From Academic Kids

Information is a term with many meanings depending on context, but is as a rule closely related to such concepts as meaning, knowledge, instruction, communication, representation, and mental stimulus.

Although many people speak of the advent of the "information age," the "information society," and information technologies, and even though information science and computer science are often in the spotlight, the word "information" is often used without careful consideration of the various meanings it has come to acquire.

Often information is viewed as a type of input to an organism or designed device. Inputs are of two kinds. Some inputs are important to the function of the organism (for example, food) or device (energy) by themselves. In his book Sensory Ecology, Dusenbery called these causal inputs. Other inputs (information) are important only because they are associated with causal inputs and can be used to predict the occurrence of a causal input at a later time (and perhaps another place). Some information is important because of association with other information but eventually there must be a connection to a causal input. In practice, information is usually carried by weak stimuli that must be detected by specialized sensory systems and amplified by energy inputs before they can be functional to the organism or device. For example, light is often a causal input to plants but provides information to animals. The colored light reflected from a flower is too weak to do much photosynthetic work but the visual system of the bee detects it and the bee's nervous system uses the information to guide the bee to the flower, where the bee often finds nectar or pollen, which are causal inputs, serving a nutritional function.

The most important meanings of information are identified in the following sections roughly in order of narrowest to broadest.


Information as a message

Information is a message, something to be communicated from the sender to the receiver. If information is viewed merely as a message, it does not have to be accurate. It may be a truth or a lie, or just a sound of a kiss. Strangely it may even be a disruptive noise used to inhibit the flow of communication and create misunderstanding. This model assumes a sender and a receiver, and does not attach any significance to the idea that information is something that can be extracted from an environment, e.g., through observation or measurement. Information in this sense is simply any message the sender chooses to create.

Measuring information

The view of information as a message came into prominence with the publication in 1948 of an influential paper by Claude Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication." This paper provides the foundations of information theory and endows the word information not only with a technical meaning but also a measure. If the sending device is equally likely to send any one of a set of <math>N<math> messages, then the preferred measure of "the information produced when one message is chosen from the set" is the base two logarithm of <math>N<math>. In this paper, Shannon continues:

The choice of a logarithmic base corresponds to the choice of a unit for measuring information. If the base 2 is used the resulting units may be called binary digits, or more briefly bits, a word suggested by J. W. Tukey. A device with two stable positions, such as a relay or a flip-flop circuit, can store one bit of information. N such devices can store N bits ... [The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, p. 379, (July 1948).]

A complementary way of measuring information is provided by Algorithmic information theory. In brief, this measures the information content of a list of symbols based on how predictable they are, or more specifically how easy it is to generate the list. The sequence below would have a very low algorithmic information measurement since it is a very predictable pattern, and as the pattern continues the measurement would not change. Shannon information would give the same information measurement for each symbol, since they are statistically random, and each new symbol would increase the measurement.


Also see: self-information, lexicographic information cost

Information as a pattern

Information is any represented pattern. This view assumes neither accuracy nor directly communicating parties, but instead assumes a separation between an object and its representation, as well as the involvement of someone capable of understanding this relationship. This view seems therefore to require a conscious mind. Consider the following example: economic statistics represent an economy, however inaccurately. What are commonly referred to as data in computing, statistics, and other fields, are forms of information in this sense. The electro-magnetic patterns in a computer network and connected devices are related to something other than the pattern itself, such as text to be displayed and keyboard input. Signals, signs, and symbols are also in this category. Painting and drawing contain information to the extent that they represent something such as an assortment of objects on a table, a profile, or a landscape. In other words, when a pattern of something is transposed to a pattern of something else, the latter is information. This type of information still assumes some involvement of conscious mind, of either the entity constructing the representation, or the entity interpreting it.

When one constructs a representation of an object, one can selectively extract from the object (sampling) or use a system of signs to replace (encoding), or both. The sampling and encoding result in representation. An example of the former is a "sample" of a product; an example of the latter is "verbal description" of a product. Both contain information of the product, however inaccurate. When one interprets representation, one can predict a broader pattern from a limited number of observations (inference) or understand the relation between patterns of two different things (decoding). One example of the former is to sip a soup to know if it is spoiled; an example of the latter is examining footprints to determine the animal and its condition. In both cases, information sources are not constructed or presented by some "sender" of information. To repeat, information in this sense does not assume direct communication, but it assumes involvement of some conscious mind.

Regardless, information is dependent upon, but usually unrelated to and separate from, the medium or media used to express it. In other words, the position of a theoretical series of bits, or even the output once interpreted by a computer or similar device, is unimportant, except when someone or something is present to interpret the information. Therefore, a quantity of information is totally distinct from its medium.

Information as sensory input

Information is any type of sensory input. When an organism with a nervous system receives an input, it transforms the input into an electrical signal. This is regarded information by some. The idea of representation is still relevant, but in a slightly different manner. That is, while abstract painting does not represent anything concretely, when the viewer sees the painting, it is nevertheless transformed into electrical signals that create a representation of the painting. Defined this way, information does not have to be related to truth, communication, or representation of an object. Entertainment in general is not intended to be informative. Music, the performing arts, amusement parks, works of fiction and so on are thus forms of information in this sense, but they are not forms of information according to the previous definitions above. Consider another example: food supplies both nutrition and taste for those who eat it. If information is equated to sensory input, then nutrition is not information but taste is.

Information as an influence which leads to a transformation

Information is any type of pattern that influences the formation or transformation of other patterns. In this sense, there is no need for a conscious mind to perceive, much less appreciate, the pattern. Consider, for example, DNA. The sequence of nucleotides is a pattern that influences the formation and development of an organism without any need for a conscious mind. Systems theory at times seems to refer to information in this sense, assuming information does not necessarily involve any conscious mind, and patterns circulating (due to feedback) in the system can be called information. In other words, it can be said that information in this sense is something potentially perceived as representation, though not created or presented for that purpose.

When Marshall McLuhan speaks of media and their effects on human cultures, he refers to the structure of artifacts that in turn shape our behaviors and mindsets. Also, pheromones are often said to be "information" in this sense.

In 2003, J. D. Bekenstein claimed there is a growing trend in physics to define the physical world as being made of information itself (and thus information is defined in this way).

See the section below on information as a property in physics. (Also see Gregory Bateson.)

Information as a property in physics

Main article: Physical information

Information has a well defined meaning in the field of Physics. Examples of this include the phenomenon of quantum entanglement where particles can interact without reference to their separation or the speed of light. Information itself cannot travel faster than light even even if the information is transmitted indirectly. This could lead to the fact that all attempts at physically observing a particle with an "entangled" relationship to another are slowed down, even though the particles not connected in any other way other than by the information they carry.

Another link is demonstrated by the Maxwells demon thought experiment. In this a direct relationship between information and another physical property, Entropy, is demonstrated. A consequence is that it is impossible to destroy information without increasing the entropy of a system (in practical terms this often means generating heat). Thus, in the study of logic gates, the theoretical lower bound of thermal energy released by an AND gate is more than for the NOT gate (because information is destroyed in an AND gate and simply converted in an NOT gate). Physical information is of particular importance in the theory of Quantum computers.

Etymology of "information" in English

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (, the earliest historical meaning of the word information in English was the act of informing, or giving form or shape to the mind, as in education, instruction, or training. A quote from 1387: "Five books come down from heaven for information of mankind." It was also used for an item of training, e.g. a particular instruction. "Melibee had heard the great skills and reasons of Dame Prudence, and her wise informations and techniques." (1386) The English word was apparently derived by adding the common "noun of action" ending "-ation" (descended through French from Latin "-tio") to the earlier verb to inform, in the sense of to give form to the mind, to discipline, instruct, teach: "Men so wise should go and inform their kings." (1330) Inform itself comes (via French) from the Latin verb informare, to give form to, to form an idea of. Furthermore, Latin itself already even contained the word informatio meaning concept or idea, but the extent to which this may have influenced the development of the word information in English is unclear. As a final note, the ancient Greek word for form was eidos, and this word was famously used in a technical philosophical sense by Plato (and later Aristotle) to denote the ideal identity or essence of something (see The Forms).


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