"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: Chapter Defining “Information” by Using a Slinky

Provisional book cover: Title :

This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.

Chapter form Part One: Alignment: Objects Called “Information”

High Definition

 

The word “information” is part of our everyday language. But it means too many different things. A careful exploration demands that we first settle on a common definition.

Falling Slinky: Experiment showing that bottom end of a Slinky in free fall will float until the above coils come to it

Literally, to inform means “to give a form” to something. This was the sense of its 2000 years old Latin ancestor, informare. It was also used to say “to get an idea of” something or someone.

The word information is detected in XIIIth century French. Its first meaning: “an investigation by police officers about criminal matters.” Shortly after, also an inquiry conducted by a tribunal. Thus, information keeps on the Latin meaning of to get an idea about an event or a person as well as to give a form to a charge, a conviction. Then again, a confession provides a shortcut for this purpose. Therefore, information was also used to refer to… torture.

A hundred years later, information enters English language. As in French, the word now extends to the result of action of inquiry: the knowledge produced. But from there, its definitions mushroom. Here are a few.

Around 1390, information designates new actions: communication of instructive knowledge, and education. By another extension, it now refers to the subject of communication: the fact, subject or event about which knowledge is communicated. What we also call “news”.

XVth century: information also becomes a synonym for advice. And also one for instruction and training. In English law, it labels a complaint or charge presented to institute some criminal proceedings.

XVIIth: information designates as well the shaping of the mind or character. No longer only news, but the action of communicating news too. Among several other uses in law, a written argument ordered by a court about difficult questions of law. In a more philosophical realm, animation of the body by the soul.

XIXth: interestingly, the word is now used for secret spy work, “intelligence”.

But it is in the XXth century that usages of information truly explode. Various professions and sciences adopt the term. And each jargon assigns to it one or many specialized meanings. Let us view a few examples.

Definitions in bulk

Biologists and psychologists use information, among other things, to talk about sensory stimuli received by an organism or by other living system. The ability to perceive is therefore decisive. For example, no matter how you talk to me, if I cannot hear nor see you, I get no information from you.

Telecommunication engineers designate by information any electromagnetic signal, regardless of whether it carries meaning or not.

In contrast, computer scientists incorporate meaning in their definition. For them, it is a piece of knowledge capable of being transmitted by using signals drawn from a predefined list.

Teachers may use information to speak about an objective: a notion to be taught in a curriculum. But other teachers also use the same word to refer to a process: the sequence of actions used to teach a specific academic content.

Archivists and information managers define information as meaning writings and records of all kinds produced in the operation of a business.

For physicists, information is a property of energy and matter which determines the states they can take. Such statement appears exotic. It is not. We can spectacularly experience it ourselves with a Slinky, the famous spring shaped toy.

You hang the Slinky vertically, only holding it by the first coil at the top. Once fully extended and motionless, you let go. Surprise: the bottom of the Slinky does not move. It remains momentarily suspended in the air. It levitates this way until the coils above fall over it. Explanation of the phenomenon: the matter of the last bottom coil “does not know” that the Slinky is in free-fall. It only receives this information when the previous coil finally comes on it. Only from this moment does gravity prevail.

For physicists, information is, as in ancient Latin, what gives a form. As much to the subatomic particle than to the all the universe as a whole. Some physicists even explore the hypothesis that energy and matter are nothing more than information bits.

These definitions seem to contradict each other. Indeed, the same word, information, may designate the knowledge about a reality. Or conversely, a reality, regardless of any knowledge we may have about it. Or both.

Sometimes, information is an abstract idea, independent of any material medium. Sometimes, it is the material signal, regardless of whether or not it communicates an idea. Or both.

At times, information refers to instructions to produce something. At others conversely, to the constraint that something imposes on. Or both.

In practice, these definitions are complementary. Often, one has little choice but to shift from one to the other. “Information is a conceptual labyrinth” as philosopher Luciano Floridi says.

Defined information

The question therefore arises: on which of these information does this book focus?

The title announces our starting point for understanding information societies: our personal information. To be exact: the information objects that are used to support our interpersonal relationships. The distinction is important.

Indeed, lot of information items that connect us to others are not about humans at first glance. Think of the cute cats’ pictures and videos that people love to share. A closer look does reveal that these images, once communicated, also talk about these individuals. They support a relationship between them.

This book focuses on information identified as in any material support for the conservation, communication and processing of knowledge or signals.

This definition is similar to the one used in informatics, but with two differences. Any support: not only those that can be handled by machines. A handwritten note or letter can support a relationship between persons. Any signal: not only those carrying knowledge. A non-figurative doodle or painting can also support such a relationship.

In fact, through the chapters, we will explore information as in the original meaning of the Latin word. That is to say, the information that gives a form to interpersonal relationships. That which gives a form to the lives of individuals, groups and communities.



  1. MChartrand says:

    Passionnant ! Éclairant ! Si possible d’illustrer davantage le sens pour les informaticiens.

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      Merci !
      Oui, la question du sens de l’information fera l’objet de plusieurs chapitres. Je garde en note.

  2. Pierrot Péladeau says:

    Commentaire reçu par couriel:
    « Finalement, je viens de lire rapidement en ligne ton chapitre sur l’information qui est très bon: intéressant retour historique, définition simple, to the point, ça se lit bien, ça marche. . Pas sûr que le Slinky aide tant que ça à comprendre… mais ça fait une belle photo. »

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      Merci! Car ce chapitre a été particulièrement long et difficile à concevoir et rédiger. Le livre va mettre en pièce certaines conceptions erronées et repose sur une définition anthropologique (donc inusitée) de l’information: il fallait donc y préparer différents lectorats spécialisés sans ennuyer les non-spécialistes. Raconter l’histoire du mot fut la solution trouvée.

      Quant au Slinky, votre commentaire m’indique que son usage aurait réussi! Je rencontrais quelques difficultés que cet exemple a résolues.
      Un, la phrase « Pour les physiciens, l’information est une propriété de l’énergie et de la matière » nécessitait une explication non ésotérique simple à comprendre.
      Deux, il fallait soutenir les affirmations à l’effet que le mot « information » peut désigner «une réalité, indépendamment de toute connaissance qu’on peut en avoir », un « signal matériel » ou une « contrainte que quelque chose impose » : une bonne compréhension de la définition en physique allait aider.
      Trois, il fallait fermer la boucle ouverte en début de chapitre sur l’idée de « donner forme » du mot latin informare avant d’incorporer cette idée dans la définition d’information retenue par le livre : ce qui donne forme à la relation interpersonnelle.

      En outre, le livre utilisera souvent d’incontournables références à la physique. C’était utile de commencer de manière un peu ludique. 🙂

  3. Anne-Marie Théorêt says:

    Chapitre très instructif ! Mise en contexte historique archi-intéressante. Les définitions, concises, n’alourdissent pas le texte; au contraire, elles sont nécessaires d’entrée de jeu.

    Une suggestion éditoriale : la photo devrait suivre immédiatement les deux paragraphes qui traitent du Slinky. Le visuel doit être rapproché du texte explicatif, sinon on se demande vraiment ce que fait cette photo-là en ouverture de chapitre. Si tu tiens à conserver la photo à cet endroit, il faudrait alors y ajouter une légende pour situer le lecteur.

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      En effet, dans la mise en page « Livre », la photo sera carrément à côté du texte puisque la mise en page prévue est sur deux colonnes (quatre en considérant les pages opposées).

      La difficulté vient du fait qu’on ne peut avoir, ni la même mise en page, ni le même titre, pour un billet de blogue et un chapitre de livre. Sur un billet on insère généralement l’image avant le renvoi au texte complet.

  4. C.Chassigneux says:

    Au début je n’étais pas certaine de comprendre la relation entre l’image du Slinky et le thème du texte … mais en relisant le texte et la section “commentaire” j’ai fini par saisir … mais je vais dans le même sens qu’A-M Théorêt, à savoir rapprocher le visuel du texte.
    Quoi qu’il en soit texte très intéressant et j’ai hâte de lire la suite.

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      Merci pour la lecture et le commentaire.

      Comme je l’ai signalé plus haut en réponse à A-M Théoret, dans la mise en page « Livre », la photo sera carrément à côté du texte puisque la mise en page prévue est sur deux colonnes.

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