The Life of Information edit

May 25, 2007

In 2003, a group of economists and information theorists at the University of Berkeley, published their study How Much Information, one of the first systematic attempts to measure the amount of information produced and stored in all kind of media, among which digital media figure prominently.

Their study shows that information is growing at an accelerating pace, doubling itself in increasingly shorter time intervals. The numbers cause dizziness and elude the human perception of quantity.

A recent study by the International Data Corporation (IDC) provides further evidence that information growth is a key socio-economic development at the outset of the 21st century. The IDC study predicts that digital information will increase more than six-fold from 161 exabytes to roughly 1000 exabytes in 2010 (1 exabyte is around 1 trillion gigabytes).

There are several drivers to this information growth, including the migration of images to the digital realm and the transformation of analogue to digital information, the proliferation of mobile media like cameras and cellular phones and the spectacular circulation and duplication of information. Over the next few years, one quarter of this expanding digital universe will come from cameras and video recorders. Many organizations that rely on massive amounts of video information are trying to make it available in digital form. For example the BBC, one of the world’s biggest broadcasting companies, is planning to become ‘tapeless’ for 2010, which means it will exclusively rely on information available on digital storage.

The proliferation alone of devices of capturing, producing and diffusing information does not suffice to account for the phenomenon of information growth and its subtle implications. It is interesting to observe that organizations, major producers and containers of information, have less than 10% of their information classified. 95% of the content of the internet is unstructured data. As information grows it requires efficient ways of managing it. This is one of the reasons why information search tools like Google become fundamental ways, if we are to believe Google’s motto, of “organizing the world’s information”.

Organizing information does help people make sense of the bewildering array of data and images populating the infospaces of contemporary life. However, counter-intuitive as it may seem, ordering and editing information does not reduce but rather increases information. This happens because the organization of data items is often itself information, produced out of the rearrangement of these items. When your bank orders and sorts out your transactions, significant information about your spending habits is revealed. The rearrangement of the data items is substantially aided by the fact that digital information is always recorded and updated while its granularity makes it increasingly possible to recombine it with other information items, often across data sources. For al these reasons, digital information is frequently crossing the boundaries of the specific domains within which it is conventionally produced and utilized. Text, image and sound become increasingly interoperable.

Interoperability is a key motive behind the transformation of analogue information (low granularity, low combinability) to digital. The digital traces left out by our internet habits (surfing and shopping on the internet) are bought by commercial companies that recombine them into consumer profiles and life styles to be used for targeting promotion. Insurance companies try to combine information about individuals that is spread across different digitized sources (e.g. banks, medical records, tax returns, travel agencies, sport clubs etc) to produce individualized premiums that map the risk and life profiles of individuals. Police forces construct profiles of criminals by data mining aggregate financial transactions and other data.

Examples of this sort are encountered across most domains of contemporary life. They attest to one of the most interesting characteristic of current developments, that is the production of information out of information in self-reinforcing and expanding cycles.

Less clear is the contribution, which the short-lived character of information makes to the phenomenon of information growth. Information obtains its informativeness (its value or capacity to inform) due to its adding something new to what is already known. Reciting a statement that is already known does not qualify as information, no matter how important such a statement may be. In order to be informative, information has to pick up a new fact or state and convey it. But novelty does not and cannot last. It dies out at the very moment it is consumed. Information is today becoming perishable and for that reason easily disposable. Market information, for instance, that reaches stock exchanges all over the world in terms of price changes often lasts no more than few minutes. Traffic information, so useful in the rush hours, is of no use a little later. Information as Niklas Luhmann suggests is no more than an event, a semantic flash created against the background of memory and knowledge to which it is assimilated. In so doing however the value of information is consumed.

The pending evaporation of information triggers a complex institutional game to maintain its value through a variety of mechanisms. Key among them is the ceaseless updatability of technological information and the constant expansion of the data universe it leads to. Without constant updating, stock markets, to mention the same example, around the world would collapse or become seriously impeded.

Paradoxically, the more frequently information is updated the faster it becomes out-dated. Thus understood, the prevalence of information inflates the present and makes the event and its ephemeral constitution central elements of social and institutional life. There is little doubt that a variety of objections could be raised as regards the particular methodologies employed to measure and document the growth of information.

But this should not be the major point. The recent attempts to estimate the amount of information mark the growing awareness of which most of us bear a clear testimony: information and the artefacts and technologies by which it is produced penetrate deeper and deeper into the fabric of everyday life. They remake, often quite imperceptibly, a large range of everyday tasks, redefine the meaning of established practices and modes of doing things and introduce new habits and activities. Looked upon at an aggregate level and over larger time spans, these developments reshuffle the balance between things and images, objects and representations, reality and artifice. How many fictional or semi-fictional characters are really created by the algorithmic techniques of data mining and profiling (the construction of individuals out of data)?

Be that as it may, the developments underlying information growth do lend empirical support to the speculative, albeit highly original, and dystopian visions of Virilio, Baudrillard and others. Technological information segments, dissolves and transposes social life to digital marks. Once a description of reality, it is increasingly becoming reality itself.

Some of these phenomena are analyzed in significant detail in the recent book by Jannis Kallinikos, The Consequences of Information: Institutional Implications of Technological Change, published by Elgar in 2006. Jannis Kallinikos is Professor at the Department of Management, London School of Economics (LSE) and leader of The Information Growth and Internet Research (TIGAIR) project. Jose Carlos Mariategui is an image art expert and member of The Information Growth and Internet Research (TIGAIR) project at LSE.