Rafael Capurro
Paper presented at the international conference: Information. New Questions to a Multidisciplinary Concept organized by the Chair for Philosophy of Technology at the Technical University of Cottbus held from March 1st to 3rd, 1994.

K. Kornwachs, K. Jacoby Eds.:
Information. New Questions to a Multidisciplinary Concept
Akademie Verlag Berlin 1996, pp. 259-270.


George J. Klir: Foreword
Klaus Kornwachs, Konstantin Jacoby: Introduction: What's New About Information?

Classical Information Theory
Horst Völz: Meaning Outline of the Term Information
Jan A. Freund: Information, Long-Range Correlations and Extended memory of Symbol Sequences
Hans Marko: Causual Information Theory

Physical Aspects
Hans Ruder, Michael Soffel: Information Processing of Cosmic Signals
Günther Mahler: Quantum Information
Paul Ziesche: Information and Structure: The Concept o Correlation Entropy in Quantum-Many-Body Systems and a General Comment
Jürgen Kurths, Andreas Voss, Peter Saparin, Annette Witt: Complexity Measures and their Applications

Biology and Information
Bernd-Olaf Küppers: The Context-Dependence of Biological Information

System Theoretical Aspects
Dieter Gerner: Pragmatic Information as a Unifying Concept
Klaus Kornwachs: Pragmatic Information and System Surface

Philosophy of Science
Thomas Zoglauer: Can Information be Naturalized?
John L. Casti: Simple and Complex Models in Science

Philosophical Issues
Harald Atmanspacher: Complexity, Meaning and the Cartesian Cut
Herbert Hörz: Reflections on a Philosophical Notion of Information
Rafael Capurro: On the Genealogy of Information

Conceptual Design
Norbert Fenzl, Peter Fleissner, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Robert Jahn, Gottfried Stockinger: On the Genesis of Information Structures: A View that is neither Reductionistic nor Holistic.

Burghard B. Rieer: Situation Semantics and Computational Linguistics: towards Informational Ecology: A Semiotic Perspective for Cognitive Information Processing Systems

Future Aspects
Helmut Volkmann: Cities of Kowledge - Metropolises of the Information Society

See my book Leben im Informatioszeitalter (1995).



I. On the word and concept of information   
II. Information as an Anthropological Phenomenon    
III. Information in the Context of Myth, Poetry and Revelation   
IV. Information in the Context of Philosophy, Science and Printing Technology   
V. Information in the Context of Electronic Technology 






After a short overview on the history of the word and concept of information, a genealogy of information as an anthropological category is proposed. The phenomenon of human messages involving semantic and pragmatic aspects is related to different power structures. The task of a genealogy is to analyze the contingency of such structures in the past, in order to look for a critical appraisal and a possible transformation of the present structures. Beginning with the conflict between the vertical and horizontal structures in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, which are related to the concepts of angelía and lógos, our electronic galaxy has evolved out of the modern utopia of printing as a censorship-free space. Our information structure is characterized by a plurality of messages and messengers where the question of power (manipulation, monopolies, disorientation) within a new social information order is still open.  



Nach einem Überblick über die Wort- und Begriffsgeschichte des Ausdrucks 'Information' wird die Aufgabe einer Genealogie der Information vorgestellt. Dabei wird Information als ein anthropologisches Phänomen verstanden. Dieses Phänomen, nämlich das der zwischenmenschlicher Mitteilung, schließt semantische und pragmatische Aspekte ein und wird durch unterschiedliche Machtstrukturen mitbestimmt. Die Aufgabe einer Genealogie der Information besteht darin, die Kontingenz solcher Strukturen zu analysieren, so daß ein kritisches Bewußtsein und somit die Möglichkeit ihrer Transformation ermöglicht wird. Die hier umrißhaft dargestellte Genealogie erstreckt sich von der Analyse vertikaler und horizontaler Mitteilungsstrukturen in der Antike und im Mittelalter - die sich u.a. in den Begriffen angelía und lógos niederschlagen - bis hin zu den herrschenden Strukturen in unserer heutigen elektronischen Galaxis. Diese wurzelt in der modernen Utopie des Gedruckten als eines zensurfreien Raums. Unsere informationelle Struktur ist durch eine Pluralität von Botschaften und Botschaftern charakterisiert, wobei die Frage nach der Macht (Manipulation, Monopolisierung, Desorientierung) innerhalb einer elektronischen Informationsordnung noch offen ist.   



The history of the word 'information' provides some hints on the genealogy of the concepts of 'information'. This word has been used in English since the 14th century to denote the action of informing or "moulding of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching" (The Oxford English Dictionary 1961), a fact that is connected to William the Conqueror and the influence of the French tongue on Anglo-Saxon English (Schement 1992). The denomination of the action of imparting knowledge as information has its origin in the Latin and Greek roots of this word, namely in informare, in the ontological sense of moulding or forming a piece of matter and, metaphorically, human knowledge.  

The relation between ontology and epistemology play a significant role in Greek philosophy, particularly with regard to the concepts of eidos/idéa, morphé and typos in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The Latin terms informatio/informare appear in translations and commentaries of these Greek philosophical concepts. It is only at the end of the Middle Ages, with the decay of scholastic philosophy and the rise of Modernity, that the ontological meaning becomes unusual and the epistemological one remains (Capurro 1978).   

Dr Johnson mentions them in his famous dictionary of 1755. After the common uses of "intelligence given" and "charge or accusation given" he notes: "the act of informing or actuation", a 'scholastic' reminiscence (Johnson 1755). When Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver develop their mathematical theory of communication they distance themselves from the "psychological factors" involved in the ordinary use of this concept and establish a neutral or non-specific human meaning of "information content" with regard to the process of selection and communication of symbols independently of their meaning for the receiver. They thus omit "the question of interpretation" (Shannon/Weaver 1949). Paradoxically this neutral meaning, common to machines and human beings, which cybernetics will later confirm and which was criticized by Yehoshua Bar-Hillel as a "semantic trap" (Bar-Hillel 1973, p.196; Zoglauer 1995, Rieger 1995), provides an analogy for the ancient ontological use of the word. Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäker remarks that information being neither matter nor energy (Wiener 1961) has a similar status as the 'platonic eidos' and the 'aristotelian form' (Weizsäcker 1974).  

This paper is a contribution to the study of the genealogy of the concept of information as an anthropological category. This specific anthropological view makes a difference to its cybernetic meaning as analyzed for instance by Heinrich Völz (Völz 1995). Because of its association with meaning the 'question of interpretation', as Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver have remarked, becomes a basic one. An anthropological theory of information has to do with the interpretation, construction and transmission of meaning, i.e. with what an old tradition (going back to Hermes as the messenger of the gods) calls hermeneutics.   

The development of an anthropological information theory within the framework of hermeneutics embracing not just the interpretation but also the construction and transmission of messages is still an open task. It concerns not only information and library science but also 'informatics' (or computer science) (Capurro 1990 and 1992). The intersection between hermeneutics and information theory means not only a transformation of the latter but also of the former seeing that traditional hermeneutics was primarily oriented towards the interpretation of the spoken word and/or printed texts. A hermeneutics of information science should also embrace the construction and transmission of messages by particularly taking into account the question of the media, as has indeed been done since Plato's criticisms of writing. In our present situation we are looking particularly for the new hermeneutic questions which arise in an electronically networked world (Capurro 1986). 


But first of all we should ask which are the general characteristics of the anthropological phenomenon of information, i.e. of our capability of sending and receiving messages which are potentially meaningful and have a potential practical relevance. Such a general characteristic is for instance that a message is not said to 'entail' information independently of a context (language, culture, theory, project...) inside which it may make a difference or not. In this last case we have to do with redundancy or 'noise'. There is no 'information in itself', independent of a context or a field of redundancy with which it interferes. 

"Information can be defined as a difference that makes a difference", as Gregory Bateson has formulated (Bateson 1987, p.17). Information depends, secondly, on our capacity of judgement. To judge means in this case being able to evaluate whether or not a message makes a significant difference in a given situation. This is the reason why the question of relevance in library and information science is a difficult one, if we want to distinguish and explore for instance the relationship between the system-oriented and the user-oriented relevance of information retrieval results (Froehlich 1994, Capurro 1986). A message can become information if there is a basis of 'pre-understanding' or a shared code. This is a necessary condition, as Shannon and Weaver have stated, also in the case of establishing a purely quantitative measure of information content. 'Pre-understanding' means sharing a context when we start exchanging messages. This context is ultimately the very situation of our being in the world with others i.e. our mode of existence as communicative beings. To exist in the way of communication is indeed a characteristic common to living beings.   

One basic difference between human and non-human communication is human language, which enables us not just to react to a given stimulus but purposely to change our relationships to ourselves and to the world. If we call this capacity, by remembering the ancient use of the word, 'information' in the sense of being able to create or 'in-form' new contexts of meaning, then we can say that we are not just immersed in a pre-given communicative context nor are we basically determined by a stimulus-response-communication-structure but that we can handle information within an open horizon of alternatives. Language enables us to change and/or create new contexts of thinking and action. To live in a predetermined context of 'pure communication' means in some cases individual and/or social self-annihilation as, for instance, in paranoia or in totalitarian political situations.   

According to Daniel Bougnoux there is a paradoxical relationship between information and communication: information originates between tautology (or 'pure communication') and pure contingency (Bougnoux 1995). In order to grasp a message as information we need both, communication i.e. a shared pre-understanding and the capacity to judge whether a message makes a difference in the web of world relationships in which we are immersed. It is evident that every information process is non-neutral. A message we send or receive is to be called information if, and only if, it entails the possibility of changing in a significant manner something of our previous ways of relating to ourselves, to other persons, to things and to situations in the world.   

The phenomenon of information is linked to that of power. Roughly speaking, this relation has two perspectives, namely a vertical one, where messages are being imposed, and a horizontal one where messages are freely interchanged. A genealogy of information as I am suggesting it in this paper has the task of exploring the mechanisms of power in the information process under these two viewpoints in their manifold appearances. The genealogical analysis shows that there is neither pure verticality nor pure horizontality. It also shows that there is no linear and/or ideal development from a vertical to a horizontal structure. The idea of 'free flow of information' is a only a 'regulative' one in the Kantian sense of the term, i.e. it is oriented towards a dynamic balance between different structures through which we construct reality, both semantically and pragmatically. Information utopias fill up the formal idea of 'free flow of information' with contingent structures thus transforming it into a changing historical concept.   

The following genealogical analysis of information as an anthropological category is inspired by the work of Michel Foucault (Foucault 1983; Schmid 1991, p.72). A genealogy should lead not only to an historical but also to a critical appraisal of our present situation in the electronic age through an insight into the contingency of past and consequently of present utopias. The structure of our cognitivistic information theories can be genealogically or 'deconstructively' analyzed with regard to the institutions and practices of power behind them, as Bernd Frohmann has suggested (Frohmann 1992). The following analyses are nothing but an invitation to continue doing this.  

Let us first take a look at the information phenomenon in contexts where the vertical dimension is prevalent, such as in myth, poetry and revelation. A second step will provide some hints on the structure of information in philosophy and science in Antiquity and Modernity as well as in its present technological form.  




One striking fact about some present information theories is the small attention they pay to the mythical, poetical and theological structure of the phenomenon of receiving a message from 'above' and giving it to others 'below'. An exception is the recent work by Michel Serres who makes an analogy between the mythical and theological role of the messenger and a 'prima facie' secularized information society (Serres 1993). This to some extent apologetical analysis is a good example of the fact that there is only an apparent historical linearity between the mythical and our modern secularized ages. Such a non-linear view opens up also the possibility of discovering hierarchical dimensions in our present horizontal model (and vice-versa). Together with this general disregard for the mythical forms of transmitting messages there is also the question as to the appropriate term to look at when we want to identify the phenomenon of information in pre-modern times. In the case of Western culture this term obviously seems to be lógos. But indeed this choice, independently of the polyvalent meaning of the concept, leads us to an analysis by which we can no longer see the horizon against which this term was coined. This horizon is a mythical and poetical one as, for instance, in the case of Homer. In a mythical and poetical context the term we are looking for is not lógos but angelía (message).  

First of all it is important to remember that within this context the action of transmitting a message is a sacred one. Iris and Hermes are the personified homeric symbols of this vertical or hierarchical structure, where 'message' shifts to 'command' and the act of transmission to that of 'ordering' and 'proclaiming'. This need not necessarily be seen under a negative aspect. Particularly not if we think that the institutions and practices related to political and military transmission were not the same as those exercised for instance by the poets and the mythical oracles. The oracle priest or mántis was supposed to transmit the 'signs' (semainein) of the gods. The right or wrong interpretation of these signs was sometimes, as in the case of Oedipus, a question of life and death. What the priest was supposed to announce was the 'wisdom' (mythos) of the gods. This power structure and practice, partly a command, partly an enigma appealing to the moral sense, is what Heraclitus recalls when, with regard to the oracle of Delphi, he says that "it does not interpret (légei) or conceals (krúptei) but gives signs (semáinei)" (Diels 1956, Heraklit Frg. 93).   

In the case of the poet (usually) his practice was one of bringing the "sweet message" (angelían glykeían) (Pindar 1967, Olymp. IV, 5) of the Olympic victory to the town and to the relatives of the winner. This is not the same structure as when Hermes brings a message from Zeus or of the mantis 'un-concealing' the will of Apollo but it is indeed a practice to be exercised by someone who was appointed by the gods, who had a vocation, and whose speaking was the announcing of a high order event or will.   

The same terms are used also in the case of a messenger who brings to the palace of Agamemnon the news from the victory at Troy (Aischylos 1914, Agam. 1-39). Angelía was the usual term in the political and military context of announcing an important event, for instance a victory or defeat or a birth in the royal family. Another highly influential information structure in Antiquity was that of prophecies, particularly in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  

It is remarkable indeed that such a key term hardly appears after the fifth century (B.C.) in the context of philosophical thought: angelía will be displaced by lógos. This is indeed a clear sign of change, i.e. of the emergence of new and different kinds of institutions and practices concerned with the process of transmitting knowledge, of teaching and learning. There is some kind of transition from the more vertical structure of mythical and poetical angelía to the more horizontal structure of a common search for truth in philosophical dialogue.   

This transition can be observed for instance in Parmenides (540-480 B.C.) who writes his message (mythos) as a poem and refers to the goddess who is able to discern between the many lógoi and the one mythos (Diels 1956, Parmenides Frg. 8, 1). Lógos becomes central for Heraclitus (544-483 B.C.), but his practice is more that of proclaiming the truth in the sense of angelía than of looking for it in a dialogical manner as has been the case since Socrates.   

But before we take a look at the phenomenon of information in the Socratic context let us remember that angelía, as a vertical phenomenon of announcing the 'good new', was the key concept in the Christian announcing of salvation, arising from the tradition of the Jewish prophets as well as of their practices and institutions. The fact that the Greek concept of lógos was also deeply connected to the Christian message led to a synthesis of angelía and lógos. The Christian angelía, although vertical, arises in an epoch where the horizontal information mood of lógos has become the norm. The forms of life fashioned by the philosophical schools and their manifold practices and institutions of communication and information are gradually substituted by those created by the announcement of the 'good message' (euangelion) supposed to bring forth truth and 'salvation' (sotería). This religious message transforms during the Middle Ages the philosophic lógos and the prophetic angelía into a sacra doctrina sustained by institutions such as the Roman Church and the universities.   

The tension between verticality and horizontality makes possible on the one hand the practices of the Inquisition but it inspires also forms of living such as knighthood, with its military and poetic ethos, allowing, as we call it today, an intercultural exchange between Christianity and Islam.   

Jorge Schement, by asking why in the story of Jesus' betrayal (Matthew 26, 14-48) the Koiné Greek does not speak of lógos, a word "whose meaning might come closest to 'information'", considers that this word would not fit into the context of a sale (Schement 1992, p.175). The word used by Matthew is 'signal' (semeíon). Schement guesses that Latin informare meant "to give form to, to shape", "perhaps to form an idea of, or even to describe" (ibid.) (Capurro 1978).  

This epistemological meaning, going back to Socratic philosophy, was indeed transformed by Modernity into a property of the human subject. Its signs or symbols being something objective were soon regarded, particularly by rationalists such as Descartes and Leibniz, as something to be stored and processed. It is but a small step to look at information as a commodity or as a thing to be sold.  




From the very beginning of Socratic philosophy one information mood symbolized by the term angelía, namely the poetic activity, is the object of criticism. The concept of lógos begins its splendid career and angelía disappears.  

In Plato's dialogue Ion Socrates analyzes the 'hermeneutical' activity of the Homeric rhapsode who is supposed to transmit to the listeners a thought (diánoia). But he cannot fulfil such a task as he does not know what he is talking about (légei) (Platon 1967, Ion 530c). Ion has indeed the divine power to fill his listeners with enthusiasm. It is the god himself who speaks (légon) to the poet and it is the rhapsode who brings the message (hermenés) to the people. This double vertical structure is compared by Plato to a magnet, not only as far as a magnet caused to hang the rings down but also because it communicates to them its force which causes the 'hanging down'.   

This vertical structure is not completely abolished but relativated by the horizontal philosophical dialogue. The 'erotic' force leading and sustaining the 'logical' search for truth has the Divine as its aim and origin. This means, on the one hand, an inversion of the transmission movement of the mythical and poetical angelía but, on the other hand, this inversion causes also the content of the message not in some way already to have been given from the 'top' but must it be defined from the 'bottom'. In order to get to the 'top' one must be able to know in a particular way what we are talking about in each case so that we can transfer it into a higher level. The content of the message is a lógos to be found and the method of communication is one of exchanging it in a dia-logue. But the philosophic lógos has something special with regard to other horizontal lógoi. Socrates criticizes the lógoi of the artisans and politicians as they believe they know what they are talking about, but then forgetting the limits of their knowledge i.e. not being guided by an 'erotic' self-transcendent or vertical force which relativizes all positive contents giving the possibility of looking through them into their divine origin. Whether or not this vertical tendency of the horizontal philosophical dialogue was more intense in Plato than in Socrates, it is nevertheless clear that Socrates' symmetrical attitude was highly ironical. He considered himself as a mediator, doing the work of a midwife. He was a 'daimonic man'.   

The change from mythical-poetical angelía to philosophic lógos brings about new practices and institutions i.e. new forms of power. Instead of the palace, the war places and the Olympic games we are now at the agorá and in the schools. New conflicts arise between the philosophic communities and the religious and political powers. The horizontal liberalization of philosophic dialogue accentuates the tension with the vertical structures of the pólis. Socrates's death is a clear example of this tension. Plato tried to integrate both poles in his state philosophy by giving the political leader something of the 'higher' but philosophical knowledge of the Divine. This structure determines in a very detailed form all kinds of rites, duties and techniques including the arts of the ideal pólis. This is a substitute of the old information utopia as represented by the mythical and poetic angelía.

It is a 'logical' information utopia where all the partial or 'technical' lógoi are superseded by a divine techné which is transmitted by a long 'dialectical' education aiming at a knowledge of the mathematical and the 'ideal' structures and their imperfect representations in the cosmic and political order. The mythical experience of the divine is integrated into the platonic 'infological' structure as a 'sudden' (exáiphnes) encounter with an 'unspoken' dimension (árrheton) after a long journey of searching for the truth under the guidance of a philosophy master. This 'searching together' is therefore not symmetrical. Socrates and Plato in their roles as masters are mediators of the god in a similar but not identical way as the poet was. Although Plato, following Socrates, definitely gave the priority to orality as the adaequate medium in which the philosophic éros fertilizes the souls, he belonged to a culture where writing was already a generalized communication medium particularly in the sciences. His dialogues are somehow a transition between the way writing was used by the poets to preserve and transmit a message which was intended to produce enthusiasm and its uses through scientific and 'technical' communities.   

The allegory of the cave (Plato 1967, Rep. 514-518) can be seen as an inverted information utopia of what a philosophical view of the 'unchanging' and 'supra-sensible' world brings about. Instead of the multiplicity of forms or messages reproduced in front of the cave, of which the prisoners can only see the shadows and talk about them, the platonic dialectic presents a world where there is no more need for information because the forms themselves are the permanent subject of an eternal communication structure. The ideal world is a world of pure form and therefore of pure communication. It is an 'un-human' world. Writing is for Plato a shadow of the oral lógos which itself is again an image of the 'mathematical' structures and these again of the 'ideas' or forms. Learning to see the sensible world under the perspective of the 'world' of mathematical structures and of the 'ideal forms' means nothing more and nothing less than finding the 'utopian' place, i.e. the place or the perspective from where it is possible to see it as forever 'in-formed'. Plato's information utopia is a communication utopia. From this 'ideal' perspective our 'global village' or "télécité" (Virilio 1992), is like a networked cave, a surrogate of the 'hyper reality' of the divine 'intellectual place' (tópos noetós) of pure 'in-formation' or pure communication.  

Plato's utopia differs in many ways from that developed by Aristoteles. One key aspect is the question of the kind of legitimation to be given to knowledge mediation through rhetoric or oral communication and writing. Aristotle was more liberal in his conception of the role of media in the 'pólis' (Aristotle 1950, Pol. viii). He was not oriented towards a mythical idea from which to 'in-form' reality but asked for a 'human measure' of living. In his "Rhetoric" he legitimates different kinds of communication forms, such as deliberative, juridical and laudatory speech, whose aim is to teach or to inform (!), to influence and to please. Aristotelian rhetoric offers a framework for the foundation of information science (Capurro 1992). But also with regard to writing, Aristotle is no longer 'ideo-logically' biased as Plato was. He differentiates between writing for the school (esoteric) and writing for the general public (exoteric) in a different manner as probably Plato did as he transmitted some knowledge through writing but retained some basic insights which were supposed to pertain to oral tradition only (Platon 1967, Epist. vii). Aristotle has a basic confidence in writing as an adequate medium for the communication of philosophic investigations. Aristotle collects and discusses the writings of other philosophers and scientists. His nickname is 'the reader' (anagnóstes). An anagnóstes was usually a servant who read a book out aloud publicly, while the academicians normally heard what was being read. When a book was publicly read out loud it was considered as 'published'.   

The information paradigm of the Greek lógos has many other shapes. It looks like a servant of economic and political power as in the case of the sophists, and it can be seen as a completely free form of communication (parrhesía), particularly of taboo subjects, as in the cynical school - similarly, the relation of the philosophic lógos to poetry and religion as well as to tragedy and comedy changes. The freedom to say anything, at any time, to anybody is based on limited conditions as, for instance, to be a (male) citizen of the pólis and to respect the laws.  

After the encounter of the Greek lógos with the Judeo-Christian angelía the relation between the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of information changed in favor of the vertical angelía whereas philosophy became a servant of theology (ancilla theologiae). Renaissance and the Enlightenment looked for a liberation of the horizontal information structure from its vertical mood, at least in the field of science. The model of a rational discussion of arguments open to public discussion through writing seems really to have been achieved with printing. Modernity raises the question whether printing can be conceived as a neutral communication medium where messages can be passed without the censorship of the government, the church or the military.   

This ideal was stated for instance by Immanuel Kant in Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? as well as in Was heisst: Sich im denken orientieren? (Kant 1900). According to Kant the freedom of thought depends on the freedom of communicating our thoughts. To think by ourselves does not mean thinking in isolation within our own 'spirit'. This leads either to the kind of intellectual imagination Kant calls 'metaphysics', i.e. to pure speculation, or to madness, as in the case of Emanuel Swedenborg (Kant 1990, Träume eines Geistersehers). True thinking is 'common' thinking in the sense that it is the product of receiving the messages of others and of communicating what according to one's own judgement, is held to be the truth, without censorship. Thinking has therefore for Kant a communicative and an informative dimension. The price for the freedom of autonomous thinking is its lack of immediate practical influence or power. Kants free agorá of thought is the Gutenberg marketplace. This is the modern information utopia. But censorship of all kinds continues, of course, influencing the communication of printed ideas. Altough public libraries create free spaces of accessibility, the capability to read and write are constrained by cultural, economic and political factors. Finally we should not forget that the lógos of modernity in many cases does not eliminate the vertical structure. The moral experience, as Kant clearly shows, has a vertical or 'imperative' mood which can be experienced as a source of liberation from economic and political power, as can be seen through the political revolutions over the last two centuries, but without no guaranty of success.  



At the end of Modernity electronic networks paradoxically give back to writing some of the contingent characteristics of orality back, including the primacy of presence and of the visual content and context of what is being said. The mass media distribute instantaneously and universally all kinds of pictures of the world which becomes the blue print of everything which is considered to be a relevant fact i.e. of information.  

According to Helmut Spinner (Spinner 1994) the modern or classical 'knowledge order' based on printing was characterized by the separation of ideas and property, of ideas and interests, of theory and practice, and of science and state. These separations are in a large measure undermined by electronic networks und the mass media. Of course the new media are, on the one hand, still media, no more and no less than orality or printing were. But, on the other hand, it is obvious that already writing has not the same communicative quality as oral communication, and that electronic networks and mass media offer different potential mixtures of horizontal and vertical power structures, as printing in the "Gutenberg galaxy" (McLuhan 1962).  

There is no question of trying to imagine a neutral or domination-free communication utopia as suggested by Jürgen Habermas (Habermas 1988) by conceiving it now on the basis of electronic networks. Helmut Volkmann's ideas of a coalition of "spirit, power and money" towards the creation of "cities of knowledge" show, on the contrary, that the future shape of the phenomenon of information is intimately connected with power structures (Volkmann 1995). Internet is an arena for all kinds of "wire pirates" (Wallich 1994).  

The result of a genealogical analysis should be a critical view of what we are through a contrast of what we have been - and still are. On this basis we can try to find out some characteristics of information in our 'electronic galaxy'. Instead of the legitimation of knowledge through political institutions (e.g. the communist party) and/or large 'ideological stories' we are now, according to Jean-François Lyotard, concerned with a plurality of messages distributed in form of databases from different sources (Lyotard 1986). The idealized censorship-free structure of the modern scientific lógos becomes part of a global network of messages and messengers. If science has become a new source of power in Modernity, a kind of secularized angelía is now at work. The question of power has of course not disappeared, it has become a planetary one. In a similar way as the discourse of the lógos aimed in ancient Greece and in modern Europe at displacing the power(s) behind the angelía, the discourse of information nowadays gives the impression of a dissolution of the power of scientific method, for instance, and/or any other kind of hierarchical power structure. Any message is valid, anything goes. This means a depotentiation of the idea of a value-free lógos.   

Every message has a value and concerns a potential user or (!) individual. The discourse of information is a discourse of power based on the dissolution of an idealized social structure of 'mankind in itself' as dreamt of Modernity. Information is the reverse of this ideology. It looks chaotic, i.e. individual oriented, but it is based on power as such and on its outward sign, money. The discourse of the information economy displaces and discourages the idea of information as a social good by giving the impression of a non-hierarchical and powerless structure, where everybody has a chance to find the message one is looking for. But indeed this means that finally the messengers are the main point, the medium is indeed the message. But through the media, including our present and future information superhighways as promised by Al Gore, all kinds of monopolies and power structures are at work. In the case of the mass media the vertical structure of information is still more evident although less apparent as TV-channels distribute all kinds of messages everywhere, open to everybody and all the time. The receivers (!) as far as they can navigate and manipulate the messages believe that they have at least part of the power in their hands, and can even increase it, as in the case of interactive systems. But of course the Murdochs and Berlusconis are at work not only in the brave new world of the electronic village but also in the very present Gutenberg galaxy.   

Software development might and can become part of the effort of combining the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the human phenomenon of information through electronic artifacts, if it looks on the one hand, for the communality or 'conviviality' of tools (Illich 1975), without forgetting, on the other hand, their character as power instruments for "reality construction" (Floyd et al. 1992) and therefore their basic ambiguity (Capurro 1992). Lyotard asks for open systems, free accessibility and a culture of dissent. This presupposes questioning a new information jargon that devaluates all kinds of social construction of meaning, by at the same time introducing its own economic and individualistic values as the highest ones, under the camouflage of horizontality.  




Knowledge is now indeed a thing to be marketed and the marketing divisions play a key role in the expanding information industry. The modern separation between ideas and commodities was an information utopia and it seems as if we have attained now the opposite one. The same thing has happened to the other modern sharp distinctions between ideas and interests, theory and practice and science and state as analyzed by Spinner (Spinner 1992). We are in a situation where the new order can no longer be based on the principle of separation but on that of interaction or even fusion between these spheres. This insight raises new questions concerning the relation of information and power: 

1. If public opinion is shaped through all kind of media and particularly through electronic networks, how can manipulation be avoided or at least restricted?  

2. If there is no neutral communication medium, what would a democratic and international control of information monopolies look like?  

3. If there is a plurality of senders, i.e. a situation of controversial truth authorities, how do we manage misinformation and disorientation?   

4. If science, economy, national and international policies and societal forces interact in such a way that different structures of power are possible, where would an open discussion of alternatives take place?  

And finally, what would a social information order look like if it is to be conceived as a 'pendant' to a social market economy?  




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I am particularly thankful to the participants of the Cottbus Symposium for their critical questions.

Last update: September  18, 2019


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