Among other uses, information characterises rapid social transformation associated with digital technologies and global communications (especially in late 20c compounds such as information superhighway, information age and information revolution). Yet because of information’s range of technical and general senses, in many circumstances it remains unclear exactly what information is. What information means, accordingly, is both a practical problem (for example in assessing who the rightful owners, controllers, or appropriate recipients are for whatever is called information) and also a wider social question (what kind of economic, regulatory or cultural information regime will allow societies to secure appropriate access to information as an essential quality of civil society and democracy, regardless of whether they are, in recent ‘digital divide’ thinking, information-rich or information-poor?).
The noun information (which for much of its history in English is found as both a count noun - plural ‘informations’ - and as an abstract noun) comes into English from classical Latin etymon informatio, meaning ‘formation (of an idea); conception’. In post-classical Latin the word had several meanings, including ‘teaching or instruction; creation, and arrangement’; as well as, in philosophy, ‘the process of infusion with (or crystallisation into) a form’. These senses persisted in English. But they mutated, influenced by changing use of verb inform (Latin: informare) as well as by different meanings of form itself, including the new relationship in English between form and idea in translated understandings of Plato and Aristotle.
The now rare or obsolete OED sense 7 (‘the giving of form or essential character to something; the action of imbuing with a particular quality; animation, esp. of the body by the soul’) imported into Christianity a Classical understanding of conception or arrangement as manifestation of a conceptually prior or divine origin. OED sense 4c, described as chiefly associated with the Christian Church, retains this emphasis: ‘divine influence or direction; inspiration, esp. through the Holy Spirit’. In concurrent senses, however, information did not pass from divine authority into human beings but was presented by human beings in petitions to secular, legal authority. OED sense 2 traces information from its now obsolete meaning of ‘public denunciation or accusation’, through legal ‘laying a charge’, to use for complaints that form the basis of a civil claim (legal variants which link information with intelligence and with modern informer).
The main modern senses of information (OED senses 4, 5 and 6) combine the process of informing with a product which results from such a process. Focus is typically on person-to-person human interaction, rather than on invoking divine or secular authority. But the major extensions of meaning which make information a contemporary keyword involve more recent specialization during 20c, first in technical fields then widening and overlapping in general use.
As evoked in information theory, information is attested in OED with a 1949 quotation from C. E. Shannon & W. Weaver’s Mathematical Theory of Communication: “The word information, in this theory, is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage... In fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning and the other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information.” Information in this sense is defined in statistical probabilities of occurrence of symbols, and is measured in bits: a minimal unit based on binary choice. Amounts of information are calculable, including how many exabytes of information might exist in the world; and efficiency in the transmission of information along a channel, such as a fibre-optic cable, can be assessed. This emergent information technology meaning presents ‘information’ as something abstracted from any human practice of ‘informing’ or ‘being informed’. Instead, information is a characteristic of any arrangement of signs that can be stored, viewed as a message, and transmitted in signal form; so it can – and increasingly does - pass between inanimate devices as much as between animate beings, as well as through combinations of the two.
In 20c bio-informatics, information reactivated the word’s earlier meanings of ‘formation’ and ultimately ‘form’, without necessary human creation. Instead the reference historically is more to what was considered, in 19c biology, to pass along bodily nerve fibres as a kind of relay before being represented in the brain and entertained by the mind. In modern genetics, DNA is also a kind of information, a kind that can be discovered but need not be perceived by humans in order to constitute information. Such information could be considered ‘communicated’ to human beings only in a framework of religious or Neo-platonist thinking, an implication which pulls meanings of information away from human interaction back towards earlier senses of embodiment or crystallisation of immanent form, and prompts intense debate between religious and secular positions.
During 20c, information also became a significant term in economics, especially when combined in the expression information asymmetry (e.g. by Joseph Stiglitz and co-authors). In this use, information provides a measure of relative power conferred by unequal awareness among parties to an economic transaction, with the significance that, in order to satisfy conditions of a theoretically ideal market, information flow should be abundant, ubiquitous and freely distributed. Anything less - for instance where a monopoly exists - involves a damaging transaction cost and restricts availability, compromising efficiency. At the same time, information has to be gathered and presented; so information services require incentivisation if production levels are to be assured, hence an emphasis on information value and the emergence of a field of information economics.
In these varied meanings, information makes available new contrasts with other important and problematic words competing for an area of conceptual space in English, including: communication (information accentuates what is notified rather than how something is notified); idea (information accentuates content ‘nuggets’ rather than concepts or argument); knowledge (information accentuates incremental acquisition rather than epistemological status); data (information accentuates processing – datamining - towards useful content extracted from raw material); intelligence and news (information places less emphasis on novelty); misinformation (information implies assumed accuracy); and opinion (information implicates objective rather than subjective value).
Perhaps less obviously, information now also contrasts with media. Since the 1970s, Marshall McLuhan’s “information age of the wired planet” has undergone separation of ‘message’ from ‘medium’, such that medium is now only rarely claimed to be the message. Rather, medium signifies mere carrier: cheap and convergent platforms for content that is easily transferred, edited and mixed, copied and disseminated. Prioritised instead is information as underlying resource or asset which, by being intangible, can in principle be made freely available to everyone irrespective of technicalities associated with media, or alternatively may be selectively distributed and accessed, accumulating economic value and conferring advantage if made subject to incentive and monopoly.
Alternatives here are a crucial watershed in relation to the claimed information explosion which precipitated influential verbal combinations of information with other words including storage, retrieval, processing, flow, architecture, science, and economy, as well as more distinct informatics and infosphere. Enthusiasm for social changes facilitated by information technology tends in this vocabulary towards verbal intoxication: e.g. in widespread use of internet-activist Stewart Brand’s aphorism“Information wants to be free” (convenient truncation of his published statement “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive...”); or use of the popular slogan, ‘too much information’ (TMI) as excited alternative to more formal information overload; or figurative application in non-technical contexts of the claim in physics that “information cannot travel faster than the speed of light”.
Unsurprisingly, given the complexity of present challenges, information also attracts ambivalent overtones and associations: commercially sensitive information, classified information, freedom of information and looming information warfare. Implications of each of these expressions depend on political context and viewpoint, and inevitably intersect with general political concepts including notions of value (q.v), the public interest, and competing notions of freedom (q.v).
Highly varied contemporary use of information gives expression to important tensions in how we understand what information is and how it should be used. Emergence during 20c of perhaps the widest sense of information - ‘any kind of input or event that affects the state of a dynamic organism or system’ – has clouded a historically largely settled relation, implied by communication-related uses of the word, between transmission of content and human relevance or significance. Confusion between the narrower and wider senses potentially disconnects encounters with information from active questioning of source and authority as well as from questions of significance and use. As burgeoning use of information in preference to cognate terms encroaches on the word’s surrounding lexical field, questions arise as to how everything from the human genome to celebrity (q.v) gossip can so readily be referred to as information.