[My Big TOE Definition]
Information is a distinction that makes a difference to someone. Information is created by a conscious being when that being perceives data and then interprets that data to understand its potential value, meaning and significance.
According to British physicist and information theorist Donald MacKay, “information is a distinction that makes a difference”. My Big TOE adds the essential missing link to this philosophical definition: Information is a distinction that makes a difference to someone.
There are three parts to this definition: A) A distinction. B) That makes a difference. C) To someone.
A. “A distinction” refers to data: information can, to some variable extent, be represented by data. Data can be stored, transmitted, and received Anything to which meaning, value, or significance can be attached (such as a fact, thing, stimulus, arrangement, structure, pattern, change, symbol, process, relationship, or constraint) can generally be used as “data”.
B. “That makes a difference” requires information to have value, meaning or significance – the “content” of the information. Information is dependent on the existence of useful content.
C. “To someone” is a necessary addition because information, unlike data, is dependent on the existence of someone – that is, on a consciousness – who is able to create meaningful content through its interpretation of the data it perceives. This content has the potential to be useful to that being – usually in terms of expanding its awareness or knowledge.
Our philosophic beginning definition (“Information is a distinction that makes a difference to someone”) can now be reworded:
Information is created by a conscious being when that being perceives data and then interprets that data in order to understand its potential value, meaning and significance.
Without consciousness, there may be data but not information. The generation of understanding, value, meaning and significance (content) requires consciousness (someone).
Communication: the process of sending and receiving information
The sender: Someone called a “sender” may create a distinction (data) with the intent to convey a specific difference (content) to a receiver. This data and intended content represent the information the sender intends to send. This information is based upon the sender’s subjective interpretation of her limited, unique experience and knowledge base (source of her content) and her ability to encode that content into sendable – and thus receivable – data. The sender can’t share the content of her consciousness directly – she can only approximately describe and communicate it in the form of data.
The information sending process begins with a conscious sender having information she intends to send to a receiver. The sender, to the best of her ability, encodes that information into data and transmits that data directly or indirectly to the potential receiver. Usually, the receiver is another conscious being. However, the sender may also, for example, transmit data to a not-conscious information recorder or processor (computer) for storage or additional processing.
The receiver / the information receiving process: Someone called a “receiver” decodes and interprets the data contained within the sender’s message to the best of his ability, in terms of his unique personal experience and knowledge base (the content of his individuated consciousness). This interpretation represents the information that the receiver receives.
The information intended to be sent by the sender may not be the same as the information received by the receiver.
The ability to accurately encode information into data and decode data into information varies widely. It depends on two factors:
• the unique experience, knowledge, understanding, abilities and limitations of the individuals involved
• the nature (difficulty/complexity/familiarity) of the message
Consequently, all but the simplest communication necessarily contains uncertainty. This innate uncertainty, the limitations of language and the variability of language skills combine to produce transmitted and received content containing both signal and noise. Errors and misunderstandings jumbled together with meaning and significance – intended or not – unknowingly colors both the input and output of most communication.
If the sender and the receiver share a common education, language and culture, then the sender can encode straightforward, factual, or objective information into data quite precisely and with very little uncertainty as to how it will be decoded and interpreted by the receiver.
Straightforward, factual, or objective information may appear to be functionally similar to the data that encodes it. Consequently, it is common as well as practical for the words “data” and “information” to be used interchangeably by people in areas such as science, engineering and data processing, who primarily work within fact-based systems that deal largely with “objective” information or information that contains little uncertainty.
On the other hand, subjective, complex, or poorly defined or understood information content may be difficult for the sender to encode accurately and for the receiver to decode accurately.
Inaccuracy in the sender’s message is greatly compounded by the subsequent error in the decoding and interpreting process (converting received data back into information) if the sender and receiver do not share a similar interpretation of their shared reality. Mistaking the information received by the receiver for the information intended by the sender is the cause of much misunderstanding.
Computers and other information technology devices only process data, not information. However, it is still reasonable to say that data-processing equipment forms information systems because the end point of all data processing is to enable consciousness to develop information – i.e., to process the data into information that potentially holds value, meaning, and significance (content) for that consciousness. That is what consciousness does – it creates uniquely useful content out of data and then may uniquely describe that content in terms of data for transmission to another consciousness or to intermediary data-processing or data-storing equipment.
Data can be transmitted or received through all the senses and through the use of any mutually recognized symbols, metaphors, gestures, definitions, syntax, and usage that a conscious being might assign to data by means of shared conventions used in their representation.
Only data can be transmitted. Information content is always dependent upon, unique to, and contained within the consciousness that is interpreting the data. Information can only exist within a consciousness. Data, in contrast, may exist within any form of memory – e.g., a computer memory, book, pattern, relationship, process, or within the memory of a consciousness.
For example, a book represents data (ink symbols on a paper medium). That physical data is turned into non-physical information as it is read by a conscious being – as the meaning, value and significance (content) to the reader is assessed and absorbed (processed into information) by consciousness. That consciousness cannot directly share this information (its total reading experience) but must resort to describing that subjective experience in terms of coded data (speaking or writing words, drawing a picture, etc.).
All experience is subjective. More precisely, only some (usually minor) experience is largely objective while almost all personally significant experience is largely subjective. More objective information is associated with less uncertainty in both the information sending and information receiving process. Likewise, more subjective information is associated with more uncertainty in both the sending and receiving process.
A discrepancy existing between the information that the sender intends to send and the information that the receiver finally receives is more common than not. While all information is subjective, all data is objective. Any sender and receiver, with an error-free transmission process between them, will agree that the data sent is the same as the data received (an objective assessment). But they will, to some extent, disagree on the meaning, value, and significance of the information conveyed by that data (a subjective assessment).
Exchanging information vs exchanging data:
• An information exchange (conversation) occurs when a conscious sender and conscious receiver iteratively swap roles.
• Communicating information one-way (man-machine interface) requires that at least one of the two (sender/receiver) must be conscious. Both must have the capability to receive, process, and send data.
• Two non-conscious computers may iteratively exchange and process data but until a conscious entity accesses the result, no information is generated. Data exchange is not the same as information exchange. Data can be directly exchanged while information cannot. Data may be sent to or received from a computer that processes data.
Unlike data, both information and consciousness are personal, have no physical volume, mass, or spatial location or extent in this universe. Thus information, like consciousness, is nonphysical and cannot be directly represented in “physical” form. However, an imprecise interpretation of the sender’s unique information can be imprecisely described with objective “physical” data (e.g., language) and this data can be expressed in “physical” form for storage or transmittal. From our perspective:
• physically stored or transmitted data is a part of, and belongs to, the virtual reality (what we call the objective physical universe)
• information is a part of, and belongs to, subjective consciousness (whether to an Individuated Unit of Consciousness or the Larger Consciousness System).