DOES INFORMATION EXIST?
Only if sexuality does
"Information" may well be the most significantly *empty* word ever to findwidespread use. It refers to everything and anything, and therefore to nothing much at all. As a ballooning blank space, or hole, in our language, it allows itself to be shaped and re-shaped by the surrounding text -- or, rather, subtext -- into the form of our hopes and fears and above all our pathologies.
The remarkable thing is that we of the information age, the information society, and the information economy have chosen precisely *this* gaping vacuity as the sign of our identity, the password granting access to our emerging future.
If Only We Knew What It Meant
The virtues of this word "information" are almost past enumerating: The mathematical theory of communication has lent it an aura of absolute *rigor and precision*. (Ignore the fact that the theory explicitly pursues a precision without meaning or content.)
Cybernetics contributes a connotation of *perfect control* -- for example, cybernetic mechanisms strike their pre-ordained targets with uncanny accuracy through informational feedback. (But don't expect feedback to tell you how targets get selected or why the button is pushed in the first place.)
Systems theory and complexity theory then add the notion of *self-organizing* systems, in which information seems to stand for an in-built, self-guided, automatically functioning intelligence. (It's nice not to be responsible for *choosing* our future.)
Information is said to be the basis for invention, personal success, and commercial effectiveness. ("In the Information Age, information joins capital, labor, and land as a factor of production.") It is the raw material, or distilled essence, of knowledge and wisdom. It lends power to its possessor.
Within more systematic thought, information is variously defined as almost *any* more or less abstract, formal characteristic that can be reliably transmitted from one computer or program or mind or organism or system to another.
All this without undue worry about fine distinctions. Time was when the *sort* of information that came one's way counted for a great deal.After all, there's nothing particularly glamorous about living in an Age of Opinion, or an Age of Gossip, or an Age of Random Bits. But "information" conveniently glosses over all such distinctions; our future, it seems, lies in the electrifying presence of the bits themselves, not in any meaning they carry.
I'm a long way from being the first to point these things out. For example, Theodore Roszak, noting that "information" had come to mean "all good things to all people," went on to say: Words that come to mean everything may finally mean nothing; yet their very emptiness may allow them to be filled with a mesmerizing glamour .... People who have no clear idea what they mean by information or why they should want so much of it are nonetheless prepared to believe that we live in an Information Age, which makes every computer around us what the relics of the True Cross were in the Age of Faith: emblems of salvation.
Not that such observations have made much difference. One of the first questions any observer of contemporary society must answer is this: What does it mean that we have come to bow before an utterly empty -- or at best hopelessly obscure -- verbal icon? A visitor from another planet, scanning our speech and writing, could hardly escape being convinced that we had somehow discovered the fifth essence -- if only he could figure out what it was.
The Tyranny of Modular Language
The remainder of this essay will take the form of a review of *Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language*, by Uwe Poerksen. /1/ A linguist, Poerksen has looked at a historically recent class of words whose passage through science has given them a narrow, technical meaning, and whose re-emergence in the popular lexicon is marked by the following features, among others:
* The words now carry an aura of authority and prestige from their connection with science, and yet their meanings in popular discourse are only superficially related to the scientific ones.
* The speaker is usually helpless to define the words, whose application is remarkably diffuse. At the same time, these words gain a kind of universal, if vague, significance. And they are imperialistic, displacing synonyms that lend themselves to more finely nuanced expression.
* They re-cast history as nature, dispensing with questions of value. They permit questions only about what is and what will necessarily be, not what ought to be.
* Despite this claim to objectivity, a plus sign is usually attached to these words. That is, whatever they stand for, they tend to be self- justifying. They settle arguments without possibility of rebuttal.
"Information," as you will have recognized, exhibits all these features. Poerksen identifies some forty other plastic words, including "communication," "solution," "management," "system," "education," "structure," "problem," and "relationship." He notes how easily these words combine into "phrases that have a life of their own and do your thinking for you." George Orwell once described a writer this way: "His words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern." Poerksen adds: "Even when one has neither an overview nor any insight into a subject, one can still speak quite easily of `system' and `structures.'"
It's a useful exercise to try the many, all too natural-sounding combinations of the words listed above. Then ask yourself how well you can articulate the meanings of the various phrases.
The `Information' Module
As Poerksen reminds us, in the technical theory of communication "information" means something like the opposite of "redundancy" and "noise" In this usage, information is basically a numerical value. But that is not at all the meaning of the word in the vernacular, where, as we have seen, the usage is all over the map. Yet the technical prestige of the word is nevertheless carried over into the vernacular, where "information" is now imagined (ironically, in view of the vague meaning of the word itself) to constitute the hard core of meaning in an utterance.
Poerksen goes on:
As a result, "information" becomes superior to mere opinion, or only intuitively grounded suspicion, or even feeling. It is fortified with data. It can be checked. As a datum, it is the essence of the thing.
It opposes everything that is not information. As soon as it is quantified, its opposite inevitably becomes a zero. One begins to feel the "information gap" or the "information deficit." Something called an "information advantage" also appears. The person who possesses information has preeminence, even in the everyday world. There is such a thing as "freedom of information" and "the need for information." It is a "good," a value. What in 1830 was called "openness" by political liberals opposed to secrecy in government now becomes a demand for access to the masses of data that remain after the scientific reduction that creates "information." It becomes a right of access to the endless and impenetrable domain of verifiable facts.
It is not, I would add, that access to data has nothing to do with the qualities of a true openness. The desirability of the latter doubtless remains, at least as a half-conscious connotation, in the minds of those whose committees and foundations today are devoted to the "public's right of data access" -- just as the qualities of a true personal respect may still appeal to those who ardently defend our right to data privacy.
But the point is that the human heart of the matter -- what really counts -- has been neatly excised from the discussion by the words we feel compelled to use. We are asked to be concerned about all the information and data floating around, but we are not at all encouraged by our plastic words to be concerned about the openness and honesty and responsibility without which all the data access and data privacy in the world will leave us functioning in an unknown and alien landscape. (See "Privacy in an Age of Data" in NF #28, #29, and #30.)
One other comment about information from Poerksen. He mentions phrases like this: "The Federal Republic as an Information Society," and "the responsibilities of the postal service in an information age." The verbis missing, he observes, but in our minds we add an indicative: "The Federal Republic *is becoming* an information society." "We *find ourselves* in the information age."
But what is meant is an imperative. It's an old propaganda trick to present a desired image of the future as a present reality, the hoped-for history of tomorrow as the nature of today. We are required to accept the following: In the information age a human being is a creature in need of information.
Sexuality and Information
"Sexuality" is another of Poerksen's plastic words. He pulls off a minor coup by analyzing the usage of "sexuality" and "development" (in the former western and eastern Germany, respectively) and showing that, so far as their meaning is reflected in their pattern of usage, they mean prettymuch the same thing.
I will not linger over "development," since "information" does just as well -- such is the nature of modular words. But it will help to set our discussion of "information" briefly against a word seemingly as remote from it as "sexuality."
"Sexuality" only enters the language during the nineteenth century, when it has a purely technical (biological) meaning relating to sexual vs. asexual reproduction. In fact, it is only in the last few decades (as with most of our plastic words) that it has taken on its dominant, popular sense. Poerksen cites these two examples of the usage:
"He can't deal with his sexuality."
A 1980s novelist "pronounced that in earlier times she could never have admitted her own sexuality but had now become strong enough to live out her sexual needs even in casual relationships, since she had learned to `deal with her sexuality.'"
This "sexuality," like information, is something one *has*. Yet, the very fact that one possesses it reveals it to be something separate from the speaker, a problem that brings along its own autonomous context, for which the speaker bears little responsibility.
Like "information," "`sexuality' is cut off from the rich store of gesture, expression, and pantomime available to ordinary language; it is toneless." Clinical. It displaces other terms relating to personal connection, attraction, friendship, tenderness, love, yielding, passion. Terms that once stood on their own -- "friendship," "brotherly love," "love of humanity" -- are subverted. The new, universal explanation borne by "sexuality" begins to ride roughshod over all distinctions.
And, like "information," it has been irradiated by the authority of certain technical usages. Pre-eminently, we have the Freudian psyche "as an apparatus inside which measurable or at least estimable quantities of energy circulate." We are subject to instinctual "pressures," energy can be "repressed," and there is a "storing" and "releasing" of tension. (One might think that the human being were a kind of steam engine or hydraulic mechanism.)
In all this, what might have been most deeply rooted in the person loses its concrete historical and personal dimensions. The language "translates life stories into the terms of natural science and says that everything is basically the same."
An "I" who gives up the private quality of a relationship, its yielding, its indirection, or its immediacy, in order to speak in a possessive way of "my relationships," "my sexuality," "my overreaction" ...transforms the private sphere with an objective language that was intended for a completely different function and assumes a viewpoint distant from her own. She turns herself into an object of science. She becomes a case. In doing this, she at first gets relief, she is able to gain distance -- but she also delivers herself up to science.
Such an "I" takes an assigned place. "Did you have your orgasm?" asks the mother in a novel by John Updike. The use of the possessive pronoun is significant. It shows paradoxically that one is under the control of others. Such a word -- in fact the whole vocabulary being discussed here -- is used less to impart something in ordinary language than to serve a function .... It builds a bridge to the world of the experts. The content of the word "sexuality" is only a nebulous white spot for us, but it hints at another world in which others know more about it. Knowledgeable persons exist who can teach us how to cope with this foreign body, which they administer. Such a word increases the need for expert help.
So, too, does "information." And if you want to know who *its* premier experts are, look at any high-tech advertisement. Here's one from the magazine I'm now reading. Its headline (in a dramatically rendered font suggesting a hospital emergency room) says, "IF INFORMATION IS THE LIFEBLOOD OF YOUR BUSINESS, GET READY FOR A TRANSFUSION." The text then continues:
Consider this a triple shot of iron and adrenaline, headed right for the heart of your company's information systems. It's called the Adaptive Component Architecture from Sybase. It's a complete, integrated, end-to-end architecture for handling all your information needs, from high performance database servers to leading edge middleware and enterprise development tools. /2/
There you have it. An all-in-one information module that brings its own solutions with it and takes care of everything. The experts? Computer wizards, of course. And, heck, you've gotta admit it -- their information solution looks just about as sure, salvific, and universal as any good aphrodisiac.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As you may have noticed, I never quite answered the question of my title. Does information exist? No. Or, if you prefer, read my lips: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS INFORMATION. The sequel essay will run under that title. It's no trick either. The answer is straightforward and can be stated rigorously -- a claim, however, which you will no doubt want to judge for yourselves.
1. Poerksen, Uwe, *Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language*.
Translated by Jutta Mason and David Cayley. University Park, Penn.:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
2. I have nothing in particular against Sybase. My son, James, works for
it. It's a good company. Buy some stock. Give NETFUTURE 10 percent of
3. This post was authored by Steve Talbot.