Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Conceptualization of Various and Conflicting Notions of Information

Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Conceptualization of Various and Conflicting Notions of Information

Article excerpt


The question "what is information?" seems to have no single answer in spite of a consistent stream of research work in a variety of disciplines such as biology, psychology, computer science, sociology, economics, business and management, political science, artificial intelligence, statistics, philosophy, and communication studies. A good review of the notion of information in these fields can be found in Vreeken (2002) and Callaos and Callaos (2002). Additionally, the current fundamental transformation of the world caused by information and communication technology motivates re-examination of such a basic notion. "Information is recognized, at least by some, as the third essence that supplements matter and energy in viewing the universe; it describes its structural aspects represented by patterns" (Gackowski, 2010).

The colloquial use of the term information causes uncertainty when used to mean different things to different people; nevertheless, it is important to address this notion of information because it is the heart of information technology production and processing. The aim of this paper is to offer a new approach to viewing information based on recent research in types of systems called systems of things that flow.

The direct cause of this interest in the concept of information is a notion propounded over the last ten years that views information as thing. In an article titled "Information as Thing," Buckland (1991a) states,

   Faced with the variety of meanings of "information", we can, at
   least, take a pragmatic approach. We can survey the landscape and
   seek to identify groupings of uses of the term "information". The
   definitions may not be fully satisfactory, the boundaries between
   these uses may be indistinct, and such an approach could not
   satisfy anyone determined to establish the one correct meaning of
   "information." But if the principal uses can be identified, sorted,
   and characterized, then some progress might be made.

Buckland (1991a) then identifies three principal uses: Information-as-process (inform), Information-as-knowledge (facts, news), and Information-as-thing (data and documents). Buckland argues against objections to "information" denoting a thing (e.g., Fairthorne, 1954; Machlup, 1983):

   Indeed, languages evolve and with the expansion of information
   technology, the practice of referring to communications, databases,
   books, and the like, as "information" appears to be becoming
   commoner.... Further, "information-as-thing", by whatever name, is
   of special interest in relation to information systems because
   ultimately information systems, including "expert systems" and
   information retrieval systems, can deal directly with information
   only in this sense.

Andrew Gianni (2005) describes these three uses as states of information:

   Most matter can exist in different phases or states. Molecules must
   go through a phase transition to move from one state to another. To
   compare this to information theory, consider the notion of
   information-as-knowledge and information-as-thing to be two states
   of information. Information-as-knowledge is the internal, abstract
   form of information. Information-as-thing is the external, concrete
   representation of information. Information-as-process is the means
   by which information is transferred from one state to the other.

Vreeken (2002) concludes that "information-as-thing and information-as-process are basic notions of information." Latham (2012) describes Michael Buckland's information typology as "insightful and useful for a broad understanding of what all cultural institutions have in common." According to Latham (2012),

   Starting with the "thing" we will assume it is already out there in
   the world and not be concerned yet from where it came. The person
   who perceives the "thing" goes through a process (a thought,
   comparison, fitting) from the "thing" and what it represented in
   the mind of the individual who processes it as a unique person . … 
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