Here is a scholarly paper that caught my eye. It appears in the latest issue of the journal Information; the title is “Naturalizing Information”; the author is Stanley N. Salthe, a professor emeritus of biology from Brooklyn College. It attempts to create a better-than-ever, all-purpose definition of “information.” A meta-definition, perhaps I should say. Let me just quote the opening sentences:

In this paper I forge a naturalistic, or naturalized, concept of information, by relating it to energy dissipative structures. This gives the concept a definable physical and material substrate.

The question “How do you define ‘information’?” is one that gives me the willies. I hear it often in the context of discussing my new book, The Information, which, after all, devotes 500+ pages to the subject. Sometimes I simply refer to the ultimate arbiter, the OED, which, however, requires 9,400 words to answer the question. Kevin Kelly, who put it to me during this interview, had an answer in mind already: Gregory Bateson’s famous phrase, “a difference which makes a difference.” Bateson, in turn, fashioned that clever epigram to encapsulate the mathematical definition created by Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory. (What Bateson actually wrote was: “A difference which makes a difference is an idea. It is a ‘bit,’ a unit of information.”)

What makes it frustrating for me to define information (and the reason the OED needs to go on so long) is that the word is so important in such different realms, from the scientific to the everyday. These realms are bound at the hip. But the connections aren’t always obvious.

So Salthe tries to tie them up in a package—to make, as he says, a hierarchy of definitions: “The conceptual bases for this exercise will be nothing more than two commonly recognized definitions of information—Shannon’s, and Bateson’s—together with my own, thermodynamic, definition.” The thermodynamic definition, again following Shannon, involves entropy. “My perspective,” says Salthe, “is that the evident distance from thermodynamic equilibrium of our universe is a fact that contextualizes, and subsumes everything else.” (He adds, with air quotes, “Arguing that the ‘real’ definition of information is an amalgam of all three, I find it impossible to say in a single sentence what that definition is.” To which I want to say, welcome to my world.)

From there, it gets complicated. Very complicated: to give you an idea, here is an illustration. I urge the interested reader to download the full essay. Section 6 has a title that many will consider an understatement: “Interpretation: Information Can Generate Meaning.” That is, after all, why we care. The journey from information to meaning is what matters.



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