"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: Chapter on the Material Reality of Information

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

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

Material Strength


Digital information items are objects of which we entrust the handling to machines. Often microscopic, such information objects and handlings then can become invisible to us.

Many have claimed that we are witnessing a dematerialization of human activities.

Dematerialization of the economy? It is true that increasing shares of production and commerce consume less matter and energy. One share consists of “intellectual” services: marketing, research and development, consulting, training. Another share deals with digital products which may be transported electronically.

Dematerialization of money? Of finance? Or of information in general? Also true. Everywhere, paper is being replaced by powerful electronic media.

Unfortunately, many are those who thought that it was literal dematerialization. Complete disappearance of matter. Such dematerialization would imply that information items are immaterial entities. The huge Internet infrastructure would be a sort of intangible cloud. Some cyberspace would be developing in some parallel universe whose properties fall outside those of the physical world. State legislation would be practically unenforceable there. Information flows would be insensitive to national borders. Any ambition to control these flows would prove illusory.

But reality soon imposed stinging denials on these beliefs. Authoritarian States do filter the flows of information passing through borders. Some do effectively control their citizens’ access to information. Many employers do the same with their employees. Some parents with their children.

Nevertheless, the myth of the immateriality of information items still survives.

Microminiaturisation of information: A 12 point character has a surface of just under 18 square millimeters. The same area on Flash memory supports 1 billion characters. The same area on fourth generation optical disc supports 50 billion characters.

Effective material

From informatics’ stand point, no total disappearance of matter is possible. Engineering’s developments only change the dimensions of the physical media. And a single word can sum them all: writings.

We never ceased to produce, store and communicate writings with considerable quantities of atoms. For millennia, our writings were macroscopic. Markings on clay, slate, fabrics, or paper plates. Or on wax, vinyl, or polycarbonates discs. Now, the media are increasingly microscopic.

We also learned to write with electrons. First, to communicate: telegraph, telephone. Then, to preserve on magnetisable tapes, discs or circuits. Then, to transform information, thanks to vacuum tubes, semiconductors.

We also learned the use of photons. Those in visible frequencies, for displaying on large screens in halls, then on smaller and smaller screens. Later for communicating at a distance (optical fiber and disk). Photons in lower frequencies serve us for wireless transmissions (radio, TV, Wi-Fi, etc.). Those in higher frequency, X-rays, for production of information about the interior of bodies.

We and our machines will be able to handle physical objects only. However, we continually reduce the sizes of the information objects and of the machines. The ultimate limits to microminiaturization will be imposed by the very properties of matter itself.

Actual evolution: materialization

A close look from informatics’ or anthropology’s perspectives reveals rather a growing materialization of our human relationships. Our interactions increasingly involve physical objects of three types:

  • information items, about us or the world around us;
  • machines, to produce, store, communicate and process those information objects, and
    • programs, other kinds of writings to dictate to the machines their instructions.

This materialization of our interactions has several consequences that will be discussed throughout this book.

The most immediate consequence is that the presence of these objects should ease the acknowledgment of our interpersonal relationships.

Let us imagine that you get to the hospital for a minor emergency.

The triage nurse immediately takes notes about your condition. These notes obviously support a care relationship between patient and health professional.

Then, the nurse asks for your insurance card and produces a slip. These objects indicate that you are now in an insurance relationship between insured, insurer, and providers. As much as she is nurse, she acts in fact here as an administrative clerk for the hospital.

These handlings of information objects reveal that you, as well as the nurse, have successively played two different roles. Two different relationships have also involved different actors.

The exchanges supporting the first relationship were rather free and informal. The actions for the second were mandatory and standardized. Clearly, these relationships are more or less closely regulated by different rules and laws.

This materialization increases – and reveals – ability to control our relationships. It increases – and reveals – our dependence on the information objects and handlings which support our relationships.

But there is nothing that is predetermining who will get to exercise which kind of control over whose relationships. Consequently the materialization multiplies – and reveals – interpersonal conflict settings.

However, microminiaturization complicates the acknowledgment of the interpersonal relationships thus established. For the production and handling of information items more and more take place in the belly of machines. They then escape direct perception through our human senses.

Unless someone orders the machines to disclose them to us…

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