4.1 What is Information?

A collection of raw data, however large, and gathered from whatever source, is not necessarily information. The term "information" implies that the things it describes have some measure of meaning, significance or relevance. Meaning in turn requires two things:

1. intentional and intelligent organization, and

2. capacity for being communicated.

That is, it can be said something is information only if it has a deliberately attached meaning that can be communicated and interpreted in such a manner as to preserve the meaning for another person.

Thus, information is a product of purposeful organization and design, not simply an assemblage of facts. The activity required to generate and communicate information therefore requires intelligence. In addition, information enables change in the people who have it. It empowers them to do things they could not otherwise, giving them more choices and in turn affecting their available techniques.

Some of what passes for information may not be in accord with the facts--either because the underlying raw data is incorrect, or because it has not been interpreted or communicated in accord with proper professional practice. That is, questions of right and wrong need to be asked with respect to information as well as with respect to beliefs and actions. For at least some such cases, the answer is likely to be absolute; for others, there may be legitimate differences of opinion on interpretative matters.

Some information is also more useful, and therefore more desirable to know. This fact affects people's motivations--both in learning new things, and in applying what they do know. In the style of the last chapter, one could ask "if some things are good to know, to what extent should they be known?"

All this tells us that information does not exist in a vacuum or stand complete on its own. Rather, human beings interact with it in a complex feedback pattern that changes both them and the information continually.

The larger the data pool is, the more complex the processing activity must be to produce useful information. This in turn requires a certain sophistication for the society in which the information generation takes place. Thus, the higher (more abstract) the level of the culture, the greater the demand for reliable information. This provides a feedback mechanism that forces the techniques for the processing of data into information to become ever more sophisticated as the quantity grows.

Some information theorists would present the diagram above as a mere mechanical process, suggesting that the entire task of processing data into information may be relegated to a machine. This position would not be very palatable to a Christian, or to anyone who believes that the human mind is more than a machine, and that it does something unique when its owner engages in assigning and communicating meaning.

The explosive growth of data sources and the demand for information also demand that filters be created to sift out the useful from the less so. Someone who has been shot cannot afford to stop to wonder about the bullet's manufacture and trajectory before arranging to have it pulled out. It is questionable whether arguments over who wrote Shakespeare's plays or authored the book of Isaiah contribute anything to knowledge. A farmer does not need much military technique. An engineer does not need to know how to raise pigs. Thus, specialities are developed--no one can know everything, even in an agricultural society, and much less so in an industrial one. However, in the information society, anyone can find out anything.

It is important to note that economic activity does not march automatically and inevitably from hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industrial to information-based society. A subtle interplay of available technique, culture, and political decisions determines what happens next. Each civilization must build a sufficient level of information and other infrastructure at each level to progress to the next. It was accumulated knowledge of plants and animals that permitted agriculture. Agricultural production grew larger and more sophisticated in the industrial age, but employed fewer people. Likewise, the information based society requires a highly sophisticated and complex industrial base, and the production of goods must surely continue to increase, even though the proportion of workers directly involved in that production will diminish. The production of ever larger quantities of agricultural and industrial goods requires better knowledge and more complete demographic information all the time. Once the two older sectors become efficient enough, managing the information required to maintain them becomes the most visible occupation, even though the information sector only indirectly generates material wealth.

It is at least in part for this reason that the efforts of missionaries and other aid workers in underdeveloped nations are sometimes counterproductive. For instance, there is little point in attempting to introduce electric ovens into a society that lacks a reliable supply of electricity, or tractors into one that lacks one of gasoline. A simple, easily repaired mechanical pump might turn out to be the single most appropriate technology needed to lift a remote African village out of poverty. Teaching its people to read and write may be the most important contribution available from information techniques. Just as important in all such cases is the lack of infrastructure to repair and maintain even middle technology products and processes.

At the same, every society has to solve information storage problems. When oral traditions became inadequate to preserve information, it was written down on slates or scrolls. Eventually, the sheets were piled up and bound into books to save space. When it became necessary to produce many copies of such books, the printing press was required. This all had to be put somewhere, for shoe boxes and file cabinets can serve for mass data storage only up to a certain point. Thus, libraries have been particularly important in the preservation and transmission of both data and information. They are the repositories of what a civilization has found out about the world, what it believes about the world, and what it has done to change the world (and itself). There is now so much knowledge in the collective human archives that it is no longer practical to store it all on paper, and electronic means have become necessary. Today, the media size needed to store data and information continues to shrink, and the speed at which data can be machine processed is increasing.

It is necessary to do more than just store information, however. To be of much use, it has to be interpreted (given meaning) and disseminated to other people, including the next generation. Thus, as the amount of information grows with the size and complexity of society, greater demands are also placed on the means of communicating that information. This principle is of particular importance to any cultural or religious groups such as Christians, whose continued existence depends utterly upon transmitting its essential ideas and practices in toto to the next generation, for failure to succeed in this task implies extinction of the group.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises