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What will we learn about?

In short, this week we learn about what good information system (IS) and information-communication technology (ICT) are like. Of course, for this it would be good to achieve some clarity about what information actually is. While we focus on computerised information systems in this course, it is also worth noting that there are other things as well that would qualify as information systems such as books.

When I started teaching information management to MBA students, back in 1999, I started by saying that I didn’t know what information was. The students were not sure if I missed the classroom or if they did. However, I then explained that you actually need to know quite a lot about information so that you realise that you don’t actually know what information is. We know what data are: facts that we can check for accuracy. But what about information?

Perhaps the biggest problem in conceptualising information is that people (would) like to measure it. This measurement is often based on the Shannon-formula which is appropriate for measuring, however, it does not relate to measuring information, it is about measuring the capacity of the communication channel. László Drótos formulated the essence of this problem really neatly:

“… which common measuring unit could express the amount of information contained in a satellite photo, in the smell of a rose, in Bolero or e.g. in this hypertext? We do not know the answer to this question yet, maybe there is no answer to it at all.”

Usually the definitions of information assume some kind of new data input; it is a reasonable question if I need that particular new data. For instance, I may receive the phone number of a tax specialist, which is new data for me, but I don’t need that new data. So is this now information or not? Often information is portrayed as useful data but, this phone number is of no use to me. However, if at a later time I find myself in a situation in which I need that phone number, does it become information at once? An infinite number of similar questions could be asked yet none of them seems to lead anywhere. We cannot even assume however, that information necessarily originates in data. This is another reason why I like the above quote so much: I can simply smell a rose or have an emotional response to a beautiful music – this makes me think and I write an interesting introductory text about the concept of information. Was there then information in that smell of a rose or in that music? My answer would be definitely yes.

To be fair regarding the concept of information, I’ve never said that I did not understand what information was, only that I did not know what it was. I did have an understanding, only I could not put it into words. Luckily, the anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson figured this out for me – so now I know what information is:

Information is “a difference which makes a difference”.

This short sentence suggests two main things. First, information has to be something that we can notice. This means that the difference needs to be large enough so that we can perceive it (and if it is a computer or measuring device that does the perceiving, the requirement still stands). Second, information makes a difference in our cognitive processing so we use it in our thinking, learning, build it into our argument, etc. It is also important to understand, however, that no information is set in stone. It is constantly in-formation, not only as it is itself changing all the time, but its context is also changing and so it is my mind with which I perceive it. Therefore, it may also change based on whether it makes a difference or what difference it makes. Thus, I think that Bateson provided an all-encompassing definition of information, which is to me perfectly meaningful. Although it can be argued that this conceptualisation of information is not particularly useful in designing information systems, it is certainly very useful for understanding the ‘big picture’ of information systems and for deepening our thinking – and this is really my purpose with this course.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Information and Technology Today

University of Strathclyde