Tuesday, March 03, 2015

What is information?

So what is information? It's really tough to come up with a definition. We know that the word comes from a root basically meaning that we are informed (i.e., it's related to a change in the state of a person). We also know that information is subject to quality breakdown in transmission and reception (i.e., Information Theory). And we know that there is a cost to managing information.

There are, however, some other perspectives. Buckland, for example, distinguishes "information-as-process" from "information-as-knowledge" and "information-as-thing."

  • Information-as-process really refers to the process of being informed such as when the knowledge state of someone changes.
  • Information-as-knowledge is really "that which is perceived" in "information-as-process." 
  • Information-as-thing describes objects such as documents, communications, etc. 

It is with "information-as-thing" that we have a definition which we can use to execute a technology strategy.

Buckland also points to an opposite strategy which involves asking "what is informative?" Basically, we have things that serve as evidence. It could involve data, text and documents, or objects. Of particular interest is the notion of "document". If ISO 15489 gives us the definition of a record, what is a document?

The discussion of "documents" introduces challenges that have been approached by theorists like Otlet and Briet. Basically, documents could be anything that provides adquate documentation. Clasically, an antelope in the wild could never be called a document. An antelope in a zoo collection that has been thorougly described and is the subject of intense study could be considered to be a document.

In short, the word "information" really seems to get in the way of what we are trying to do. A new wave of documentalists have argued that is perhaps far more valuable to explore "documentary practices" than it is to attempt to manage an intangble like "information".