Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Information is Provisional - presentation on Slideshare

I've been looking back at past DTMD conferences for a paper that I'm working on with colleague Magnus Ramage, and came across the slides from my presentation at DTMD 2013. It led to a paper published in Kybernetes but, looking back, there are significant differences between the presentation and the paper, and some ways the presentation is more interesting.

I've therefore uploaded the presentation to slideshare (my first on slideshare), and embedded it at the end of this post.

Here's the presentation abstract:

Information is Provisional

According to the veridicality thesis of Luciano Floridi, information has to be true (Floridi 2011, Chapter 4). If it is not true it is not information. Floridi presents his case for the veridicality thesis for carefully specified semantic information, but his semantic information is a good match to a common, everyday concept of information. The name of the winner of Tour de France, for example, would qualify as bona fide semantic information, as would the answer to the question: “did Lance Armstrong take drugs?”

We are left, therefore, with the disturbing discovery that what we thought was information in 2005 now turns out not have been information after all. Where, then, are we ever going to find information? Or how will we ever know whether we have information?

Floridi’s veridicality thesis is an addition to the General Definition of Information (Floridi 2011, p84):
σ is an instance of semantic information if and only if σ consists of data, the data are well-formed, and the well-formed data are meaningful

That is to say, information is data with meaning (and it has to be true). This formulation is widely recognised and quoted (compare ‘the difference [=data] that makes a difference [=meaning]), but some authors qualify it further by time and space (Holwell 2011, p72):

data plus meaning in a particular context at a particular time

This presentation accepts and justifies the veridicality thesis, but argues that a consequence is that information, like truth, is constrained in time and can only ever be provisional.

One of the strands in the many narratives exploring the nature of information that developed in the years following the publication of Shannon and Weaver’s “The Mathematical Theory of Information” in 1949 was in the field of semiotics. Recent interest in information has tended to neglect that narrative, yet the insights of the semioticians are important to an understanding of information (see, for example, Monk 2011). Provisionality is key to Derrida’s différance (Derrida 1976), and the temptation to play with ‘the difference that makes a différance’, and the other three combinations formed by paradigmatic interchanges, is difficult to resist. This presentation will not resist that temptation.

Finally, the presentation argues that the provisional nature of information is not trivial: it has real consequences.


Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Floridi, Luciano, 2011. The Philosophy of Information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Holwell, Sue, 2011. Fundamentals of Information: Purposeful Activity, Meaning and Conceptualisation. In Ramage, Magnus, and Chapman, David Perspectives on Information New York and Abingdon: Routledge. Chapter 6.
Monk, John, 2011. Signs and Signals. In Ramage, Magnus, and Chapman, David Perspectives on Information New York and Abingdon: Routledge. Chapter 5.

Shannon, Claude, and Weaver, Warren 1949. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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