It’s hard to argue with the claim that we are living in the information age. We have uncovered vast stores of information in our genes, generated even more ourselves, interpreted physical law in terms of information flow—oh, and we’re always on our phones. Philosophers like Luciano Floridi have gone so far as to claim that everything is, at its base, information: “what is real is informational and what is informational is real,” he writes in his book The Fourth Revolution (the previous three being the handiwork of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud).
But has all this revelry gone a step too far? In the New York Review of Books, philosopher John Searle points out that Floridi’s book does not offer a definition of information, handing us a thread that threatens to unravel the whole story. What is the difference between a fact and information? Does information need a consciousness to interpret it, and if so, how much information is there, really? And haven’t we always been obsessed with information? The world’s oldest surviving literature is full of practical information, not interpretive free-verse. “You should not locate a field on a road,” says one Sumerian text from the third millenium B.C. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, from the second millennium B.C., is a user’s guide for navigating to paradise.
Whether you hold with Searle or Floridi, though, this seems beyond debate: Our old notions of information, and our relationship to it, are being challenged like never before.
Welcome to “Information.”