What is Information? The Flow of Bits and the Control of Chaos

by David Sholle
Miami University

7,904 words
posted:  october 31,  1999

[This is the text of a paper presented at the Media in Transition Conference at MIT on October 8, 1999.]

The social sense-making surrounding the new information technologies is diverse and contested, but the terms of this debate are becoming circumscribed within the general notion that we have become an "information society." This discourse, in all its varieties, is shaping our very conception of the new technologies. At first glance there seems to be a set of beliefs that underpin this discourse: an economic philosophy that posits information as the source of value in a global economy; a business logic that focuses on the accumulation, production and management of data; media claims that availability and access to information technologies represent an increase in choice and freedom; political projections that computer-mediated communication networks can solve the problems of democracy in the United States; and a quasi-religious hope that technology can save us from our own excesses (Balsamo, 1998, 226 ). Although this discourse is rooted in the mythos of democracy, at the same time powerful interests are producing an immense infrastructure of technologies that will determine access to the new media and the manner in which information resources are allocated.

Pronouncements of the promises and dangers of the new information technologies (the information infrastructure, internet, digital imaging, virtual reality, etc.) now saturate our society’s public discussion and the ideological debates surrounding the use of these technologies will be instrumental in determining the direction that public and private agencies take in developing an information infrastructure. This discourse does not circulate in the sphere of "culture" as a disarticulated set of ideologies, but rather is linked with the material practices of technological, scientific and economic formations. These material practices and discourses are significantly tied together in the attempt to define and explain the contemporary social formation as "an information society." This paper is part of a larger project that will attempt to analyze this discourse in its various locations. We do not propose to present a comprehensive analysis of the discourse of the "information society" in all of its locations and trajectories. Here we will examine this "information society" discourse in its contemporary manifestations through analyzing the particular construction of the concept of "information" itself within the particular institutions of the information sciences and economic theory, not in order to examine the concept of "information" as a purely scientific term, but rather to trace how this concept of "information" is taken up in the discourse on "the information society."

Theories of the information society propose various analyses for why this designation fits contemporary society: the widespread development of informational technologies, the percentage of economic activity devoted to the processing and distribution of information, the shift to an occupational structure dominated by information work, the emergence of networks that redefine spatial arrangements through the flow of information, the saturation of the cultural environment with media representations, etc. None of these theories can do entirely without a conception of information and the construction of knowledge as meaningful activities that provide for decision-making, symbolic representation, emotional intensity and conceptual analysis. In fact, the information society is being sold to the average citizen as providing access to knowledge, meaningful dialogue and information essential to everyday decision-making. But at the same time, even within the marketing of the information society, the actual nature of the information and knowledge produced and distributed by information technology remains abstract and underdefined. Instead, government and corporate pronouncements focus on the sheer power of the network, on the technological magic of information machines, on the overall capacity of the system, on the abstract phenomenon of "being digital." One needs only to examine the shift in advertising about the net to see this. When interest in the internet first developed, corporations such as Microsoft ran ads depicting kids learning and playing, people emoting and connecting. In a few short years, net ads have shifted to depictions of complex circuitry with information represented as a glowing dot traveling through space and time within the networks of global capitalism. As a Sprint ad claims, the point of contact is upping one’s profits through the control of abstract flows of information.

The argument of this paper is that both academic and political/economic discourses on the information society are feed into the instrumental projects of developing a technological infrastructure and instituting economic practices for controlling the exchange of informational products. As such, these projects operate with a conception of information that brackets its meaning, while allowing "information as meaning" to remain as an unspoken background that seeps into their discourse. This discourse and the practices to which it is connected have profound implications for how the new technologies will be utilized.



The use of the word "information" as a descriptive adjective has exploded to the point of near absurdity: information age, information society, information economy, information superhighway, information millennium, information revolution. But what does this word "information" mean in these constructions and how did it become the new keyword of our social formation’s self-definition? At first, it appears that the definition of "information" is clear and unproblematic: we all know, in common sense, what it is. But, immediately, it becomes evident that we can’t exactly specify the term in its everyday usage, and that the term is being used in some other way when attached to the words "society, " "age," etc. In fact, it appears that "information" is either used too ambiguously, as a collection place for multiple significations that are generated in the application of the term to a bewildering range of different practices; or that "information" is used too precisely, that is, that its meaning becomes attached to narrowly specific technological functions, such as those generated in the field of information science or engineering.

As Machlup (1983, 642) has noted, the original meaning of the word "information" derives from the Latin, informare, which means "to put into form." "Informing" therefore carries the sense of "imparting learning or instruction" or more generally conveys the sense "to tell (one) of something." Thus, "information" refers to the action of informing or to that which is told. These meanings of the term are carried along with it wherever it occurs and are the basis of our commonsense notions of "information." As Webster (1995, 26-7) points out, the semantic definition of information conveys that "information is meaningful, it has a subject, it is intelligence or instruction about something or someone." When we talk of an "information society" it is these connotations of "information" that we would expect to be discussing.

However, it is this commonsense definition of information that is sidestepped in the fields of cognitive science, information theory, cybernetics, etc. Here, information does not have a semantic content. In other words, the dominant conception of information within the technical, scientific and economic institutions that are instrumental in defining "the information society," is one in which information is emptied of any relation to "meaning." Within the limits of specific disciplines this nonsemantic use of the term "information" is, at times, applied in a carefully circumscribed manner, but each of these fields undergo an extension in which they apply themselves to processes where the semantic definition of information normally holds sway. This creates a confusion of levels, one in which meaningful activities are reduced to non-meaningful ones. In each of these disciplines the term "information" is applied metaphorically to processes that involve a flow, impulse, etc. But it seems unavoidable that some of the "meaning" component of the term "information" carries over into the characterization of the processes.


This can be compared to the circular reasoning that occurs in some work in Artificial Intelligence. The mind and computer are defined in a circular loop: the computer thinks like the human mind, the human mind is like a computer. Just so, in the information sciences, phenomena such as activating impulses, signal transmissions, etc. are analyzed as informational. Then the feedback loops, binary switching, etc. of these machine actions are used to analyze the semantic informational processes of human communication. I want to be clear that I am not claiming that there are no interconnections between these phenomenon, nor that the common sense definition of "information" is somehow superior. Rather, the problem is the way in which "information" itself becomes a master concept. We will argue that these definitional ruminations are not insignificant quibbling but rather, are crucial to the formation of the "information society," since the very conception and forging of this construction is rooted in the technological and economic formation of a conjuncture of sciences united through the model of information processing. Again, I am not proposing that all informational sciences can be lumped into a corporate driven project, nor that abstract or metaphorical applications of the term "information" are not useful. Afterall, the extension of concepts into new domains can fruitfully open up unseen connections that advance the diversity of knowledge. What I am examining is how easy it is it elide the metaphorical nature of concepts and begin to unreflectively apply them to diverse phenomenon in a way that truncates instead of expands our understanding.

In order to get a handle on the usage of "information" we need to situate the term historically within the forces of technology and language that have constructed it as the linchpin of our present social, political and economic terrain. We, first, need to recognize that historically "information" holds little significance in Western history as a term of broad definitional power. Western philosophy, for instance, foregrounds "knowledge" as its keyword within the broader project of epistemological grounding (tied to the material projects of the domination of nature and the conceptualization of the human individual as juridical, political and economic subject). "Information" emerges as a key word only in the mid-20th century as industrial capitalism grapples with the incorporation of "intelligence" into its machine tools, the production of consumption through the "intelligence gathering" of marketing, and as modern scientific thought re-forms itself around the technology of the computing machine. Within the context of these economic and technological developments the stance toward epistemological questions shifts away from preoccupations with referentiality, transcendental grounds and rational synthesis towards the project of building a cognitive science in which the concern is not with representation by knowledge but representation of knowledge (Machlup & Mansfield, 1983, 34). Although, as we will see, there are connections between cognitive science, information theory, and cybernetics to philosophies of mind dating as far back as Descartes, we should not underestimate the significance of the influence of these "information processing" fields on the reconceptualization of information and knowledge.



Why have we become an "information" society? Why not a "knowledge" society, an "intelligence" society, an "understanding" society, a "communication" society? We should consider that it may not be helpful at all to distinguish between these terms in the first place. It may be that the territory that they enclose are better seen from another territory outside of this sphere of the projection and reflection of the mind. That being said, the information sciences have continually distinguished between information and knowledge. Generally, "information" and "knowledge" are distinguished along three axis: 1) multiplicity-- Information is piecemeal, fragmented, particular. Knowledge is structured, coherent and universal. 2) the temporal-- information is timely, transitory, even ephemeral. Knowledge is enduring and temporally expansive. 3) the spatial-- information is a flow across spaces. Knowledge is a stock, specifically located, yet spatially expansive. In summary, information is conceived of as a process, whereas Knowledge is a state (Machlup, 1983, 642).

It can be seen that within this model the assumption is that information is the building block underlying the process of knowledge construction. Information is elemental and takes up a position akin to energy in the discipline of physics. It is this discovery of the elemental nature of information within a complex range of phenomena that serves as the self-defined originary moment of the development of the information sciences.


The Conjunction of Sciences

Sometime in the period immediately following the Second World War, information became the key term that united a diverse number of technical and scientific disciplines: biology, cognitive science, information science, computer science, the psychology of the brain, physics, economics, etc. The exact historical development of the conjuncture of sciences around the term "information" has not yet been precisely located. Some scholars believe that the roots of this conjuncture were first formulated within the discipline of symbolic logic (in the 1930’s) which reoriented logic away from concerns with the material representation of reality toward a focus on purely formal criteria and rules. As Pylyshyn notes,

"this work made precise the notion of formal mechanism or a mechanism or process that functions without the intervention of an intelligence or any natural being and yet can be understood without knowing about any of its physical properties. In making this notion precise, these studies laid the foundations for a way of conceptualizing a wide range of problems in many different areas of intellectual endeavor-- from philosophy of mind and mathematics to engineering, and including almost every facet of social and biological science" (1983, 64).

But the real takeoff of these disciplines required the intervening necessity of economic and political forces surrounding World War II and its aftermath. It is no coincidence, that the same scientists who formulated the various information sciences and proposed the primacy of information as the linking element within all formal mechanisms were directly or indirectly involved in the war effort and in the development of the resulting technologies for peacetime economic practices. It is to these pivotal disciplines that we now turn.


A. Cybernetics

Cybernetics, as conceived by Norbert Weiner in the 1940’s, is a master science founded on the issues of control and communication. It is concerned with self-correcting and self-regulating systems, be they mechanical or human; and most importantly posits that the functioning of the living organism and the operation of the new communication machines exhibit crucial parallels in feedback, control, and the processing of information (Gardner, 1987, 20-21). Cybernetics has evolved into a field of competing interpretations, some of which attempt to construct open-systems. However, the strain of cybernetics taken up by the dominant economic and scientific institutions has produced, at best, a contradictory stance toward open-systems. The glowing utopian image of this cybernetics, with its claim of two-way reciprocal interaction, is belied by its conceptualization within "human engineering", "focusing on mechanisms of steering, governing, or control" (Pfohl, 1997, 116).

This is evidenced in the success of cybernetic conceptualizations in the development of military targeting and communication machines which were extended to other spheres of broader significance. For example, cybernetisist, Waddington, "facilitated a general transference of methods associated with operations research in military organizations to the emergent field of molecular biology, where a new image of the body as an information-driven communications system was already beginning to take hold" (Pfohl, 121). This extension of cybernetics fit well with Wiener’s overall goals. As Roszak notes, "Wiener was claiming nothing less than that, in perfecting feedback and the means of rapid data manipulation, the science of cybernetics was gaining a deeper understanding of life itself as being, at its core, the processing of information" (1986, 9).

In order to serve as the basis of this new science, information must be conceived as discrete bundles, physically decontextualized and fluidly moving. For ultimately, the control processes of complex systems are a matter of regulated feedback which requires that processes of communication be conceived of as exchanges (This serves as the basis for the notion of a cybernetic capitalism, a capitalism dependent to a far greater extent on the control of exchanges at their molecular level). Within this cybernetic model, feedback is not free and equal; rather it is governed by the system’s constant battle with entropy, chaotic disorganization or noise (Pfohl, 126). Thus, information becomes a means of mapping space and time through the control of communicative feedback, a defining characteristic of information that we will see repeated in other disciplines such as economics and communication science. Further, economic and life processes are brought together as formally ruled by the same information processes, equally part of a natural system of spatial and temporal flows.


B. Systems Theory

Systems Theory begins in application to mathematical modeling, but eventually becomes proposed as an extensive model encompassing cybernetics, information science, and indeed all other disciplines. Most significant for this analysis is the manner in which systems theory has been applied to the social sciences. Within the systems theory view, one major model of information is what Langlois (1983, 586) calls the "oil-flow" model. Here, information is seen as an undifferentiated fluid that courses through society’s communication circuits. This fluid gets stored up in a tank, which we can then measure as the amount of knowledge a society has. This tank then serves as a reservoir for control.

Within systems theory (like cybernetics), information and control are closely related concepts. As Finley (1987, 163) notes, "the role of systems knowledge practices is to find order in the world, to find universal laws that circumscribe the system, and never to yield to the appearance of chaos." This view obviously has resonated with those who see the information infrastructure as a means to increase the capacities of corporations to monitor and control the market (the measure of their knowledge). In fact, we shall see that information economics derives its terms from systems theory and the other information sciences. In contradistinction to its model of information as commodity, it also treats information as a lubricant that functions within the feedback mechanism through which markets are controlled. But as Giddens notes, the model of feedback derived from General Systems Theory is inadequate for dealing with the self-regulation of human action.

"A specific version of cybernetic information control has quite recently been introduced into the social sciences by Parsons. Here it is assumed that hierarchies of control can be discerned in social systems, in which the controlling elements are values, with social, economic relations... But, values cannot anyway serve as ‘information regulators’ in the sense which is demanded in systems theory: as control centres which process information so as to regulate feedback" (1977, 116).

For Giddens, systems theory reduces the self-reflexive monitoring of action among human agents to principles of teleology that function within mechanistic systems.

As Langlois points out this reduction in systems theory is tied to the oil-flow model of information. Contrary to this model, he posits that information is not homogeneous: "meaning is a matter of form not of amount; and the value or significance of a message depends as much on the preexisting form of the receiver as on the message itself. Information is stored as knowledge in a system not as oil is stored in a tank, but by virtue of the change that information makes in the very organization of the system itself" (1983, 593). Such a model of information would imply that disorganization is an integral process within the very formation of knowledge, because, if non-mechanistic change is an inherent factor in organization itself, then the disruptive potential of chaos is also ever-present in the system.


C. Computer Sciences

A similar approach to information has developed within the parallel fields of computer science, informatics and the specific areas of cognitive science that approach artificial intelligence from the perspective of computation. Cognitive science is "the domain of inquiry that seeks to understand intelligent systems and the nature of intelligence" and it does so through an analysis of the human mind in terms of information process (Simon, 1980, 35). Philosophical arguments about the nature of knowledge are mirrored in the cognitive sciences. As Gardner notes, the classic arguments between rationalists (where the mind exhibits powers of reasoning which it imposes on the world) and empiricists (where mental processes either reflect, or are constructed on the basis of , external sensory impressions) are revived in the debate between cognitivists and behaviorists. Cognitivists generally embrace some form of rationalism (Gardner, 1987, 53). The problem for rationalists, since Descartes, is bridging the gap between the rational mind and the mechanical body. As Gardner posits, Descartes is arguably the first cognivist, basing his theory on an "information processing" device:

"Descartes’ diagram showed how visual sensations are conveyed, through the retinas, along nerve filaments, into the brain, with signals from the two eyes being reinverted and fused into a single image on the pineal gland. There, at an all-crucial juncture, the mind (or soul) could interact with the body, yielding a complete representation of external reality" (1987, 51).

From this, we can move rather easily to interpreting the information flows within a machine to those that circulate in the mind/body.

Thus, the current wave of information science is not so far away from the traditional logic of science, where "the input of data, the raw material, is worked over by the axiomatic of the system, yielding an output of truths, goods or wealth" (Feenberg, 1991, 111). All of this occurs outside of the inhabited world of human action; it is a process in which information can be handled as the formal expression of knowledge and thus, as something that can exist independently of human beings (Leeuwis, 1993, 29). As Machlup and Mansfield show, the computer science model of information treats information in the same manner as physics treats energy: it focuses on the representation, storage, manipulation and presentation of information within automatic processing systems. "As physics uses energy transforming devices, computer science uses information transforming devices" (1983, 23).


Under this model, computer science is able to transpose terms that apply to computers with those that apply to the human brain, and vice versa. Thus, terms such as memory, storage, thinking, bit, content, transmission, etc. are applied with no distinction to communication between machines, between humans, or between humans and machines (Leeuwis, 1993, 31). The model of communication applied within this information transforming process is the basic sender-signal-channel-receiver model. Lakoff refers to this as the conduit metaphor of communication which is based in a general metaphor for mind,

"in which ideas are taken as objects and thought as the manipulation of objects. An important part of this metaphor is that memory is ‘storage.’ Communication in that metaphor is the following: ideas are objects that you can put into words (or store as bits), so that language is seen as a container for ideas, and you send ideas in words over a circuit, a channel of communication to someone else who then extracts the ideas from the words" (Lakoff, 1995, 116).

Again, this implies that the ideas can be extracted and can exist independently of people, in a computer, for example. As a result, information and its processing (information worked up through manipulations, reorderings, hierarchies) can exist in a disembodied form (It should be noted that such a conception is belied by other strains of cognitive science itself that have shown how reasoning processes are embodied, that in fact, human beings think through schemas that are spatially mapped in accordance with body orientations).

Once again, the computer science model of information separates information and knowledge on the three axis we noted earlier. Information is present in discrete transitory bits which flow across spatial domains. But in this model, knowledge is not only the output of the system, it is built into the system in the form of programs. Thus, knowledge is encoded into bits in a form that works with the hardware and software of the computer system, the implication being that the knowledge stored up in the computer processes raw data into information. The computer’s processor becomes in effect, Descartes’ pineal gland.


D. Information Theory

In the late 1930’s, Claude Shannon, usually credited as the founder of information theory, "saw that the principles of logic (in terms of true and false propositions) can used to describe the two states (on and off) of electromechanical relay switches. Shannon suggested that electrical circuits (of the kind in a computer) could embody fundamental operations of thought" (Gardner, 1987, 21). In the 1940’s, working on the engineering problems of signal transmission, Shannon and Weaver further developed the key notion of information theory: that information can be thought of as divorced from the specific content of a message. Instead, information can be defined as simply the "single decision between two equally plausible alternatives" (21). As a result, the basic unit of information is designated as "the bit." This conception of information becomes crucial within the other information sciences in that it exceptionalizes information. As Wiener explains, "Information is information, not matter or energy" (1961, 132).

This content-blind conception of information is clearly evident in the thinking of those general theorists who have attempted to define "the information society" (Bell, Toffler, Piore, Porat, etc.). As Webster describes it,

"searching for quantitative evidence of the growth of information, a wide range of thinkers have conceived it in the classic terms of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s (1964) information theory. In this theory information is a quantity which is measured in bits and defined in terms of the probabilities of occurrence of symbols. This approach allows the otherwise vexatious concept of information to be mathematically tractable" (Webster, 1995, 27).

Information, again, takes on an elemental quality, akin to matter or energy. As Stonier (1990, 21) puts it, "information exists. It does not need to be perceived to exist. It does not need to be understood to exist. It requires no intelligence to interpret it. It does not have to have meaning to exist. It exists."

It should be noted that Shannon never intended his model to be extended into characterizations of information in domains where its content was in question. In fact, he suggested that communication might be the better term, since it did not necessarily imply a sender and receiver of a message, as in the usage "communicable disease." But "information" stuck and became the keyword across the disciplines we have been discussing. Information, so defined, has become a singular element with unique properties that can thus, be separated from the social processes underlying it. As Webster points out, "If this definition of information is the one which pertains in technological and spatial approaches to the "information society" (where the quantities stored, processed and transmitted are indicative of the sort of indexes produced) we come across a similar elision of meaning from economist’s definitions. Here it may not be in terms of ‘bits’, but at the same time the semantic qualities are evacuated and replaced by the common denominator of price" (1995, 28). Thus, there is a definitional isomorphism between information as the flow of discrete bits and information as commodity.

As scientific and technical fields converged around "information", its spatial-temporal location is further and further displaced as it becomes conceived of as a sheer "existence," a form or process evident across phenomena as diverse as electronic signal flows, human brain functions, and the genetic code of DNA. As Roszak notes, "In the course of the 1950’s, information had come to be identified with the secret of life. By the 1970’s, it had achieved an even more exalted status. It had become a commodity-- the most valuable commodity in business" (1986, 20).



In parallel with these developments in the information sciences, neoclassical economic theory has attempted to incorporate "information" into the lexicon of its discipline. In fact, unbeknownst to most communication scholars, the neoclassical economic tradition has attempted to claim that information and communication processes are best explained with the categories of neoclassical economics, and are in fact, subsets of these economic processes. Babe characterizes this as economic imperialism, in which a diverse set of phenomena are grafted into economic analysis, because, in the economists reasoning, "all behavior involving scarce resources can be illuminated by neoclassical price theory" (1994, 41). Ultimately, it is claimed that information activity is a transactional activity; one that, at its core, can be defined as simply coterminous with commodity exchange. In order to carry out this grafting of information into the logic of exchange processes, economics needs a definition of information that can be dealt with under the terms of equivalency, and which can yield measurements in terms of exchange and price. The commonsense definition of information, in which information is a heterogeneous object or process, does not comply with these needs.

As a result, neoclassical theory actually begins with the notion of "information" as defined within the information sciences and transmutes it into economic terms. As we have already noted, economists empty information of its semantic content. In this regard, price becomes equivalent to "the bit," in that information is reduced to a homogeneous form characterized as discrete atomic units. Thus, the meaning (content) of information is set aside as extraneous to the determination of its value in terms of quantitative measures. Further, as in cybernetics, information is at the same time conceived of as a flow ; but here, this is seen within spatial and temporal dimensions defined in terms of the market. Information is the "energy" in the system that functions within the control processes of cybernetic capitalism. Like systems theory, information is conceived as an element of control within a complex system. The enemy of the smoothly functioning market system is disorganization, noise, chaos.

Economics focuses on the exceptional nature of information, an "exceptionalism" which is defined in terms of the preceding concepts. Information is so distinct, so unique within the processes of capitalism that it requires a different form of analysis and, in fact, takes up a unique existence within capitalism. The positing of a set of "inherent characteristics" of information leads to the notion that information production is radically different from all other forms of production. Thus, information supplants capital and labor (Schiller, 1996, 167). Kenneth Boulding extends this claim in "substituting the triad know-how, energy and matter for the traditional land, labor and capital as basic factors of production. He contends that similarities become evident in developmental processes of biological, societal and physical systems" (Babe, 1994, xi). The information present in the coded patterns of DNA is the same information that directs energy in the transformation of materials into products. Information is the secret of life-- genetic and economic. However, as we shall see, information, though exceptional, is, also, simply a commodity. So, information is unique enough to displace Marx’s categories of analysis of capitalism, but not so unique as to fall outside of the purview of neoclassical categories of price, supply and demand, and exchange (we will see in a moment why information has this double existence in neoclassical economic theory).


Two Forms Of Information In Information Economics

Information takes up at least two functions in contemporary economic processes: 1) it is a resource that provides input into the production process of other commodities and into the control of the market itself. 2) it is an output that is materialized and sold as a commodity. Within both incarnations, information is taken as a nonsemantic entity or activity whose "work" can be priced.

1. Information and the Reduction of Uncertainty

One of the preeminent "information society" proponents, Daniel Bell, declares that "By information I mean data processing in the broadest sense; the storage, retrieval, and processing of data becomes the essential resource for all economic and social exchanges. These include: data processing of records... data processing for scheduling... data bases" (quoted in Schiller, 1996, 168, ). Bell is pointing to the function of information in providing the basis for knowledge of the market, one of the key components of cybernetic capitalism. Up until the 1970’s this was the key focus of information economics-- determining information’s place in market performance. As Lamberton (1994, 12) notes, "It (information) reduced uncertainty for the firm and for the consumer, both of whom could therefore make decisions. This was basically the information-as-oil viewpoint." Here, information is the lubricant in the market. This notion of reducing uncertainty fit well with the information sciences viewpoint of information as defined by its existence as a bit-- in Shannon’s formulation, a single decision between two equally plausible alternatives.

The uncertainty referred to in these formulations is the uncertainty of price. Babe documents how the neoclassical economists grafted information into the price system:

"Hayek (1945) too lauded the informational properties of the price system, viewing prices as ‘quantitative indices’ (or ‘values’) . Each index or price Hayek contended should be understood as concentrated information reflecting the significance of any particular scarce resource relative to all others. The index of price borne by each commodity, Hayek enthused, permits autonomous economic agents to adjust their strategies ‘without having to solve the whole puzzle [input-output matrix] ab intitio "(1994, 47).

Prices, then, are information. Here, information is reduced to the sphere of problem solving and decisionistics, a sphere that obviously points to the computer as the processing device that promises to impose order and hierarchy onto quantities of atomized items. Krippendorf, discussing information in the context of general communication processes, defines information in much the same way: it is a change in an observer’s state of uncertainty. He then makes the same move we have seen time and time again-- information is compared to energy. "Energy and information are measures of work. But whereas energy is a measure of the physical work required to transform matter of one form into matter of another, information is a measure of the (intellectual) work required to distinguish, to a degree better than chance, among a set of initially uncertain possibilities" (1984,50).

Reducing the uncertainty of a situation involves delimiting the possible choices by considering them in terms of the probabilities of outcomes. For the information economists this means that information is only information when it reduces the complexity of the decision-making process. Thus, business depends upon the preprocessing of information, controlling the amount of information by eliminating the unnecessary. As Gandy notes, for Beniger, this serves as a definition of rationalization within economic bureaucracy, "that is, rationalization, as preprocessing might be defined as the destruction or ignoring of information in order to facilitate its processing" (1993, 42). Once again, information is linked to control, but this time through a process of standardization which closes off certain paths through which the information might flow. If information still has a semantic content, which it does appear to in this case, then the preprocessing of information shuts off certain paths of meaning, it territorializes and closes off certain possible forces and practices. In economic practices this facilitates routinization, the reduction of skills, stereotyped reactions, the pre-formation of demand and the channeling of information resources into methods for structuring production, distribution and consumption.


2. Information as Commodity

In the second economic definition of information it is conceptualized as a commodity. This is a key element within the discourse of the "information society", for the dominant conceptualization of this new form of sociality is described as one in which information work and information products have replaced the industrial form. In addition, it is the vast array of information commodities produced within the information economy that is the key selling point of this digital age. The selling of information commodities requires considerations of their value as "meaning" to the consumer (whether corporate or private individual). The originality, innovation, and power of particular information commodities, as well as their packaging seems to be a major part of marketing these products. However, ironically, it is these very claims that produce problems for information economics, for its homogeneous conception of information falls flat when confronted with the heterogeneous qualities of information commodities. The economic rationality behind the information society/economy discourse would like to conceive of all forms of information as homologous "in the monetary sense of easy conversion from one form into another" (Boyle, 1996, 7).

The impetus is for information commodities to escape any particular form, i.e., for the informational message to float free of any specific medium and to thus, become transferable into as many contexts as possible. Thus, the information society/economy promises a convergence of technologies where print, audio, video, film, and graphic representation appear and reappear in various forms and formats. The first form of economic information, the reduction of uncertainty, creates the conditions for the production of such commodities. This is what Boyle calls "perfect information"-- free, complete, instantaneous and universally available-- an uninhibited flow of information that serves as the lubricant for market activity. But information also needs to be treated "as a good within the perfect market, something that will not be produced without incentives. This requires a restriction on the form of information-- it must be conceived as a finite good, one whose exchange value can be determined and "deliberately restricted in its availability" (Boyle, 1996, 29).

As Morris-Suzuki (1997, 17) explains, "the special properties of knowledge (its lack of material substance; the ease with which it can be copied and transmitted) mean that it can only acquire exchange value where institutional arrangements confer a degree of monopoly power on its owner". The problems for information economics are further laid out by Morris-Suzuki (62): information can be copied and reproduced at low cost, it is never consumed, determining its price is nearly impossible to calculate because the buyer cannot know the content until they have bought it, the monopoly of particular information is extremely difficult to maintain (it tends to "flow back into the public domain"). These properties are clearly illustrated by the example of software, where the lines between the public stock of social knowledge, the originary "intelligence" behind the design, and the encoding of this onto a "hard" object are nearly completely blurred.


For the producer of the commodity the meaning of the product is inessential within the exchange process itself, its existence as information consists of the fact it can be encoded, reproduced and exchanged as a commodity. The producer would sell each bit of information at the same price if they could and, in fact, they attempt to do just this in certain sectors of the information economy. However, from the consumer’s perspective it is the meaning of the information that is being purchased (at least this is a major factor in the demand for consumer entertainment/information products), and so, the distinction of products in terms of the knowledge they contain is always pertinent to the producer. But ultimately, the use value of commodities in terms of their meaning complicates the measurement of value in terms of price. Thus, the producer must come up with strategies to control the exchange of these information commodities. There are a number of possible strategies in this regard:

1) Standardize and make equivalent the various products. The modern video store illustrates this principle, where the information’s value seems to be determined by its ability to occupy a certain amount of the consumer’s disposable time. The only distinction made in the products’ pricing is that the most recent information is given a slightly higher value.

2) Sell the information flow, not the specific contents-- The World Wide Web, at the present time, illustrates this strategy. The consumer purchases access to information as an abstraction (in most cases). It is this vision of having access to a flow of information that encourages society as a whole to conceive of information along the same lines as the information scientists and economists: information as a flow of discrete bundles (bits) (thus, the pay per call, pay per view, pay per bit model) (Mosco, 1989).

3) Produce ephemeral information that must be consumed over and over-- In the digital networks information appears, disappears and reforms, requiring a continual return on the part of the consumer. A reverse way of looking at this is through the lens of the "perpetual innovation" economy.

4) Redistribute the information in as many forms as possible-- Once produced, the meaning of the product (such as a film) becomes secondary, its exchange value is determined by its reproducibility within a variety of packages and in a variety of markets. This repackaging makes calculating value much more manageable .

5) Equalize, standardize (yet marginally individuate), format the content-- information processing enhances the ability to reduce information to schemas and predetermined patterns, again serving to bracket the significance of the information’s value as meaning.

6) Process the consumer’s behavior-- the information industry automates the process of marketing, enabling the production of personal behavior databases. The use of information processing and modeling to predetermine audience response is an example of this process.


None of these strategies, in themselves, can solve the problems of determining the value of information or the problems of producing profit in a "knowledge economy." As Davis and Stack (1997, 132) note, "the easy replicability of the digital product poses a quandary for capitalists-- how to deliver digital products while still enforcing ownership and control of distribution when copying is virtually free and exact." The answer, currently, lies in the reworking of the laws of "intellectual property"-- A reworking of the notion of the ownership of content that is based in the definitions of information that we have been examining. The ownership rights must be shifted from the content as "idea"-- the meaning constructed within and through the social knowledge of the public-- to the "expression"-- the reworking and reordering of that knowledge (see Boyle, 1996, 57).

Through this process accumulated social knowledge is privately appropriated for profit. As Morris-Suzuki explains, out of informal and formal social knowledge (publicly paid for)

"corporations produce private knowledge, from which they extract monopoly profits. Eventually, the monopoly is eroded as patents and copyright expire, or as new products and techniques become widely known and imitable. Information seeps back into the expanding pool of social knowledge, but, in the meanwhile, the corporation has accumulated increased resources which enable it to move forward into a new cycle of private knowledge creation" (1997, 66).

The emerging copyright and intellectual property laws will help cement this process and extend its scope. The juridical formation of property rights will depend on a legal translation of the contradictory definitions of information that we have analyzed.



Ultimately, the complex processes and problems of the information economy are clouded in a veil of fetishism. Digital information is conceived of as an inexorable force that will finally enable a faithful representation of reality-- both the reality of the external world and the reality of the processes of the market. Information, as the digital rendering of the skills and social knowledge of laborers, is programmed into automatic machinery. Information, as consumer data, is input into "the difference machine that sorts individuals into categories and classifications on the basis of routine measurements’ (Gandy, 1993, 15). Information, as measurement of the rise and fall of market fluctuations, is encoded and processed as feedback crucial for the control of market chaos. Just as Descartes’ pineal gland provided a space for the merging of soul and body, thus enabling the complete representation of external reality; the computer bridges the gap between the physical body of actual material relations and exchanges and the invisible hand(soul) of the market. The computer is the pineal gland of cybernetic capitalism.

The humanistic critique of information theory would emphasize the destruction of meaning that it engenders; the reduction of human thought to binary switching, when it should instead be thought of as a public activity-- a social accomplishment; the de-emphasis on knowledge in favor of information, which blocks critical and conceptual thinking, for information cannot make sense of that which has lost it; the reduction of information to the status of commodity, leading to the appropriation of socially produced knowledge and further, to the modeling of all human practices within the logic of exchange.

These are all valid criticisms and evaluations of information science and information economics, but they are limited to the sphere of the projection and reflection of the mind. These analyses need then to be connected to the sphere of mobility and fluidity, particularly in relation to the processes of labor. As Negri put it, informatics becomes accentuated as capital develops a need for "innovation in the instruments and processes controlling the circulation and reproduction of the factors of capital and to the diffuse mechanization involved in the technological control of socialised work" (1978, 235, 254). Thus, information becomes the control mechanism within the "workerless factory," it enables operations to disperse in search of cheap sources of labor, it enables surveillance of the work place and automation of formally skilled tasks through the implementation of "intelligent agents." In short, "the stark goals of control and reduction in the costs of labor" (254) are central to the "information society."


But the information economy is not simply an extension of capital in a smooth transition from its industrial mode of production, it is as much a response to loss of control, to disorganization and noise endemic to the process of accumulation. As Witheford states,

"To coordinate its diffused operations and activate its huge technological apparatus, capital must interlink computers, telecommunications and media in ever-more convergent systems, automating labor, monitoring production cycles, streamlining turnover times, tracking financial exchanges, scanning and stimulating consumption in the attempt to synchronize and smooth the flow of value through its expanded circuits (1994, 101).

This trajectory of information in the disposition of labor and material organization does not overturn or simply lie beside the analysis of the trajectory of information as projection of mind, rather it can be seen to redirect it toward a third trajectory-- a spatial and temporal logic.

Information science operates with a binary logic of reflection which results in multiple paths, but these paths are always circumscribed by laws of combination (Deleuze, & Guattari, 1987). In this manner the fragmented space and time of information flows is reordered and directed toward specific objectives. But the objectives of information processing within the capitalist dynamic are not end points-- they are aimed at an accumulation of knowledge that is always an impetus for further accumulation, for multiplying the flow, opening out into every horizon. But this flow is at the same time stored up in a central memory which traces the exact paths of this flow, connecting geographic spaces and matching up the temporal locations of dispersed market centers. This central memory system functions through command trees, centered systems and hierarchical structures that attempt to fix possible pathways of the network and thus to limit the possible variations immanent in the network. The definitions of information formulated within information science and information economics derive from and serve this modeling of the system. As we have seen, information defined as nonsemantic discrete bits flowing across space and then directed and stored substantiates information as the object of control. Thus, the enemy of the information scientists and economists is heterogeneity, disorganization, noise, chaos. They want an uninterrupted flow, but at the same time a destruction of the unnecessary. This encloses or territorializes information; it becomes a part of capitalism’s mapping of space and time. But what we have found is that information’s function is precisely to disorganize, interrupt, to remain itself and at the same time to disperse. Information may, in fact, be a keyword connecting the phenomenon we have examined, but not as an element, nor as a content, but as a heterogeneous remapping of space and time. If the information society is to be our society, let it be disorganized.



Babe, R.E. (1994) Information and communication in economics. Boston: Kluwer.

Balsamo, A. (1998). Myths of information: The cultural impact of new information. In A.L. Porter & W.H. Read (Eds.), The Information revolution: Current and future consequences (225-235).Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

Boyle, J. (1996). Shamans, software and spleens: Law and the construction of the information society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Davis, J & Stack, M. (1997). The digital advantage. In J. Davis, et al. (Eds.), Cutting edge: Technology, information capitalism and social revolution (121-144). London: Verso.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Feenberg, A. (1991). Critical Theory of Technology. New York: Oxford University.

Finley, M. (1987). Powermatics: A discursive critique of new communication technology. New York: Routledge.

Gandy, Oscar. (1993). The panoptic sort. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Gardner, H. (1987). The mind’s new science: A history of the cognitive revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Giddens, A. (1977). Studies in Social and Political Theory. New York: Basic Books.

Krippendorf, K. (1984). Paradox and information. In B. Dervin & M. Voight (Eds.), Progress in communication sciences , Vol 5 (45-72). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Lakoff, G. (1995). Body, brain and communication. In J. Brook & I. Boal (Eds.), Resisting the virtual life (115-130). San Francisco: City Lights.

Lamberton, D.McL. (1994). The information economy revisited. In R.E. Babe (Ed.), Information and communication in economics (1-33). Boston: Kluwer.

Langlois, R. (1983). Systems theory, knowledge and the social sciences. In F. Machlup & U. Mansfield (Eds.), The study of information: Interdisciplinary Messages (581-600). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Leeuwis, C. (1993). Of computers, myths and modeling. Netherlands: Agricultural University Wageningen.

Machlup, F. (1983). Semantic quirks in studies of information. In F. Machlup & U. Mansfield (Eds.), The study of information: Interdisciplinary Messages (641-671). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Machlup, F. & Mansfield, U. (1983). The study of information: Interdisciplinary Messages . New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (1997). Robots and capitalism. In J. Davis, et al. (Eds.), Cutting edge: Technology, information capitalism and social revolution (13-28). London: Verso.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (1997). Capitalism in the computer age and afterword. In J. Davis, et al. (Eds.), Cutting edge: Technology, information capitalism and social revolution (57-72). London: Verso.

Mosco, Vincent. (1989). The Pay-Per society. Toronto: Garamond Press.

Pfohl, S. (1997). The cybernetic delirium of Norbert Wiener. In A. Kroker & M. Kroker (Eds.), Digital Delirium (114-131). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Negri, A. (1978). La classe ouvriere contre l’etat. Paris: Edition Galilee.

Pylyshyn, Z.W. (1983). Information science, its roots and relations as viewed from the perspective of cognitive science. In F. Machlup & U. Mansfield (Eds.), The study of information: Interdisciplinary Messages (63-80). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Roszak, T. (1986). The Cult of Information. New York: Pantheon.

Schiller, D. (1996). Theorizing communication. New York: Oxford University.

Simon, H.A. (1980). Cognitive science: The newest science of the artificial. Cognitive Science, 4, 33-46.

Stonier, T. (1990). Information and the internal structure of the universe: An exploration into information physics. Springer-Verlag.

Webster, F. (1995). Theories of the information society . New York : Routledge.

Wiener, N. (1961). Cybernetics, or control and communication in animal and machine, 2nd Ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT press

Witheford, N. (1994). Autonomist marxism and the information society. Capital & Class, 52, 85-125).


<<Back to Media in Transition Conference Papers Menu
<<Back to Articles Page