonier, 1996,
p. 138). The term "infon" was coined by Keith Devlin (1992) and refers
parameters corresponding to individuals and locations (Israel &
1990, p. 8). Stonier's view is orthogonal to Weizsäcker's
twofold conception of information and Lyre's quantum theory of
information with its Kantian background. Urs are not infons; that is, they
are not particles in space and time. Finally, Stonier separates the
syntactic from the semantic aspects of information, whereas Lyre, 1998,
pp. 155-156) looks
for a "complete concept of information." Stonier's (1999)
evolutionary view foresees the emergence of a global brain similar to
Teilhard de Chardin's (1964) "noosphere."
it is important to distinguish
between information and meaning. Information is, say, the letters of a
written alphabet or the nucleotides of a strand of DNA. Two moles of
sodium chloride contain twice as much information as one mole. It may
yield a message if and only if it has been processed. If the nucleotide
in the second sequence is identical with the first, its message is
merely redundant. The message may acquire a meaning if and only if it
has been information-processed by a recipient. The meaning of two
identical messages would not double "although it might be increased
somewhat as a result of being repeated." (Stonier, 1996, p. 137) This
evolutionary approach to information within the natural (and social)
sciences has been discussed at international conferences on the
foundations of information science (Conrad & Marijuan 1996;
1999). Information science is seen in this context as an
interdisciplinary or at least multidisciplinary science:
putative vertical science it
creates its own spattering of subdisciplines in the overlapping with
the other existing sciences: information physics, information chemistry
[molecular computing], bioinformation [artificial life], informational
neuroscience [artificial intelligence], and socioinformation."
(Marijuan, 1996, p. 91)
systems are treated as networks in which
information processes at all scales participate (Loewenstein, 1999).
features of this autopoietic universe are collapse, irreversibility,
and self-regulation, where higher levels act downwardly on the lower
levels. This circularity remains imperfect. The physics of biological
life recapitulates the underlying physics of the universe (Conrad,
1996). According to Matsuno (1996), information is intrinsically
ambivalent with regard to temporality. Shannon's information theory
refers to synchronic information; that is, to a process existing in a
finite time period and ignoring historical antecedents. Matsuno (1996,
p. 111) quotes
Weizsäcker: Information is only that which produces information.
In evolutionary processes we are concerned only
with diachronic information. The historicity of events does not allow
participants to claim a global perspective in an atemporal manner.
Within this internalist perspective conflicts among the participants
inevitable arise as there is no possibility of attaining simultaneous
communication among the participants.
duration of time in
production contrasts with the static configuration within products.
Products constitute boundary conditions for subsequent production.
Measurement of products by an external observer is opposed to internal
measurement of production. Internal measurement remains local; external
measurement is global. In other words, an external perspective is only
possible with regard to what has been accomplished and frozen in the
record. Matsuno's question is, then, how an external description of
internal measurement is possible. The introspective and the
extrospective boundary conditions have to coincide "otherwise, the
integrity of the notion of boundary conditions would collapse." The
local-to-global activity of information
becomes crystallized in a product in global time while the
global-to-local activity makes synchronization skewed in locally
asynchronous time. "Information is intrinsically a conceptual device
connecting the local to the global." (Matsuno, 1998, p. 66) Matsuno
(2000) formulates this connection between local and global information
linguistic terms: How could the present progressive tense be related to
the present perfect tense, and how could this relationship be addressed
in the present tense?
to Fleissner and Hofkirchner (1995), the concept
information should not be restricted to a particular level of reality.
But, due to qualitative changes at different levels of reality, the
concept of information may have:
same reference in all
contexts, such that qualitative
are not grasped.
aspects between the references. In
this case there a
question arises about the primary or basic reference to
which analogical concepts refer.
references may exist. In
the concepts of information are equivocal.
and Hofkirchner call this problem "Capurro's
trilemma," which is indeed an Aristotelian one (Capurro 1995; Capurro,
Fleissner, & Hofkirchner 1999; Fleissner & Hofkirchner 1995).
view of evolution as self-organization offers, according to Fleissner
and Hofkirchner, a paradigm for dealing with this problem. In the
process of evolution, different kinds of low structures generate
higher-level structures, starting with physical systems through
systems to social systems. Evolution is an autopoietic process in
which these systems select possible ways of reaction, and forms are
transformed. It is a nondeterministic process that is not merely ruled
by the classic concept of causality (actio
est reactio) but by the
principle: causa non aequat effectum,
actio non est reactio,
or, "equal causes do not have equal effects, every action does not have
an equal reaction" (Fleissner & Hofkirchner, 1999, p. 209).
second type of self-organized
causality is based on informational relations. This information concept
is related to its Latin origins as information;
meaning a dynamic process
of formation and not just the meaning of a message
(Fleissner & Hofkirchner, 1995). A unified theory of information
should give an account of the dynamic process of evolution that
the whole of reality (Hofkirchner 1999). Laszlo (1999, p. 6) asks for
patterns appearing in diverse transformation" during the evolutionary
process. Brier (1999) conceives of cybersemiotics as an
ontological and epistemological framework for a universal information
science. The evolutionary dissolution of the trilemma has,
in our opinion, a metaphysical rather than a scientific status insofar
as it presupposes a view of the whole of reality that is not possible
for a finite observer.
philosophers explicitly criticize the use of the
concept of information in the natural sciences. As Küppers (1996,
majority of biologists,
especially molecular biologists, appear to accept that biological
information is indeed a natural entity, which expresses itself in the
specific structures of biological macromolecules. However, this
attitude has recently been the target of strong criticism from the
constructivistic philosophers of science (Janich 1992). Their main
attack has been directed against the application of the concept of
information in non-human areas that are governed entirely by natural
to Küppers, human language can be understood
as a higher evolutionary development of the molecular-genetic language,
which is the opposite of Janich's view of biological information as
analogous with human information. The use of the concept of information
natural sciences is a redundant description of the concept of causality
Concept of Information in the Humanities and Social
is a field bridges the natural sciences on one
hand and the humanities and social sciences on the other. In
psychology, the concept of information has had a central role with
the so-called cognitive revolution from 1956 onward, also called
the information-processing paradigm in psychology. (This development
gave birth to a whole new interdisciplinary field, named cognitive
science, from about 1975. Gärdenfors (1999) reviews the
development of this field.) In spite of early disappointments with
information theory (see Quastler, 1956; Rapoport, 1956), the dominant
trend in psychology has been a kind of functionalism in which human
cognitive processes are seen as analogous with information processing
computers. There has not been much explicit discussion of the concept
of information in psychology. (Some exceptions are Golu (1981), Hamlyn
(1977), Harary & Batell (1978), Harrah (1958), Miller (1953),
Miller (1988), Noerretranders (1998), Peterfreund & Schwartz
(1971), Rapoport (1953), and Rogers (1998).)
trend has been
reductionistic in the sense that human beings
are seen as extracting information from the physical and chemical
properties of sensory stimuli. Such reductionism stands in
contrast to more hermeneutic and historical understandings in which
perception is also informed by cultural factors, and information is not
defined or processed according to inborn mechanisms in the brain, but
by historically developed criteria and mechanisms. (Problems relating
to psychological conceptions of information are also important for
other human and social sciences, and for the proper understanding of
users in library and information science. See Karpatschof (2000) for a
culturally informed conception of human cognition.)
Information may refer, as Qvortrup (1993) remarks, to a change in the
external world, and in this case it has been defined as "a difference
which makes a difference" (Bateson , 1972, p. 459); that is, an
change brought about by the external world in an observing system. It
also refer, inverting the order of this relation, to the process of
finding differences —
information as a difference which finds a
difference — in
case the system is stimulated by a difference in
the external world. On one hand, information is a thing, on the other,
a psychic construction. Information as a difference in reality —
as something existing independent of an observer —
be the view of information in engineering and the natural sciences,
although, as we have seen, this is not always the case. This was one
implication of Shannon's exclusion of the semantic and pragmatic
aspects of the everyday use of the word information. According to Qvortrup
(1993) Shannon and Weaver are unclear as to whether they conceive
information as a
substance or as a sign.
we note that Shannon retains a
basic aspect of the modern concept of information in the sense of
knowledge communication, namely selection. When dealing
with the meaning of a message we discuss interpretation; that is, the
selection between semantic and pragmatic possibilities. To interpret a
message means, in other words, to introduce
the receiver's perspective — her
his beliefs and desires; to make her or him an active partner in the
information process. We would like to
suggest a difference between motivational (or anthropological) and
(or natural) theories of information. Shannon develops a perspective,
shall show, on causal theories of information with
different kinds of "family resemblance" (Wittgenstein 1958a).
important resemblance between the two kinds of theories is the role of
selection in each. Even in the extreme case in which any interpretation
is supposedly excluded — as
the engineering perspective of the conduit metaphor —
we can still recognize a process of selection. In other words, we state
resemblance between interpreting meaning and selecting signals. The
concept of information makes this resemblance possible. Bar-Hillel
pointed to the "semantic traps" of Shannon's terminology, particularly
with regard to the analogies between the psychological and the
engineering fields. Bar-Hillel and Carnap (1953)
developed a semantic theory of information in which they distinguish
between information and amount of information within a linguistic
framework. Dretske's (1981, p. 63-64) theory of semantic information is
the distinction between information and meaning. Information does not
require an interpretive process, although it is a necessary condition
for acquiring knowledge. He states three conditions that a definition
of information must satisfy, namely:
The signal carries as much
information about s as would
be generated by s's being F."
"(B) s is F"
"(C) The quantity of information the signal carries about s is (or
includes) that quantity generated by s's being F (and not, say, by s's
being G)" (Dretske 1981, 63-64)
one hand, information is not an absolute concept, because
we can acquire varying degrees of information about a source. On the
other hand, however, "the information that s is F does not come in degrees. It
is an all or nothing affair." (Dretske, 1981, p. 108) According to
Dretske (1981, pp. 80-81),
information is always relative to "a receiver's background knowledge"
(k); it is "something that is
required for knowledge." It is indeed a
"harmless fiction" to think about a number of possibilities existing at
the source "independently of what anyone happened to know." There
is no false information but there is meaning
without truth (Dretske, 1981, pp. 171-235). Indeed, "information is
capable of yielding knowledge, and since knowledge requires truth,
information requires it also" (Dretske, 1981, p. 45). The flow of
information is based on the following Xerox principle: "If A carries
the information that B, and B carries the information that C, then A
carries the information that C"
(Dretske, 1981, p. 57) Dretske's
information concept is different from meaning, but basically related to
relation between knowledge and information is a
recursive but not a circular one. In order to learn that s is F a
person should know about s,
without knowing that s is F. On the other
hand, the information that s
is F "causes K's belief that s is F."
"Knowledge is information-produced belief" (Dretske, 1981, pp. 91-92)
in the case of "genuine cognitive systems," as distinct from "mere
processors of information," knowledge is specified with regard to
information, meaning, and belief; or, in other words, with regard to
interpretation during the learning process. Computers have, at least so
far, no capability of using information. It means nothing to them. They
can only manipulate symbols (Dretske, 1986).
definition of information does not initially
include k (that is, the
receiver's background knowledge). This cognitivistic
limitation seems illegitimate if we consider other kinds of receivers
or, more precisely, other kinds of situations. Becoming aware of this
contradiction, Barwise and Perry (1983) developed situation theory
and situation semantics (STASS). This theory is based on the idea of
regularities between types of situations, which allow an information
flow to take place (Barwise & Seligman, 1997). Linguistic
considered by Dretske, are a special case of this flow.
is not a property of facts but it is context or
dependent. A difference exists between "pure information" and
"incremental information". "Pure information" is illustrated as follows:
there is a state of affairs
consisting of some x-ray's having such and such a pattern at some time
t, then there is a state of affairs involving a dog's leg having been
the object of that x-ray and that leg's being broken at t. So the
indicated proposition is that there is a dog of which this is the
x-ray, and it has a broken leg. The pure information is about the
x-ray, but not about Jackie, or her leg." (Israel & Perry, 1990, p.
information" concerns more specific information
that may result at the terminus of "information flow architectures"
(Israel & Perry, 1991). A distinction is made between
content" and "information": "Informational content is only information
when the constraints and connecting facts are actual" (Israel &
1991, p. 147). The causal relations among the contents of an
system" are called "architectural" (Israel & Perry, 1991, pp.
Xerox principle becomes a regulative one: the
point is to develop
information flow architectures whose signals at the terminus will
contain incremental information with regard to the earlier ones
(Israel & Perry, 1991). In contrast to Dretske's concept of
the theory of situation semantics defines information within a
realistic and not just cognitivistic framework Information contents are
not dependent on the knowledge of the receiver, Dretske's k, but on
types of situations. Two different receivers may extract, due to
constraints and facts, different information contents from the same
signal. According to Pérez Gutiérrez's (2000), further
of this theory — he was inspired by the formalization of the
information flow through Barwise and Seligman (1997) — the incremental
information content may be defined only with regard to
"classifications" or clusters of situations connected through channels
through which the information is transmitted without any reference to a
receiver's interpretation. Based
on Wittgenstein's (1958b) notion of language games as specified by the
formal notion of situations as well as on Gregory Bateson's (1979)
paradigm, Riegeer (1996, 0. 292) analyzes the linear (or
syntagmatic) and selective (or paradigmatic) constraints that natural
language structure imposes on the formation of strings of linguistic
regularities of word-usage may
serve as an access to and a representational format for those elastic
constraints which underlay and condition any word-type's meaning, the
interpretations it allows within possible contexts of use, and the
information its actual word-token employment on a particular occasion
conclude this analysis of the semantic concept of
information by stating that even if information is seen as
something existing independently of a receiver's knowledge, this does
not necessarily imply that information is something absolute.
The situation theory conceives information in relation to situations
with their constraints and contingencies.
Oeser (1976) remarks that the objectivity of scientific knowledge is
attained through the elimination of the knower, but on the basis of the
intersubjective information process. Information
is a "system-relative concept" (Oeser, 1976, II, p. 86). Some classical
theories of information define it with regard to the change on the
receiver's model of reality; that is, as a pragmatic concept (MacKay,
1969; Morris, 1955). This is particularly the case with definitions
based on system theory, second-order cybernetics and semiotics
(Qvortrup, 1993). Kornwachs (1996) defines pragmatic information as an
impinging entity, one that is able to change the structure and the
behavior of systems. According to biologists like
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980), as well as
cyberneticians like Heinz von Foerster (1980, 1984) information is the
observer's construction or a mental difference that makes and/or finds
a difference in the external world. For Flückiger (1999),
an individual's brain construct. According to
Qvortrup (1993, p. 12), the conception of information as a mental
necessarily imply that the difference in reality that triggered the
mental difference called information is a mental construction."
German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has
developed an information concept based on the theory of
self-referential systems. Luhmann (1987) distinguishes between
social (and psychic) systems. Social (and psychic) systems are
constituted by meaning (Sinn).
In the case of biological systems,
self-reference means self-reproduction. Meaning is produced through
processing differences, and this is possible because there is a meaning
offer (Mitteilung) out of
which a selection can be made. Information
(Information) is, then, an
event that produces a connection between
differences or — Luhmann cites Bateson's (1972, p. 459) famous
definition —, "a difference that makes a difference."
"Understanding" (Verstehen) is
the difference between "meaning
offer" (Mitteilung) and
Communication is the
unity of meaning offer, information, and understanding. According to
this theory, no transmission of information occurs between a sender
and a receiver. This thing-oriented metaphor implies that there is
something the sender has and loses when she or he sends it. The sender,
in fact, makes a suggestion for selection. Information is not something
identical for both sender and receiver, but it has to be constituted
through the communication process (Luhmann, 1987, pp, 193-194).
(1998) develops a theory of information that is exclusively
to purpose-oriented human actions. Information is defined as a
predicate that qualifies standard request dialogues where linguistic
utterances are speaker-, listener-, and form-invariant. Such
invariances make possible to reproduce these situations on
the basis of anthropomorphic artificial devices.
is a key concept in sociology, political
and the economics of the so-called information society. According to
Webster (1995, 1996), definitions of information society can be
analyzed with regard to five criteria:
technological, economic, occupational, spatial, and cultural (Webster,
1995, p. 6). The technological definition is concerned with the
applications of information technologies in society. The economic
definition goes back to the pioneering work of Machlup (1962), Boulding
(1966), Arrow (1979), and Porat (1977). The occupational definition is
at the heart of Porat's and Bell's (1973) theories. The spatial
definition concerns information networks and the emergence of a
"network marketplace" (Castells, 1989). The cultural definition is
related to the influence of media in society. Classic
theoreticians of the information society are, according to Webster:
Bell, Giddens, Schiller, Habermas,
Baudrillard, Vattimo, Poster, Lyotard,
to Bougnoux (1993, 1995) the concepts of
information and communication are inversely related: Communication is
concerned with forecasting and redundancy; information with the new and
the unforeseen. There is no pure information or "information-
in-itself" (that is, information is always related to some kind of
redundancy or "noise"). To inform (others or oneself) means to select
and to evaluate.
This is particularly relevant in the field of journalism and mass
but, of course, also in information science. The action of bringing a
message and the
message itself were designated in Greek by the terms angellein and angelia (Capurro,
1978). The modern concept of information as knowledge
communication is not related just to a secular view of messages and
messengers but includes also a modern view of
empirical knowledge shared by a (scientific) community. Postmodernity
opens this concept to all kinds of messages, particularly within the
perspective of a digital environment. We may call a science of
knowledge (better: message) communication information science or angeletics (Capurro, 2000).
(1996) has developed a
"communicology" in which "discursive media" are concerned with the
distribution of information whereas "dialogical media" deal with the
creation of new information. Flusser fears that mass media may swallow
up dialogical media into a hierarchical model. He did not foresee the
Internet as a communication structure in which both media would merge
beyond a central or panoptic power. It is, of course, an open
question how far this is, or will be, the case. Krippendorff (1994) has
explored different information and communication metaphors such as the
one of message transmission, the container metaphor, the metaphor of
sharing common views, the argument metaphor, the canal metaphor, and
control metaphor. These metaphors are originated within different
cultural environments. The phenomena they address are intimately
related to the metaphors themselves. We must learn to use them
creatively; that is, to see their limits and to learn how to apply them
accurately in different theoretical and practical situations.
(1989) provides an important discussion of approaches
to defining information for policy makers. Four major views are
identified: (1) information as a resource, (2) information as a
commodity, (3) information as a perception of patterns, and (4)
information as a
constitutive force in society. The relative benefits and problems with
each of these four conceptions are discussed. The article points out
that the selection of one definition or another has important
consequences, and also that the tendency to neglect this problem
results in conflicts rather than cooperation.
Defining information is thus also a political decision.
information age is also called "the age of access"
(Rifkin, 2000). Information production, distribution, and access is
at the heart of the new economy. The terminological shift from
information society to knowledge society signals that the
content, and not information technology, is the main challenge
for economy as well as for society in general. From the perspective
of knowledge management, information is used to designate isolated
pieces of meaningful data that, when integrated within a context
, constitute knowledge (Gundry 2001; Probst, Raub, & Romhard,
1999). This semantic
concept of information, located between data and knowledge is not
consistent with the view that equates information (management) with
information technology. According to
Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) — who follow Polanyi's (1966) distinction
tacit and explicit knowledge — only explicit
knowledge (information) can be managed. Correctly speaking, knowledge
cannot be managed,
only enabled (von Krogh, Ichijo, & Nonaka 2000).
companies are information. Castells (1996-1998) gives a comprehensive
and critical analysis of the information age, including its social,
economic, and cultural dimensions. For Hobart and Schiffman (2000),
information is not a phenomenon that appears with modern technology but
rather the product of the complex interactions between technology and
culture. They distinguish between classical, modern, and contemporary
information ages, the meaning of information being unique ito each age.
fundamental fact of information's
historicity liberates us from the conceit that ours is the information
age, a conceit that underlies Kauffmanesque inferences from
"computer-simulation movies" to history. It allows us to stand outside
our contemporary information idiom, to see where it comes from, what it
does, and how it shapes our thought. (Hobart & Schiffman, 2000, p.
and Duguid (2000) question "the myth of information"
and information technologies that would be able to shape social
organization by themselves. For it is not shared information but shared
interpretation that binds people together.
Borgmann's (1999, p. 57) critical appraisal of the nature of
information is a
plea for a new cultural and ethical balance between what he calls
technological, natural, and cultural information:
information pivots on natural
signs — clouds, smoke, tracks. Cultural information centers on
conventional signs — letters and texts, lines and graphs, notes and
Borgmann (1999, pp. 218-219) sees technological information is the
product of developments that
began a century ago:
on information technology, our
omniscience and omnipotence have
achieved such transparency and control of information that there are
not things any more to be discovered beyond the signs. Nothing is any
longer buried beneath information. Behind the virtual
self-representations there are no real persons left to be
We close this by no means exhaustive analysis of the concept of
information in the humanities and social sciences with Eliot's (1969,
p. 147) famous quotation:
is the Life we have lost in
Where is the
wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
started this presentation of interdisciplinary theories
by asking whether a common core can be found in the concept of
information. According to Karpatschof (2000, pp. 131-132):
The quality of
a certain signal in relation
certain release mechanism.
The signal being a l
ow energy phenomenon fulfilling some release
The signal is thus the
indirect cause, and the process of the release mechanism the direct cause
of the resulting high-energy reaction.
release mechanism itself is, of
course, an emergent entity, when it
is seen from a cosmological position. This is the precise agenda, for
biogony and biogenesis to furnish theories with an analysis of this
emergence. We can thus more precisely define:
having at their disposal a store
of potential energy, the
system being ”designed” to let this energy out in a specific way,
whenever trigged by a signal fulfilling the specifications of the
It is now clear why there has been this tendency to consider
information to be an obscure category that is in addition to the
classical categories of physics. Information is indeed a new category,
but it cannot be placed, eclectically, beside the prior physical
categories. Information is a category, not beside, but indeed above the
classical categories of physics. Therefore, information is neither
directly reducible to these classical categories, nor is it a radically
different category of another nature than mass and energy. Information
is, in fact, the causal result of existing physical components and
processes. Moreover, it is an emergent result of such physical
entities. This is
revealed in the systemic definition of information. It is a relational
concept that includes the source,
the signal, the release mechanism and the reaction
as its relatants. One
might ask where I place the category of information in my system of
Should it be placed in the object field of cosmology, just as mass,
energy and causality? Or, should it be placed in the object field of
biology? My answer to this question will be the latter position. (all
emphasis in original)
our opinion Karpatschof's explanation identifies a key
perspective of the concept of information that most interdisciplinary
discussions can agree upon. It seems to be a
reductionistic and indeed mechanical perspective, antithetical to a
humanistic understanding. However, this is not the case. Karpatschof
does not explain psychological or sociological phenomena by physical or
biological principles. He does not consider information as a thing or
as something objective. He forces us to look at the many different
kinds of mechanisms at different levels in evolution and culture that
have evolved to discriminate certain kinds of signals.
he forces us to shift the perspective from information as an object to
the subjective mechanisms that account for discrimination,
or selection. What distinguishes different theories of information is,
thus, not so much the concept of information itself. It is, to a much
higher degree, the nature of the "release mechanism" (or “information
processing mechanisms”), the selectors or interpreters. To ask about
the nature of this mechanism means, for
instance, to ask about the nature of living organisms, the nature of
human beings, human language, society, and technology. Because there
are many kinds of release mechanisms developed both in biology, in the
human mind, in cultures, and in technologies, different sciences tend
work with different concepts and theoretical frames of reference.
Information can and should thus be studied within a network of
different disciplines, not just by "information science" (Capurro
2001). No wonder, then, that the mechanisms of information — and
information itself — had been so difficult to tackle.
IN INFORMATION SCIENCE
with Librarianship and Scientific
we have seen, the word information
a much richer history than have the fields of inquiry known as library
science, documentation, and information science, which are largely
products of the 20th century. Tracing the influence of
this term and the very complex net of disciplines connected with it is
indeed difficult. Machlup & Mansfield (1983, p. 22) suggested that
“in the broad sense information science is a rather shapeless
assemblage of chunks picked from a variety of disciplines that happen
to talk about information in one of its many meanings”. In this chapter
only a few important points will be illuminated.
key events can be taken as signposts for our
in this complex area.
desk appeared as an
alternate to reference desk by 1891.
Information bureau was in use by 1909 to denote an office where
reference service was provided; in 1924 the Association of Special
Libraries and Information Bureaux (Aslib) was founded in Britain. In
the Aslib Proceedings for 1932, information work was introduced to
describe reference assistance. Use of information as an equivalent of
reference began to give way, under the influence of developments in
computing, to more sophisticated usage. (Shapiro, 1995, p. 384).
was also used in 1915 by the American special
librarian, Ethel Johnson, who noted, “before everything else, it [the
special library] is an information bureau. The main function of the
general library is to make books available. The function of the special
library is to make information available” (quoted from Williams, 1998,
According to Williams (1998), special librarians were the
first documentalists in the U.S. ; and, according to Rayward (1998),
documentalists can be seen as the first information scientists. We are
thus able to trace one line of development from special librarianship
via documentation to information science in both the U.K. and the U.S..
The line of development from Paul Otlet (1934)
and Suzanne Briet (1951) is discussed by Day (2001) in critical fashion.
1968, the American Documentation Institute (founded 1937)
changed its name to the American Society for Information Science. From
time, "information" gradually replaced "documentation" as a name for a
profession and field of study (at least until a recent tendency to
reintroduce the concept of documenty by Buckland, 1997; Hjørland,
2000; Lund, 1997; White & McCain, 1998; and others). Only
few institutions have preserved
the term documentation (e.g.,
Journal of Documentation;
Féderation Internationale de Documentation). One notable
in Tromsø, Norway, where "Documentation Science" has recently
been chosen for a newly founded institute. It is far more
common to do as the Royal School of Library and Information Science in
Copenhagen did in 1997: namely, add information
to its name (although only to the
English version). The important question is, of course, what kinds of
theoretical influences lie behind such choices? How is the term information
theoretically related to what is studied (if at all)?
to Hjørland (2000) the increasing trend
towards using the term information
in institutions of librarianship and
documentation is mostly related to: (1) an increasing interest in
computer applications (or “information
technology”), and (2) an indirect, theoretical influence from
(Shannon & Weaver, 1972) and the paradigm of information processing
in the cognitive sciences.
same paper also argues that this tendency has
serious drawbacks. Theories that are appropriate for computer science
not necessarily the most adequate for library science, documentation,
and scientific communication. A serious risk arises such that concepts
theories related to information theory tend to reduce the study of
documentary communication to computer science and cognitive science,
thus removing the basis of the field in its own right.
science as taught in schools of librarianship has
always had public libraries as a major focus simply because public
libraries have constituted an important marked for professionally
librarians. This situation has influenced both the focus
of the field and its underlying assumptions, preferences, and
“paradigms” (for example, in the predilection for universal
classification systems and the relative neglect of domain specific
knowledge). Special librarianship and documentation (and later
science), on the other hand, were much more concerned with research
libraries, databases, and with activities connected to the seeking and
dissemination of scientific literature —
also with the application of information technologies.
Documentation/information science was
originally based more on specific subject knowledge (chemistry has
played an especially important role in information science), whereas
librarianship relied more on education and training in schools of
librarianship. According to Williams (1998, p. 177) special librarians
in the U.S. lost ground to documentalists and information scientists
because they lacked the
specific subject knowledge to handle complex information (for
example, in chemical indexing and retrieval).
changes, particularly when
confronted with the insistence of the
documentalists that a new profession different from librarianship, even
special librarianship, needed to be developed, had the effect of making
them [the special librarians] more general library oriented and less
special library oriented. The overall effect on special librarianship
and SLA [Special Libraries Association] is a decline in their
domination of new developments in information management. As will be
shown in the next section, one of the major reasons special librarians
had lost this dominance was because they emphasized general education
in librarianship to the neglect of the scientific fields they had to
serve. They were now librarians first and foremost, and only knowable
about their subject areas second, if at all.
However, since about 1975, information science has been foregrounded in
schools of library and information science. This may
be due in part to an increasing interest in being associated with such
important fields as computer-based information retrieval and other
areas of information
science. Although schools of library science are major contributors in
the field, as reflected in their contributions to the leading journals
in IS; they have also faced challenges, particularly in the U.S. This
situation may be connected to
what they teach, including the old problem concerning the lack of
specific subject knowledge. It may be, however, that the neglect of
subject knowledge reflects a privileging of research into users rather
than information, and, by implication, a tendency towards psychologism,
subjective idealism, and methodological
individualism (See footnote 4). The question is how well we have
succeeded in developing information science as a healthy field of
Retrieval and the Concept of Information
term information retrieval (IR) is possibly one of the
most important terms in the field known as information science. A
critical question is, thus, why, and in what sense, IR uses the term
information. IR can be seen both as a field of study and as one among
several research traditions concerned with information storage
and retrieval (See footnote 5). Although the field is much older,
the tradition goes
back to the early 1960s and the Cranfield experiments,
which introduced measures of recall and precision. Those
experiments rang among the most famous in IS and continue today in the
TREC experiments (Text REtrieval Conference) . This
tradition has always been closely connected to document/text retrieval,
stated by van Rijsbergen (1979, p. 1):
retrieval is a wide,
often loosely-defined term but in these pages I shall be concerned only
with automatic information retrieval systems. Automatic as opposed to
manual and information as opposed to data or fact. Unfortunately the
word information can be very misleading. In the context of information
retrieval (IR), information, in the technical meaning given in
Shannon's theory of communication, is not readily measured (Shannon and
Weaver). In fact, in many cases one can adequately describe the kind of
retrieval by simply substituting 'document' for 'information'.
Nevertheless, 'information retrieval' has become accepted as a
description of the kind of work published by Cleverdon, Salton, Sparck
Jones, Lancaster and others. A perfectly straightforward definition
along these lines is given by Lancaster: 'Information retrieval is the
term conventionally, though somewhat inaccurately, applied to the type
of activity discussed in this volume. An information retrieval system
does not inform (i.e. change the knowledge of) the user on the subject
of his inquiry. It merely informs on the existence (or non-existence)
and whereabouts of documents relating to his request.' This
specifically excludes Question-Answering systems as typified by
Winograd and those described by Minsky. It also excludes data retrieval
systems such as used by, say, the stock exchange for on-line
quotations." (Notes to references omitted).
1996, van Rijsbergen and Lalmas (p. 386), however,
declared that the situation had changed and that the purpose of an
information retrieval system was to provide information about a
request. Although some researchers have fantasized about
eliminating the concept of document/text and simply storing or
retrieving the facts or "information" contained therein, it is our
opinion that IR usually means document retrieval and not fact retrieval
(See footnote 6). We shall return
to the difference
between documents and facts later, but here we want to show why
information (and not, for example, document, text, or literature) was
chosen as a central term in this core area.
Ellis (1996, pp. 187-188) describes "an anomaly" in IS:
noted the anomaly could be
resolved if information retrieval theory were named document retrieval
theory which would then be part of library science. However, he
commented that those working in the field of information retrieval were
making the explicit claim to be working with information not
Brookes (1981, p. 2) stated was,
an information science point of
view, research on IR systems offers only a theoretical cul-de-sac. It
leads nowhere. The anomaly I have noted is this: the
information-handling processes of the computers used for IR systems,
their storage capacities, their input and internal information
transmissions, are measured in terms of Shannon theory measures—in
bits, megabits per second, and so forth. On the other hand, in the
theories of information retrieval effectiveness information is measured
in what I call physical
measures—that is, the documents (or document
surrogates) are counted as relevant or non-relevant and simple ratios
of these numbers are used. The subsequent probabilistic calculations
are made as though the documents were physical things (as, of course,
they are in part), yet the whole enterprise is called information
retrieval theory. So why, I ask, are logarithmic
information used in the theory of the machine and linear or physical
measures of information in IR theory?
If information retrieval
theory were called document
retrieval theory, the anomaly would disappear. And document retrieval
theory would fall into place as a component of library science, which
is similarly concerned with documents. But that is too simple an idea.
Those who work on IR theory explicitly claim to be working on information, not documentation. I therefore abandon
explanation of a misuse of terminology. I have to assume that IR
theorists mean what they say—that they are contributing to information
science. But are they?’ (emphasis in original).
Ellis and Brookes should not refer to the opinion of researchers in
their attempts to solve this problem. Only arguments count. In our
view, it is not too simple an idea to claim that information retrieval
in reality document retrieval theory and thus closely associated with
library science. It is not difficult to disprove Brookes's
statement that information retrieval does not deal with documents. A
short examination of the literature demonstrates this, and even if the
Cranfield experiments spoke about "information retrieval," their modern
counterpart, the TREC experiments, speak about "text retrieval." "Text
retrieval" and "document retrieval" are often used as synonyms
one read Brookes’s statement in the light of the
between the early documentalists and information scientists, it becomes
clear that information scientists wanted to forge a distinctive
identity to be both more information technology-oriented and
more subjected-knowledge oriented. One reason for information
scientists to prefer not to be linked to library science
might be that important technological improvements were carried out not
people associated with librarianship, but by those affiliated with
computer science. This preference is most probably the reason they
claimed to work with “information,
not documentation.” Nevertheless Brookes's statement is flawed, and it
has provoked endless speculation about the nature of information,
which has not contributed to an understanding of the problems of IR.
(Compare the quotation by Schrader, 1983, p. 99, cited earlier).
worst thing may be that information
scientists have overlooked some of the most important theoretical
problems in their field. Van Rijsbergen (1986, p. 194) has pointed out
that the concept of meaning has been overlooked in IS. The fundamental
basis of all previous work –
including his own – is in his opinion wrong because it has been
based on the assumption that a formal notion of meaning is not required
to solve IR problems. For us it is reasonable to suggest a link between
the neglect of the concepts of text and documents
on one hand and meaning (or semantics) on the other. Semantics,
meaning, text, and documents are much more related to theories about
language and literature, whereas information is much more related to
theories about computation and control. We do not claim, however, that
the statistical methods used in IR have not been efficient. We do
claim, however, that semantics and pragmatics, among other things, are
essential to better theoretical development in IR, and in the long run
also to the improvement of operational systems.
and Assemblages of Facts
spite of our claim that IR is actually document
retrieval, there has throughout the history of the field a
problematic tendency to regard information as pieces of facts or
opinion freed from the documents.
the literature of IS there is a distinction between
document retrieval and fact retrieval. As a response to a query, a
document retrieval system provides a list of references about the
subject, which with a certain probability is supposed to contain the
answer to the query, or rather to reveal the present documented
knowledge about the problem. Fact retrieval systems, on the other hand,
are supposed to provide concrete answers to queries. If the query is:
"What is the definition of information science?" a document retrieval
system such as Library and
Information Science Abstracts (LISA)
produces a long list of papers discussing this issue, whereas a fact
retrieval system provide you with one selected definition:
distinguished IS researchers have regarded the creation
of fact retrieval systems as the ultimate goal of information science.
Jones (1987, p. 9), for instance, claims that "we are concerned with
access and, more materially, indirect access to the information the
user wants: he wants the information in the documents, but the system
only gives him the documents." This statement represents a rather
narrow view with roots back to the foundation of documentation and
of Paul Otlet's basic ideas are described by
Rayward (1994, p. 247) as "the outmoded paradigm of nineteenth-century
concern was for the objective
knowledge that was both contained in and hidden by documents. His view
of knowledge was authoritarian, reductionist, positivist, simplistic —
and optimistic! . . . It is merely a question of institutionalizing
certain processes for analyzing and organizing the content of
documents. For him that aspect of the content of documents with which
we must be concerned is facts. He speaks almost everywhere of facts.
(1994, pp. 247-248) finds the same view represented
in modern IS:
describing the Xanadu Project,
Nelson (1987) for example, in capital letters, says that it is ‘just
one thing: a new form of interconnection for computer files —
CORRESPONDING TO THE TRUE INTERCONNECTION OF IDEAS which can be refined
and elaborated into a shared network’ (p. 143). These words and the
sentiments that they both express and seem to imply could be, except
for the term ‘computer files,’ Otlet's own. They suggest an atavistic
positivist perspective that takes one by surprise.
practice, document retrieval systems coexist with systems
that provide concrete answers. Directories, dictionaries, handbooks of
chemical and physical constants, and many other kinds of reference
works are examples of factographic works and databases that have
important functions and exist side-by-side with bibliographic
databases. However, we find it important to argue against the view that
bibliographical databases or full-text databases should be less than
ideal because "[the user] wants the information in the documents, but
the system only gives him the documents" (Sparck Jones, 1987, p.9).
idea that bibliographical information systems should be
reduced to fact retrieval systems is a problematic assumption. We agree
with Rayward that this view is related to a kind of obsolete
positivism. We also see this view as one reason for the use of the
terms information and information science. Because it is
often desirable to know the source (e.g., in order to compare it with
and to evaluate its cognitive authority), document retrieval should
not ideally be reduced to fact retrieval systems.
let Spang-Hanssen (1970/2001, online) have the final word
about this issue:
these terms are not seldom
confused with a more or less obscure use of the word information to
mean something factual or real as opposed to representations of such
facts; what is found written in documents—or what is said in a
lecture—are according to this view only disguises or at best surrogates
of facts. This more or less vague conception seems to be the basis of
the distinction sometimes made between ”fact retrieval” and ”document
This distinction I find philosophically unbased; we here
touch upon the fundamental problem of the meaning of meaning and of the
nature of signs and symbols. What is more essential to us, this
distinction seems unhappy in actual documentation work. There will,
admittedly, be cases in which a document or information center is set
up with the exclusive function of providing information concerning
physical data, or statistical figures, or exchange rates of currencies,
or stock market prices. But even in such cases it applies that neither
the person who requests such information nor the person to deliver it
should ignore the reliability of data and forget about the general
setting in which the data are acquired. An information about some
physical property of a material is actually incomplete without
information about the precision of some figure and about the conditions
under which this figure was obtained. Moreover, various investigations
of a property have often led to different results that cannot be
compared and evaluated apart from information about their background.
An empirical fact always has a history and a perhaps not too certain
future. This history and future can be known only by information from
particular documents, i.e. by document retrieval.
The so-called fact
retrieval centers seem to me to be just information centers that keep
their information sources—i.e. their documents—exclusively to
themselves. (Spang Hanssen, 2001 )”
Romm (1997) shows that there are serious ethical implications involved
in defining as something as factual as opposed to meaningful. To the
extent that information is seen or presented and
legitimized in terms of its supposed factual content, it authorizes a
picture of the world — rather
than inviting debate on the construction
and relevance of the picture. Conversely, insofar as information is
treated as a product of specific world-constructing activities, it
invites discursive inquiry as to its meaning and relevance.
and the Scientific Division of Labor
information scientists the only professionals that are
working with the "the generation, collection, organization,
interpretation, storage, retrieval, dissemination, transformation
and use of information"? (This quote is part of the official definition
of information science given by the American Society for Information
Science and Technology (Borko, 1968; Griffith, 1980) quoted in full
later in this chapter.) We often assume this to be the
case. If this is not the case, it seems important to try to specify the
special role of information scientists in handling information.
one sense of the word information,
astronomers can be
seen as experts who identify, process, and interprets information from
the universe. The byproducts of their activities they keep as
observations in one form or another. They may make photographs of
the universe and of single stars, planets, and galaxies. They also
publish their empirical and theoretical findings in journals and other
publications. Both the photos and the publications are examples of
documents. The library, documentation, and information profession is
interested in all kind of documents. Its core interest and expertise
is, however, related to communication of published documents. Our
point is that in the sense of the word information as it is used about
astronomers' activities, information scientists are not experts for
interpreting the information from the stars, but at most are
experts in handling information documented by astronomers (e.g.,
retrieving astronomical documents). In this example information is
defined in a broader sense than usually implied in information science.
as astronomers can be said to handle information
professionally, so it is with other groups. Publishers,
researchers, historians, lawyers, and teachers can be said
to be professional information handlers in some fashion. Defining
information in a way other than implied here can
solve this problem. Belkin (1978, p. 60) explicitly seeks to solve this
“in general, any information
for information science must refer to at least the specific domain of
information science, as indicated by its problem. This means
purposeful, meaningful, human communication, with the specific
requirements as noted above.”
this solution has some disadvantages. In
information science we are sometimes interested in studying the
researcher's selection of an information channel, including whether he
prefers to go the library or to make an observation for himself.
This distinction was made in Taylor's (1968) study on question
and information seeking in libraries. If we define information in the
narrow sense, as something belonging solely to information science (as
proposed by Belkin), we are not able to make comparative studies of
sort. Because we find Taylor's questions relevant and consider that
he uses the concept of information in a fruitful way, we see a dilemma
in using Belkin's (1978) definition in information science (See
role of information specialists may be relatively clear
when the target group is, for example, astronomers: information
specialists are experts on forms of publications, databases, reference
tools, and so forth. In the case of, for example, historians or
borders are much less clear because the information that these
professions are seeking, interpreting, and using is itself contained in
publications and documents. The historian, not the librarian or
information specialist, is the expert in seeking, organizing,
interpreting, and utilizing the documents needed in his or her
professional work. Still, an information specialist has more
professional expertise regarding specific maters such as databases,
of the most frequently used definition of information
science is as follows:
concerned with the generation, collection, organization,
interpretation, storage, retrieval, dissemination, transformation and
use of information, with particular emphasis on the applications of
modern technologies in these areas.
a discipline, it seeks to create and
structure a body of scientific, technological, and systems knowledge
related to the transfer of information. It has both pure science
(theoretical) components, which inquire into the subject without regard
to application, and applied science (practical) components, which
develop services and products.’ (Griffith, 1980, p. 5) (see footnote 8)
our view, this definition does not contain a good
identification of the special focus of information science. No science
should be defined by its tools (e.g. modern technologies). All fields
are supposed to utilize the most appropriate tools available. A science
should be defined by its object of study. As such, the study of
information is a better one. We need, however, to identify the specific
role of information science in relation to “the generation, collection,
organization, interpretation, storage, retrieval, dissemination,
transformation and use of information” as distinct from the activities
in which other professionals are more qualified. In our view,
information professionals usually have a broad overview of information
sources, sociological patterns in knowledge production, documents
types, and so on. They should also have a broader knowledge of the
philosophy of science (e.g., paradigms and epistemology), and of
the principles of languages use for special purposes. We believe that
of information professionals (as distinct from the professional groups
they are serving) implies a sociological and epistemological approach
to “the generation, collection, organization, interpretation, storage,
retrieval, dissemination, transformation and use of information" (See
Information scientists – by the nature of the field – must work in a
top-down mode from the general field of knowledge and information
sources to the specific, while domain experts must work in a bottom-up
mode, from the specific to the general.
regard to the concept of information, the implication
is that what count as information –
question to be answered. The same representation of an object
(e.g., a stone in a field) contains different information for, say, an
archaeologist or a geologist. The same matter should therefore be
represented differently in different subject databases. The concept of
information itself can be defined universalistically (e.g., Bateson,
Information is anything that is of importance in answering a question.
Anything can be information. In practice, however, information has to
be defined in relation to the needs of the target groups served by
information specialists, not in a universalistic or individualistic,
but rather in a collectivist or particularistic fashion. Information is
what can answer
important questions related to the activities of the target group. The
generation, collection, organization, interpretation, storage,
retrieval, dissemination, and transformation of information must
therefore be based on views/theories about the problems/questions, and
goals that the information is going to satisfy. In public libraries,
those goals are related to the democratic role of the public library in
society. In medicine, they are related to the solving of health
problems. In women’s studies, they are related to the understanding and
emancipation of women. In commercial systems, they are bound to
Views and Theories of Information in IS
documentation and library science, in 1948,
important developments occurred in so-called information theory,
cybernetics, and in technological theories as well as in communication
(Shannon & Weaver, 1949, Wiener, 1948). These fields build the
foundations for subsequent developments in computer science (or
(See footnote 10). It is widely recognized that information theory is a
term, and that even the term information
technology may be a misleading term for
data technology or computer technology. A consequence of Shannon’s
theory was that the word information
became extremely influential in all areas of society and fashionable in
English and other languages.
information theory has had an impact on many
fields, including library and information science and documentation.
The history of this
impact or reception has yet to be written. There is no doubt, however,
that in the 1950’s many people found that this theory could be used as
a very strong conceptual model for research in numerous fields,
psychology, social sciences, and documentation. Problems with this
approach soon appeared (Rapoport, 1953)
and the initial optimism disappeared leaving many fields
without an adequate theoretical frame. From an information-theoretical
point of view information can be precisely defined and measured. For
example, Lawrence & Giles (1999) found about 15
terabytes information on the Internet. This is
not, however, the same concept as that used by information
specialists when seeking, selecting or indexing information sources.
These last activities relate to the content and meaning of some
messages, not just to their physical storage and transmission.
(1996, p. 221) concludes his presentation of
theory with the following remark:
was not so in human contexts,
where neither the assumption of
coherent sets of signs nor the assumption of the identity of original
message, signs, and reconstructed message were applicable. The very
notion of semiotics, which in fact became one of the most important
critiques of too simple an application of information theory to human
communication, led to the insight that Shannon's mathematical theory
was only a theory on the syntactical level (relation of signs to
signs), but with no reference to the semantic (relations of signs to
meanings) and pragmatic (relation of signs to humans) levels. In
consequence, some attempts were made to develop out of Shannon's theory
a semantic (e.g. Bar-Hillel and Carnap 1953) or pragmatic (e.g. Yovits
1975) information theory. But they remained in the literature with no
spite of the overall tendency to regard Shannon's
information theory as a blind alley in information science, studies are
still published from this perspective (e.g., Wong & Yao 1992;
Zachary; Iyengar & Barhen, 2001).
Dretske's theory originates from philosophy and was outlined earlier.
has been cited 15 times in the literature of library and information
science (See footnote 11). Patrick Wilson
(1983, p. 62) has provided a short but very useful review of Dretske
relevant is all of this to
information science? I suspect that most information scientists are not
much concerned with information in Dretske's sense of the word; they
are concerned with meaning, not information. The documents whose
storage and retrieval interests them may or may not carry any
information, but they do have semantic content or meaning, which is the
main thing. If that is so, and if Dretske's notion of information is
the "right" one, then information science is perhaps misnamed.
Dretske's idea of information is clearly closer to the "ordinary" idea
of information than is the usual information scientist's idea of
information; in the ordinary sense, information is contrasted with
misinformation, but not so for the information scientist. It would, I
think, be beneficial if some information scientists would take the
trouble to read this book, with this question in mind: is information
science really concerned with information? And if it is not now, could
it be in the future?
proposal has been heeded. Van Rijsbergen &
Lalmas (1996) are the most prominent followers of Dretske's
approach. Together with Barwise (1993) and Devlin (1991), van
Rijsbergen and Lalmas (1996, p. 385) call their approach DBD: Dretske,
Barwise and Devlin. Van Rijsbergen withdraws his former conclusion that
information retrieval is actually document retrieval and tries to
develop a theory that bases IR on an objective conception of
information. The other references to Dretske's theory in IS (e.g.
Bonnevie, 2001, Loose 1997, Mingers 1995) seem rather unrelated
to one another.
have already discussed core definitions of information
connected with the cognitive view in information science: Brookes's
(1977) pseudo-mathematical expression: K(S)
+ δI –> K(S + δS) and
Belkin's (1978, p. 60) definition, which managed to define
information as a phenomena relatively specific to information science
by viewing information as a communicated and transformed knowledge
state in the form of a structure.
Through the work of Brookes (1980), Karl Popper's metaphysical
pluralism has been connected to the cognitive view. As
is well known, Popper's ontology consists of three worlds:
1: Physical objects or states,
World 2: Consciousness or psychical states,
World 3. Intellectual contents such as books, documents, scientific
uses the words "knowledge" and "information"
Popper (1974, p. 1051) World 3 explicitly encompasses information:
my way of looking at World 3, its
theories contain essentially the
information content which is conveyed by them. And two books which may
differ widely as world 1 objects may be identical insofar as they are
world 3 objectssay, if they contain the same coded information.
World 3 has been compared to the concept of signs
(monist) semiotic tradition from Charles Peirce and onward (see
Freeman and Skolimowski discuss
both Peirce's doctrine of signs and Popper's World 3 epistemology, they
do not note that the entities comprising Popper's World 3 are signs in
the Peircean sense, or that Peirce's doctrine of signs represents a
World 3 epistemology that in many respects is more detailed and
developed than Popper's; nor has this been noted by any other writer
that we are aware of. Again, we do not mean simply that World 3
consists of objects which Peirce would have classified as signs - that
would be a rather trivial observation, given the ambitious scope of
Peirce's doctrine of signs. Rather, as we have already seen, Popper's
own statement that a World 3 object, such as a book, is constituted by
its "dispositional character of being understood or interpreted," is
what recapitulates Peirce's definition of a sign as whatever is capable
of being interpreted.
tendency within and beyond IS has been more to
favor of Peirces' semiotic view over Popper's metaphysical
pluralism. It makes sense to consider informative objects as signs (as
World 1 phenomena) that for some subjects (or “release mechanisms,”
which are also World 1 phenomena) trigger some responses
(interpretation, selection) and thus introduces teleological principles
in the material world (World 1). With the words of Rudd (1983) we
simply do not need Poppers’ World 3 in order to explain informational
The most recent and loyal description of the cognitive view is
presented by Borlund (2000), who is a student of Peter Ingwersen. She
finds (p. 16) that Ingwersen adds the concepts of potential information
and data "and in a way the modified model becomes the trademark of
Ingwersen, as he in several cases uses it to present an overview of IR
interactions". We see the cognitive view as taking a position
between the objective concept of information in both information theory
and Dretske's theory on one hand, and the subjective or
interpretative view taken by information scientists inspired by
hermeneutics, semiotics, domain analysis, and so forth, on the other
(1991) analyses various uses of the
term information in
information science. It can be
used in relation to things, processes and knowledge:
Information-as-knowledge / Knowledge
Information-as-thing / Data, document, recorded knowledge
Information-as-process / Becoming informed
/ Intangible: Information
processing / Data processing, document processing, knowledge
engineering ("Fluxed information": telephone calls, TV broadcast hours,
Buckland, 1991, p. 6
analysis seems to have two important
consequences: On one hand it re-introduces the concept of document
("information as thing") and on the other hand it points out the
subjective nature of information. A stump of a tree contains
information about its age as well as about the climate during the
lifetime of the tree. In similar ways, anything might in some
imaginable circumstances be infor-mative: "We conclude that we are
unable to say confidently of anything that it could not be information"
(Buckland, 1991, p. 50. underlining in original). Just as any thing
could/might be symbolic, Buckland maintains that any thing could/might
Analysis, Socio-Cognitivism, Hermeneutics, Semiotics,
and Related Views
cognitive view is taken one step towards a subjective
understanding of information. Buckland is taking one step further. The
domain analytic view sees different objects as being informative
relative to the social division of labor in society. In this way,
information is a subjective concept, but not primarily in an individual
sense. Criteria for what counts as information are formed by
sociocultural and scientific processes. Users should be seen as
individuals in concrete situations within social organizations and
domains of knowledge. A stone in a field could contain different
information for different people. It
is not possible for information systems to map all possible information
values. Nor is any one mapping the only "true"
situation. People have different educational backgrounds and play
different roles in the division of labor in society. A stone in a field
(or, of course, a document about a stone in a field such as a
represents one kind of information for the geologist and
another for the archaeologist. The information from the stone can
be mapped onto different collective knowledge structures produced by
geology and archaeology. Information can be identified, described, and
represented in information systems for different domains of knowledge.
Of course, problems arise in determining whether a thing is informative
or not for a domain. Other domains have different, conflicting
containing its own more or less implicit view of the informativeness of
different kinds of information sources.
The domain-analytic view is related to a hermeneutic view because the
understanding is determined by the pre-understanding of the observer.
An explicit "information hermeneutics" has been developed by Capurro
(e.g., 1986). It is also related to semiotic approaches (e.g.
Brier, 1992, 1999) and to the approach know as social
constructivism (e.g., Frohmann 1990, 1994; Savolainen, 2000)
should be aware that library and information science is
only one discipline among a network of disciplines — including
suggested disciplines and metadisciplines — related to communication,
technology, systems and processes. We should try to further clarify our
identity and our specific goals and to strengthen the historical
continuity in the field. We should not consider a concept as
information in isolation, but see it in relation to other concepts such
as, for example, documents and media. The concept of information may
have had a positive effect as a status-raising concept used by
professions primarily working with documents. However, this positive
had very unfortunate side effects in raising a level of confusion in
the discipline. It is worth noting that important books can be
written in the field without using the concept of information (e.g..
Lancaster, 1998). Thus,
researchers should be explicit on how they define this and any other
theoretical terms. It should either be used for the sake of theoretical
clarification or — as Fairthorne (1965) recommended — not at all.
are many concepts of information, and they are
embedded in more or less explicit theoretical structures. In studying
information it is easy to get lost, i.e. to loose one's orientation.
Therefore it is important to state the pragmatic question: 'What
differences does it make if we use one or the other theory or concept
of information?' This task is difficult because many approaches apply
implicit and unclear concepts, which have to be clarified. (Such a
clarification may receive resistance because information is often used
as a status rising term without much theoretical ambition). We should
also ask ourselves: Given all the information in
this paper (and about half a century of research and debate), what more
do we need to know about the concept of information in order to
contribute to the further development of information science?
our view, the most important distinction in the concepts
of information is the distinction between information as an object or a
thing (e.g. number of bits) and information as a subjective concept,
information as a sign, i.e. as depending on the interpretation of a
cognitive agent. The interpretation view removes the attention from
attributes of things to the "release mechanisms" for whom those
attributes are of importance. This may call frustration, because it is
difficult and because it implies teleological principles which are
foreign to positivist principles of science. It is relatively easy to
count the number of words in a document or describe it in other ways.
It is much more difficult to try to figure out for whom that document
is of importance, and what the important questions are, that the
document can answer. The questions of interpretation are also difficult
because we often confuse interpretation with an individualist approach.
Meaning is, however, determined in social and cultural contexts.
we want to emphasize the need to explicate the
foundations of knowledge claims. When we represent data in our
information systems, we do that in order to support certain human
activities. We should not just regard our representations as objective,
because this implies that we never fully specify the theoretical,
social, and historical assumptions on which we act. All kinds of
information systems have policies and more or less explicit goals. What
we regard as information should finally also be a reflection of the
social role of the information system.
information systems becomes more global and merged
implicit information is often lost. This means a challenge for
information science that should open its perspective to the social and
cultural impact of interpretation processes taking also into account
the qualitative differences between different contexts and media. This
means the inclusion of interpretation processes as a conditio sine qua
non of information processes. As we have shown several times in this
article, this task of interpretation is essentially a multidisciplinary
and an interdisciplinary one. Building networks is basically an
interpretation process. Building a scientific network as a
self-reflective activity presupposes the task of clarifying some common
concepts. One of them is the concept of information.
The Oxford English
Dictionary (1989). Lists the following
meanings for "information" (references omitted):
Information. Forms: a. 4-6 enformacion, (-ioun, -ione, -yon), 6-7
enformation. b. 4-6 informacion, (-ioun, -yon), 6- information. [a. OF.
enformacion, informacion (mod. F. information), ad. L. information-em
outline, concept, idea, in med.Schol.L. the action of 'informing'
matter, n. of action from informare to INFORM. Conformed to the L.
spelling in 16th c. The L. sb. had a very restricted use; the Eng.
senses represent all the senses of the verb; but the chronological
appearance of these does not accord with the logical order.]
I. 1.a. The action
of informing (in sense 4 of the verb); formation or moulding of the
mind or character, training, instruction, teaching; communication of
instructive knowledge. Now rare or Obs. b. with an and pl. An item of
training; an instruction. Obs. c. Divine instruction, inspiration. Obs.
2. The action of informing (in sense 5 of the verb); communication of
the knowledge or 'news' of some fact or occurrence; the action of
telling or fact of being told of something.
3.a. Knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject,
or event; that of which one is apprised or told; intelligence, news.
spec. contrasted with data. b. with an and pl. An item of information
or intelligence; a fact or circumstance of which one is told. In
earlier use, An account, relation, narrative (of something). Obs. c.
Separated from, or without the implication of, reference to a person
informed: that which inheres in one or 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. d. As a mathematically defined
quantity (see quots.); now esp. One which represents the degree of
choice exercised in the selection or formation of one particular
symbol, sequence, message, etc. out of a number of possible ones, and
which is defined logarithmically in terms of the statistical
probabilities of occurrence of the symbol or the elements of the
4. The action of informing against, charging, or accusing (a person).
(Originally the general sense whence 5 arises; now Obs., exc. as
transf. from 5; cf. also 6).
5. spec. in Eng. Law. a. A complaint or charge against a person
lodged with or presented to a court or magistrate, in order to the
institution of criminal proceedings without formal indictment. b. A
complaint of the Crown in respect of some civil claim, in the form of a
statement of the facts by the attorney general or other proper officer,
either ex officio, or on the relation or report of a private
individual. c. information quo warranto (superseding the ancient Writ
of Quo warranto): the step by which proceedings are commenced to remedy
the usurpation of an office or franchise.
6. In other legal systems. a. In Civil Law. b. In Scots Law. (a) in
Civil Procedure: A written argument upon a case ordered either by a
Lord Ordinary in the Court of Session when reporting the case to the
Inner House (obs.), or by the Court of Justiciary in a case where
difficult questions of law or relevancy are raised before it (now
rare), (b) in Criminal Procedure: A statement or complaint in writing
in which a person is specifically charged with a criminal offence, upon
which a warrant of commitment to gaol (sic) for trial may proceed. c.
Applied also to similar proceedings in foreign systems of judicature,
ancient or modern.
II. 7. The action
of 'informing' with some active or essential quality (see
INFORM v. 3); the giving of a form or character to something;
inspiration, animation (e.g. of the body by the soul)
III. 8. attrib. and
Comb., as information content, desk, explosion
[EXPLOSION 4 b], flow, gap [GAP sb. 1 6a], office, service,
storage, system, transfer, work; information-carrying, -gathering (so
gatherer), -giving, -seeking vbl. Sbs. And ppl. adjs.; information
bureau, an office where information is given and questions are
answered; also fig.; information officer, a person engaged in the
provision of specialized information; information processing, the
processing of information so as to yield new or more useful
information; data processing; information retrieval, the tracing of
information stored in books, computers, or other collections of
reference material; information revolution, the increase in the
availability of information and the changes in the ways it is stored
and disseminated that have occurred through the use of computers;
information room (see quot. 1958); information science, (that branch of
knowledge which is concerned with) the procedures by which information,
esp. that relating to technical or scientific subjects, is stored,
retrieved, and disseminated; hence information scientist, a person
employed in providing an information service, or one who studies the
methods used to do so; information technology, the branch of technology
concerned with the dissemination, processing, and storage of
information, esp. by means of computers. Also INFORMATION THEORY.
The authors have equal responsibility for this chapter.
References to Greek and Latin
sources are not given in this chapter,
but may be found in Capurro
3. Actually, Bodgan himself develops a general view of information that
stands in contrast to this skeptical quotation.
4. Of course, library schools can have a strong focus on subject
knowledge. One example is the University of Sheffield's Department of
Information Studies (http://www.shef.ac.uk/uni/academic/I-M/is/home.hmtl),
in which strong programs are offered in Chemoinformatics, among other
fields. The tendencies within IS are to overcome this problem, for
example, by the development of the domain-analytic approach (Hjørland
& Albrechtsen, 1995)
5. Other traditions are, for example, the facet analytic tradition
founded by S.R. Ranganathan, the cognitive tradition, and the natural
language processing (NLP) tradition. Stockwell (2000) in A History of Information Storage and
Retrieval has a much wider views of the field than the tradition
in IS. This book includes, for example, the history of encyclopedias
under this concept.
6. Frei (1996, p. 3) express a similar view on this issue: "For years
on end, academic researchers studied how to index, store, and retrieve
bibliographic references, calling their discipline information
retrieval rather than reference retrieval. Thus, for a long time, IRwas
concerned with finding a very restricted kind of information and the
term information retrieval was a real misnomer. Retrieving relevant
bibliographic references is certainly a valid problem useful to some
people. But it clearly does not reflect the majority of the problems
that have to be solved facing today's information explosion. Business
analysts, journalists, and scientists hardly ever need bibliographic
references for their work. Most of the time they need facts; that is,
direct information about the problem area they are working in;
oftentimes they have neither the interest nor the time to follow up
references, get articles from the library, and read papers."
7. The tendency to define information as an object of study of only one
group of experts has an additional disadvantage. Information science is
supposed to support the delivery of services to different groups,
including astronomers. Of importance to IS is how such groups
conceptualize and classify their objects, how their language is
designed, what they regard as important and relevant, and so forth. If
information scientists isolate themselves from the work of their target
groups, they becoming superfluous in the eyes of that group. Therefore,
we find it very important that information science does not isolate
activities such as indexing and retrieving documents from the
knowledge-producing activities such as indexing and retrieving
from the knowledge-producing activities in discourse communities. These
communities produce the knowledge that is to be organized in the
information systems, and may be the most important users of the
information scientists' services.
8. This definition quoted from Griffith, 1980, is quite similar to a
definition given by Borko, 1968. this last reference was explicitly
motivated by the same shift ADI made to ASIS in 1968.
9. In our view, the computational aspects of "the generation,
collection, organization, interpretation, storage, retrieval,
dissemination, transformation, and use of information" are not specific
to information science, but are to a large degree part of computer
science; but, of course, these two fields overlap.
10. "In Shannon, Weaver, and Wiener's texts the terms 'communication'
and 'information' are often used interchangeably, although the term
'information' is also used to signify the content of communication. The
relative synonymy of these two terms continues a tendency that was
prevalent before the Second World War, as well e.g., in the texts of
Paul Otlet and other European documentalists and social theorists. From
a contemporary perspective, we may object that these two terms now
signify different events and research fields. This article proposes,
however, that they share a common heritage in an epistemological model
that is still in use today. Further, the ease by which information
technologies converge with communication technologies and visa (sic)
versa, today - e.g., in an informational medium - suggests that the
issue of defining the 'real' difference between these two terms is less
important than that of accounting for their historical congruence in
theory and in practice." (Day, 2000, p. 805).
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