Thursday, 2 September 2021

When ‘The Difference That Makes a Difference’ Makes a Difference: A Bottom-Up Approach to the Study of Information

 Magnus Ramage and I had this paper published in the MDPI journal Information earlier this year.

Chapman, David, and Magnus Ramage. 2021. "When ‘The Difference That Makes a Difference’ Makes a Difference: A Bottom-Up Approach to the Study of Information" Information 12, no. 2: 77.

We thought of it as something in the nature 'rounding off' the DTMD project, as our DTMD group at the Open University has morphed into the Critical Information Studies group, now chaired by Dr Mustafa Ali.

Here's the paper abstract:

The concept of information is foundational to many disciplines yet also problematic and contested. This article contributes to the understanding of information through discussion of the findings of the interdisciplinary Difference That Makes a Difference (DTMD) project. DTMD used international conferences and workshops to bring together individuals from a wide range of disciplines to share how their field understands information, to engage in interdisciplinary conversations, and to contribute to edited publications. A simple answer to the question ‘what is information?’ is not forthcoming, but, it is argued, should no more be expected than would be an answer to ‘what is matter?’. Nevertheless, through exploration of the areas of consensus that emerged from the bottom-up process of interdisciplinary dialogue, this paper offers ten assertions about the nature of information narratives for further debate. The assertions range from ‘information requires a body’, through ‘information always has meaning’ and ‘information cannot be stored or communicated’ to ‘information is always shaped by power, authority and hierarchy’. This article finishes by illustrating and testing the assertions against an information case study of a team of medical experts disseminating information to the general public about the COVID-19 virus. 

The most controversial assertion in this paper, arguably, is that information cannot be stored or communicated. Before you dismiss that, dear reader, please read the paper!

I'm now retired so I'm not sure whether and how much I will continue my interest in developing an understanding of the nature of information, though I don't suppose I'll ever stop thinking about it. As it said on an OU colleague's coffee mug: old professors never die, they just lose their faculties.

Monday, 29 March 2021

Context is *everything*. It really is.

Right from the very first DTMD event, the 2007 internal OU workshop on the nature of information, context has loomed large, and one of our concluding assertions about information in the paper published by Magnus and me earlier this year was that "Information depends on context".

This might seem a small thing, obvious maybe and of no great significance, but when you press it hard it has rather more consequences than you might appreciate at first sight. For example, we argue that it is because information depends on context, information cannot be communicated or stored.

According to informational structural realism, reality and information are the same thing, so if information depends on context so does reality, which is basically what Carlo Rovelli reckons is required by quantum mechanics:

Quantum weirdness isn’t weird – if we accept objects don’t exist

... The properties of a system aren’t absolute: they are relative to the interacting system. We make a mistake if we assume that they can be attributed to one single system. In the quantum realm, all facts are relative facts.



Ten assertions about the nature of information narratives - insights from the DTMD project

Over a period of more than ten years, my OU colleague, Dr Magnus Ramage, and I ran the interdisciplinary project we called "The Difference That Makes a Difference" (DTMD), aimed at developing an understand of the nature of information by inviting contributors from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives to discuss what is it that they are calling information. 

I am now retired and the DTMD group at the OU has evolved into the 'Critical Information Studies' research group (still, as of now, with the DTMD url:, so Magnus and I wrote a paper to round-off the project by sharing what we found most significant from the DTMD project and what has shaped their view of information:

Chapman, David; Ramage, Magnus. 2021. "When ‘The Difference That Makes a Difference’ Makes a Difference: A Bottom-Up Approach to the Study of Information" Information 12, no. 2: 77. (OU ORO entry)

Our understanding is presented as ten (contestable) assertions about information: narratives of information offered to the information community as a contribution to the debate about the nature of information.

Here are the assertions:

1     Information requires a body
2     Information can be quantified
3     Information depends on context
4     Information cannot be stored or communicated
5     Information always has meaning
6     Information does something
7     Information is provisional
8     Information is never ethically neutral
9     Information is co-created with human identity
10   Information is always shaped by power, authority and hierarchy

I hope to blog more about these over the coming weeks, but for now I just ask you to read the paper (which is open access on MDPI "Information")

Monday, 18 May 2020

The universe may be conscious, according to integrated information theory

"Is the universe conscious? It seems impossible until you do the maths" Michael Brooks, New Scientist 2nd May 2020.

The maths being integrated information theory:
Integrated information theory, or IIT, was conceived more than a decade ago by Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin. His basic idea was that a system’s consciousness arises from the way information moves between its subsystems.

One way to think of these subsystems is as islands, each with their own population of neurons. The islands are connected by traffic flows of information. For consciousness to appear, Tononi argued, this information flow must be complex enough to make the islands interdependent. Changing the flow of information from one island should affect the state and output of another. In principle, this lets you put a number on the degree of consciousness: you could quantify it by measuring how much an island’s output relies on information flowing from other islands. This gives a sense of how well a system integrates information, a value called “phi”.

If there is no dependence on a traffic flow between the islands, phi is zero and there is no consciousness. But if strangling or cutting off the connection makes a difference to the amount of information it integrates and outputs, then the phi of that group is above zero. The higher the phi, the more consciousness a system will display.

Another key feature of IIT, known as the exclusion postulate, says that a group will explicitly display consciousness only when its phi is “maximal”. That is to say, its own degree of consciousness has to be bigger than the degree of consciousness you can ascribe to any of its individual parts, and simultaneously bigger than the degree of consciousness of any system of which it is a part. Any and all parts of the human brain might have a micro-consciousness, for example. But when one part has an increase in consciousness, such as when a person is brought out of anaesthesia, the micro-consciousnesses are lost. In IIT, only the system with the largest phi displays the consciousness we register as experience.
A criticism of IIT is that it leads to the conclusion that all sorts of inanimate objects might have consciousness.
One consequence of this stimulus might be a reckoning for the notion ... that inanimate matter can be conscious. Such a claim is typically dismissed out of hand, because it appears to be tantamount to “panpsychism”, a philosophical viewpoint that suggests consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter. But what if there is something in it?
To be clear, no one is saying that fundamental particles have feelings. But panpsychists do argue that they may have some semblance of consciousness, however fragmentary, that could combine to generate the various levels of consciousness experienced by birds or chimpanzees or us. “Particles or other basic physical entities might have simple forms of consciousness that are fundamental, but complex human and animal consciousness would be constituted by or emergent from this,” says Hedda Hassel Mørch at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences in Lillehammer.
The idea that electrons could have some form of consciousness might be hard to swallow, but panpsychists argue that it provides the only plausible approach to solving the hard problem. They reason that, rather than trying to account for consciousness in terms of non-conscious elements, we should instead ask how rudimentary forms of consciousness might come together to give rise to the complex experiences we have.
Not surprisingly, these ideas remain controversial:
Others express related doubts as to whether maths is up to the job, even in principle. “I think mathematics can help us understand the neural basis of consciousness in the brain, and perhaps even machine consciousness, but it will inevitably leave something out: the felt inner quality of experience,” says Susan Schneider, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.
....even from supporters of panpsychism:
Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University, UK, and a vocal advocate for panpsychism, has a similar view. Consciousness deals with physical phenomena in terms of their perceived qualities, he points out – the smell of coffee or the taste of mint, for example – which aren’t conveyable in a purely quantitative objective framework. “In dealing with consciousness, we need more than the standard scientific tools of public observation and mathematics,” Goff says.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Imagined Communities

In Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson [1] writes:

“[I]n themselves, market-zones, ‘natural’-geographic or politico-administrative do not create attachments. Who will willingly die for… the EEC?”

When first published 1983, this, about the EEC (European Economic Community), was a rhetorical question, but replace EEC by EU (European Union) today and the question might be taken at face value. Certainly many people in the UK, myself included, felt an acute and painful sense of loss on the morning after the Brexit referendum, when we learnt that we were to leave the EU.
Anderson defines a nation as

 “An imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”.

While nationalism is usually founded on the perception of an identity traced back through history, in reality the very concept of a nation is relatively recent. As late as 1914, Anderson argues, the majority of the world political systems were dynastic states, although by then many were seeking a national cachet for a renewed legitimacy. The community of a dynasty, however, is neither inherently geographic not racial, and the same can be said of the alternative major category of communities which preceded nations: religions.

The emotional backdrop of the leave/remain fault lines surely lies in the perceived nationhood of the EU. When the signposts at ports and airports point to the queue for ‘EU nationals’ it means, of course, citizens of one of the constituent nations of the EU, but might easily be read as suggesting an (imagined) EU nation. If the EU is a nation, then internal EU migration has no qualitative difference from, say, scousers or brummies moving to Milton Keynes. The idea of excluding, say, Romanians, from Milton Keynes is as offensive as excluding people born in Liverpool or Birmingham. 

Meanwhile, though, a common complaint of supporters of leave, especially older people, is that when they signed up to an economic community: they weren’t imagining a ‘sovereign’ community. And if we are making a nation of the EU by imagining a European community which is sovereign, we are also giving it Anderson’s second qualification by making it inherently limited. The imagined community is exclusive at the same time as inclusive. There have to be people outside if there are to be people inside.

If, furthermore, the nation is a recent construction, should we be so ready to jettison the former bases of community? Unless we sign up to a Whiggish teleological interpretation of history, we need to be ready to revisit the past and imagine alternative paths forward.  

1. Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Revised Edition 2016

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Launch of the Critical Information Studies (CIS) research group

Learning from Luther: 95 Theses about Technology

Professor John Naughton (Cambridge University)

Thursday 3 May 2018, 12.30pm-2.00pm (Lunch at 12.00pm), Meeting Room 10, 2nd Floor, JLB, Walton Hall, The Open University.

(NB: The talk will be accessible remotely online. Email: for more information.)

This keynote talk by John Naughton launches the recently formed Critical Information Studies (CIS) research group within the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University.

Biography: John Naughton is Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the OU. He is also a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at Cambridge, where he is co-Director of the Leverhulme-funded ‘Conspiracy and Democracy’ project. With David Runciman, he was co-Director of CRASSH’s ‘Technology and Democracy’ project which has recently concluded. He is also the Observer’s Technology columnist. He was a member of the Systems Group in what was originally the OU’s Faculty of Technology (now Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) from 1972 until 2011. After leaving the OU he served as Vice-President of Wolfson College, Cambridge from 2011-2015 and is currently Director of the college’s Press Fellowship Programme. His most recent book — From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: what you really need to know about the Internet — is published by Quercus.