*Article under construction*
We live in an exciting Information Age and ‘information’ is the philosophical flavour of our times, a complex concept appropriate for our period in history. Most of us are aware of this through the rapid uptake of the internet, smartphones, and social media. But the world’s academic knowledge is now available to all through Wikipedia. Anyone interested in any subject or discipline and who has access to the worldwide web can read and learn.
As a new phenomenon of our times we need to understand not only the social implications of this sudden democratization of knowledge but what exactly we mean by ‘information’. Not surprisingly it appears that along with complex technology have come complex ideas. information is well entrenched in biology, and especially genetics where coding, translation, editing
What is information?
When I say to you ‘Pass the salt please’ or ‘dog’ . . . the information that you receive and comprehend is not the sound vibrations in the air. And if I wrote the request on a piece of paper it would not be the words (the letters of words written in ink) – or even the molecules out of which the ink was made. Sent electronically it would not be the pixels on my computer screen, a painting is not just the pigments, DNA is not just molecules. Information is not the symbols and materials that are used to transmit it: it is more like ‘meaning’ or ‘content’. A closer description would be that it is’ symbols or sounds arranged in a particular way’.
So, what is information?
We cannot start our investigation of a topic without some guidance or definition as a starting point.
Be clear at the outset that the discussion about information is young and with a rich and fascinating diversity of views. Instead of looking at these gradually and systematically let’s just jump into the cauldron of ideas before doing some sifting and sorting.
The etymology relates to the formation of an idea which suggests that it is not only fundamental in some way but it also has form and meaning but it needs an agent because there can be no value to information unless it has meaning and there can be no meaning without an agent. There must be an encoder and a decoder (a sender and receiver, a transmitter and a target)and a meaning that depends on context. Information is thus a relational and subjective concept with the potential to be assigned meaning. It can distinguish two states. When meaning is the key factor then this may vary according to the agent. But a non-conscious cell can distinguish between acid and alkaline conditions. It tells us ‘about’ something. It is the resolution of uncertainty.
This leads to a definition of information as a process, pattern, or connection, ‘a perceived difference that can make a difference’. It is a collection of facts or data, and sometimes the communication and reception of data which is accompanied by an increase in knowledge.
It is extremely difficult to deny the existence of information but to concede is to recognise an abstract non-physical object of universal importance. Since ‘information is neither matter or energy’ it is a novel and curious scientific object with an existence as puzzling as number and time. And perhaps on a par with these basic constituents of the universe.
Information in biology is what something is used for – its function; for humans it is transmission or communication.
Geological strata carry information. Is this different from the information carried in biological organisms like the genes that are a record or memory of past environments?