The difference that makes a difference

The difference that makes a difference:
an interdisciplinary workshop on information and technology

Workshop proposal

1      Area of research
Few people would argue that the development of information technologies has had a profound impact on modern society. Information is communicated, stored and manipulated using digital computers, the Internet, and fixed and mobile telephony, resulting in a deep and extensive impact upon all aspects of our lives. While talk of information is routine and unproblematic for engineers and technologists, it has been recognised since the early days of digital technologies that there is an uneasy relationship between the engineer’s concept of ‘information’ and wider uses of the word (cf. Roszak, 1986).

It is nevertheless appreciated that information, whatever is meant by this concept, is important – indeed it is foundational – to a quite remarkably diverse range of disciplines. Information is emerging not only as the new language of science - from quantum information to the genetic code - but as a key commodity of business, a major concern of the state, the front line for crime and crime prevention, the primary arena of technological development, an increasing concern of philosophy, and even a focus for conceptual art. Indeed, it is difficult to identify any field of life in the developed world that can not now be seen to some degree to have a significant information aspect, and to a greater or lesser extent this has all emerged because of developments in information technology.

The idea of information as a distinct concept, applicable across a wide range of disciplines, is growing in prominence. It has been especially emphasised within the natural sciences (von Baeyer, 2003; Vedral, 2010; Davies and Gregersen, 2010) and philosophy (Floridi, 2010). Much of this work takes information theory as developed by technologists, beginning with Shannon (1948), as its starting point, but draws little on contemporary work of technologists. At the same time, a different strand of work has arisen, drawing its inspiration from the growing influence of the Internet, and largely conducted by technologists (e.g. Weinberger, 2007; Brown and Duguid, 2000). This research in turn has little connection with the work in natural sciences and philosophy.

2      Need for workshop
As we move further into the ‘information age’, we need to make the bridge between information of the information technologist and understanding of information in other disciplines. As researchers and practitioners in diverse fields grapple with an understanding of information – what it is, how it can be modelled and tools for coping with it – now more than ever is the time to share insights and bring some clarity and coherence to these differing perspectives.

We have begun some of that work, largely with colleagues around the Open University, resulting in a recent edited book (Ramage and Chapman, in press). However, these discussions need to go much wider and deeper. We therefore propose to hold an international workshop to bring engineers and technologists together with scientists, philosophers, social scientists and artists – leading thinkers from all and any discipline that uses the language of information – to talk and listen, and to share their insights with us all.

There have been and continue to be many conferences, symposia and workshops addressing the technology, the applications and the consequences of information technology, but it is rare to find opportunities to address the understanding of the nature of information itself.

The need for work addressed more specifically at understanding the nature of information is exemplified by a problem expressed by Terrence Deacon (Deacon 2010):

For more than half a century we have known how to measure the information-conveying capacity of any given communication medium, yet we cannot give an account of how this relates to the content  that this signal may or may not represent. These are serious shortcomings that impede progress in a broad range of endeavors, from the study of basic biological processes to the analysis of global economics.

3      Aims of workshop

The aim of the workshop is to move forward the understanding of the nature of information by sharing insights between information technologists and thinkers in other disciplines. Specific objectives are:

1.      Generate new understanding of the nature of information from the synthesis of insights in different disciplines

2.      Disseminate the insights emerging from the discussion widely, through traditional channels and well as the new media, and in both specialist and general-interest publications

3.      Generate material explaining the understanding of information in a wide range of different fields, accessible to non-specialists

4.      Host presentations on the role and understanding of information from leading thinkers in information technology and a wide range of other disciplines

5.      Provide a forum for original insight into the nature of information from information technologists and workers in other disciplines

6.      Hold cross-disciplinary conversations to explore different understandings of information

7.      Establish a lasting network of individuals and groups committed to ongoing cross-disciplinary discussion of information.

4      Programme content

(See the provisional outline schedule) The workshop is to comprise:
  • presentations from the leading thinkers
  • up to 60 delegates, including eight invited keynote speakers
  • cross-disciplinary panel discussions
  • a synthesis session to encourage new insights from the discipline boundaries
  • dissemination via online and traditional publication
There are four themed sessions of talks and panel discussions, each lasting 3 hours including 30 minutes for a coffee break, and one final ‘synthesis’ session lasting 2 hours

Each of the four sessions is structured to start with two invited keynote speakers. In each case, one of the speakers is a distinguished academic of the Open University and one is a distinguished speaker from outside the Open University.

Each session focuses on the way in which information is conceptualised within a different set of disciplines – philosophy, science, business/education and social science. In each case, the relationship between technical disciplines and these other fields is taken to be paramount. The goal of the workshop at each stage is to create conversations across disciplines, but especially between technical and non-technical disciplines.

Each keynote speaker is allocated 30 minutes for a talk and a limited number of questions. There are then two further presentations, each allocated 10 minutes before a coffee break, followed by a further two 10-minute presentations leaving around 30 minutes for a panel discussion. (In practice, the precise number of presentations will depend upon the papers received following the call for participation.)

In the panel discussion all the speakers will be invited to the front and given a chance to comment briefly on the other presentations before the discussion is opened up to the audience.

The proposed external keynote speakers have not yet been invited but will be asked once the funding is more certain.  The names may still change, but the applicants are confident of attracting high-profile individuals because those with an interest in this topic are aware of the urgent need for this debate.

Session 1: What is information?

Claude Shannon used the word ‘information’ with a precise technical meaning, and in his seminal paper (Shannon, 1948) was careful to distance his usage from semantic aspects of communication. Nevertheless, others – including Warren Weaver in Shannon and Weaver (1949)– have built on Shannon’s definition to take in higher-level concepts such as knowledge and meaning. Later, and coming from a rather different direction but arguably taking in Shannon’s concept of information, Gregory Bateson famously defined information as “the difference that makes a difference” (Bateson, 1972). Shannon’s definition has been contested by various authors but remains foundational to most discussions of information.

Today the word information is probably used more than ever before and in a wider range of disciplines than ever before. But what do the different disciplines mean by the word? Can we identify a definition in each discipline, and is the definition the same, similar – or are they in fact talking about something completely different?

In this session we explore the philosophical underpinnings of information, and consider how it is conceptualised within a wide range of disciplines. Through fostering a conversation between the disciplines we will try to identify commonalities and differences. We are not seeking to create a universal definition of information, but rather to look for underlying themes and family resemblances.

Session 2: Understanding with information.

Information theory based on Shannon’s work is a tool of engineers, with information being is measured and used to assess the performance of digital systems. Scientists use information to explain the behaviour of physical and biological systems. Information flow in organisations is part of the language of business schools, and information is used as a tool of the state. Semioticians interpret the world through signs which themselves can be discussed in terms of information.

In this session we will particularly focus on the scientific understanding of information, look at how the concept is used to explain phenomena in a range of different disciplines, and explore whether the explanations in one discipline have any application on another.

Session 3: Engaging with information

Across a range of disciplines, the key issue about information is the way that we engage with it – the tools we use to store, process and disseminate it, the communities within which we collectively create information, the cultural and psychological factors which shape the way we make sense of information. This session is all about the ‘how’ of information. Some of these hows will be founded on a model of information as a passive object to be stored and transmitted, others will treat it as some very participative and fluid.

In this session we will especially focus on information as it relates to business, library science, and education, as well as emerging fields such as web science. In each case the focus is likely to be on the many different ways in which individuals, groups, societies and machines interact with information.

Session 4: The impact of information       

Is information our slave or our master? What kind of society do we want to build around it? Who are ‘we’ in a radically distributed, globalised world where boundaries are rendered irrelevant by the Internet? Or is this too utopian a conception in a world where national governments of a wide range of political hues can use firewalls and CCTV to control their citizens’ access to knowledge and capacity to act?

Talk of the information society has moved to talk of Web 2.0, convergence and interactivity. Culture, society and media – each of which has always been about information – are being radically transformed through new technologies, and in turn culture and society are transforming technologies through their use.

In this session, we will focus on the social impact of information, conceived through the relationship between technical and sociological perspectives. We will seek to understand how information and society relate today, and where their relationship might be going in the future.

This session will be sponsored by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), a research centre jointly based at the Open University and the University of Manchester and funded by the ESRC.

Final ‘synthesis’ session

The final session will begin the process of identifying common themes and new insights emerging from the interdisciplinary engagement of the previous four sessions.

The synthesis session aims to draw on the insights of all delegates at the workshop, and will be opened by three people identified as ‘commentators’. The commentators have the particular task of looking for emerging themes during the themed sessions, and then to present their ideas at the start of the final session.

After presentations by the commentators, small-group discussions will provide an opportunity for all delegates to discuss their own insights, and a final plenary session will gather input from the groups .

Following the workshop, the Programme Committee will write a final report for inclusion with the workshop proceedings.

5      Publicity, outputs and follow-on activities

It is an important aim of the workshop to disseminate understanding of information as widely as possible. The intention is to use five mechanisms:

  • print publication of the workshop proceedings, including all presentations and a final report written by the programme committee based on the synthesis session. This also to made available online as a pdf file
  • papers associated with selected presentations as well as the synthesis session to be published in a special issue of a suitable journal
  • interactive website before, during and after the workshop to discuss the themes with a wider community
  • live online broadcast throughout the workshop
  • coverage by the media – both directly and through Open University colleagues, the investigators have good contacts with the BBC and other media organisations.
This workshop is part of the continuing development of the investigators’ exploration into the nature of information.  Insights emerging from the workshop and interdisciplinary networks established from personal contacts established by the event will feed in to the next stage of the exploration, the details of which will be determined by follow-on meetings of the investigators with other interested parties both face-to-face and online.

6      Programme Committee
The workshop proposal arises from the Society and Information Research Group (SIRG) in the Faculty of Maths, Computing and Technology (MCT) at the Open University.

Dr Magnus Ramage is a lecturer in information systems at the Open University. He has a background in information systems, with a PhD from Lancaster University in computer-supported cooperative work evaluation. From 1997-2000, Dr Ramage was the organiser of a series of thirteen workshops on legacy systems as part of EPSRC’s managed researched programme Systems Engineering for Business Process Change. His research interests include the lives and work of the key systems thinkers and the nature of information across multiple disciplines. He is co-author of the book Systems Thinkers, a guide to the major thinkers in the field of systems thinking, published in 2009 by Springer; and co-editor of the reader Online Communication and Collaboration, published in 2010 by Routledge. With David Chapman, he is editor of a book on the nature of information across a range of disciplines, Perspectives on Information, to be published in 2011 by Routledge. He also has several journal and conference papers in the fields of information systems, systems thinking, computer science and organisation theory. He is an associate member of theme 2 (Reframing the Nation) of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. 

Dr David Chapman is a Senior Lecturer, a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of Institution of Engineering and Technology, and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He was a design engineer working on optical fibre communication systems with Plessey Telecommunications before joining the Open University in 1986, where he completed a PhD in Optical Fibre Networks and contributed material on telecommunications and ICT to a wide range of courses. Having served as Director of the ICT Programme Committee and Head of the ICT Department, he is now developing his research interests into the nature of information.

Professor Chris Bissell is Professor of Telematics, a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He has been responsible for Open University teaching materials on telecommunications, control engineering, media studies, and other ICT topics. He was Head of the ICT Department for nine years from 1996 onwards. His major research interests are in the history of technology, mathematical modelling, and engineering education, on which he has published widely. He is also active in quality assurance in higher education.

Ray Corrigan is a Senior Lecturer in Technology and author of 'Digital Decision Making: Back to the Future', published by Springer-Verlag in 2007. He wrote the OU's 'Law, the Internet and Society: Technology and the Future of Ideas' course, shortly to be made available openly again on OpenLearn, as well as a variety of other materials on the environment and information and communications technologies. Ray blogs random thoughts on law, the Internet and society at

Paul Lefrere is a Senior Research Fellow in the Knowledge Media Institute at The Open University and visiting Professor of eLearning at the University of Tampere in Finland. As well as developing OU course materials on a wide range of subjects, he has led numerous multi-partner research projects on technology-enhanced learning and related topics, and published widely on knowledge management and strategic issues. He is the co-author of a globally popular book on transforming e-knowledge and of influential papers on horizon scanning and on action analytics. He advises ministries, the European Commission and leading multinational companies.

Hugh Mackay is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences. His research is in the sociology of technology, and is generally qualitative or ethnographic. He is interested in the co-construction of technology and culture and in particular how users shape technology. More recently he has focused on new media technologies. He is interested in how multi-channel television and the digital environment are transforming contemporary culture. Based in Cardiff, he has a particular interest in the Welsh media and Welsh media policy, particularly regarding the transformation of the media environment with the growth of digital. He has conducted qualitative research on the domestic uses of the Internet, examining how the Internet connects with everyday household life, and how both are transformed as the technology is taken up. He is also working with Marie Gillespie on the BBC World Service ‘Tuning In’ project, exploring some of the uses and implications of interactive forums.

7      References

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Toronto, Chandler.
Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (2000) The social life of information, Boston, Harvard Business School Press.
Castells, M. (1996-8) The information age (3 vol.), Oxford, Blackwell.
Davies, P. and Gregersen, N.H. (eds) (2010) Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Deacon, T. W. (2010) What is Missing from Theories of Information? In Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Floridi, L. (2010) Information: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Ramage, M. and Chapman, D.A. (in press), Perspectives on Information, New York, Routledge.
Roszak, T. (1986) The Cult of Information, Cambridge, Lutterworth Press.
Shannon, C.E. (1948) ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’, Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379–423 and no. 4, pp. 623–656.
Shannon, C.E. and Weaver, W. (1949) The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Urbana, University of Illinois Press.
Vedral, V. (2010) Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Von Baeyer, H.C. (2003) Information: the new language of science, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Weinberger, D. (2007) Everything is Miscellaneous, London, Times Books.


Anonymous said...

Greetings, David!

I'm definitely interested in attending this event. Please include me in any CFPs.

Kind regards


David Chapman said...

That's great, Mustafa.

Yes, we'll keep you informed with developments.