Two Definitions of "Information"

I. Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution, “Introduction: Information Present and Past”:

Information has become the dominant metaphor of our age, through which we understand ourselves and our world. . . .  Yet, when we stop to think about it, we really do not know much about this idiom.  Dictionaries assume it, rather than explain it.  We move beyond Webster's initial definition (the "communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence") only to find ourselves deeply mired in our own information age and its associated terminology.  Information, we read, is "intelligence," "news," "facts, "data," or "the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects."  Little help here. . . .

   Etymology takes us a step further toward this goal.  The term itself traces back to the Latin verb informare, which for Romans generally meant "to shape," "to form an idea of," or "to describe."  . . . .  These connotations [and others they discussed] passed into the earliest English uses of the verb "inform" ("to give form" or "character" to, or "imbue" with) . . . .

  Behind the late-twentieth-century idiom, then, are the historically grounded notions of information as something . . . shaped by a pattern, and something preserved, set aside from the immediacy of experience.  Each notion requires the other.  The pattern . . . is an abstraction (from the Latin verb abstrahere, “to pull,” “drag,” or “draw away from”), the produce of a reflective mental operation that fixes the flux of experience, both ordering and preserving it.  This act involves two closely intertwining movements, (1) “drawing away from” experience, such that we are no longer immersed in it and can see it from a critical perspective, and (2) “pulling” or “dragging” something out of it.  The twofold movement of abstraction is the sine qua non of information, without which it cannot exist.  The mental act implicit in the etymology of the term has become obscured by the contemporary metapphor’s . . . reach, which has extended beyond the human world into the natural one.  Long before information became the stuff of nature, it was the stuff of mind.  (3-4)

II. Albert Borgmann, Holding On To Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millenium (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999):

For Borgmann, information isn’t a thing but a relation: “INTELLIGENCE provided, a PERSON is informed by a SIGN about some THING in a certain CONTEXT” (38).


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