Information in Formation

I'm writing a short text on "information" for the collection Digital Keywords edited by Ben Peters and to be published by Princeton University Press. Lots of great folks will be in there like Gabriella Coleman, Jonathan Sterne, Fred Turner and Sharrona Pearl. The rough draft of the introduction to my text is below. Eventually some this will show up in revised form in the book based on my dissertation. If you have any ideas, get in touch. And I welcome feedback from anyone who feels like looking at the full text!

Information in Formation

I think perhaps the word ‘information’ is causing more trouble in this connection than it is worth, except that it is difficult to find another that is anywhere near right. 

–Claude Shannon

Why is there a theory of information rather than none? That, in brief, is the subject of this short essay. (1)

The word information entered the English language in the fourteenth-century from Latin and over the course of the next four centuries its connotations included that which puts the world or the mind into form (instruction in-forms) and fragments of experience and data (the mind receives information). (2) Yet there was little effort to elaborate scientific or systematic accounts of information before the twentieth-century. Then within the relatively short period of time from 1924 to 1954 a group of loosely affiliated mathematicians and engineers including including Harry Nyquist, Ralph Hartley, Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, Warren Weaver, Dennis Gabor, and Donald MacKay put forth overlapping and sometimes competing theories of information. (3) A second movement to found schools of information, define disciplines of informatics, and conceptualize the characteristics of an emerging “information society” followed. (4)

What political, social, historical, and technological configurations allowed the problem of information to arrive with such force during these years? A partial answer can be found by examining the series of instrumental, discursive, and diagrammatic interventions that refashioned information as an entity amenable to precise quantification and standardization in the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century. These forces took a familiar and often unremarked feature of human existence and submitted it to serial operators that imposed standard forms and measurements. This process revealed inconspicuous features about the characteristics of those entities while also enabling new possibilities for their semiotic and material transformation. The next few pages will briefly reconstruct this history of information in formation.



1. For alternate approaches to this question, see E. Cherry, “A History of the Theory of Information,” I. R. E. Transactions on Information Theory 1, no. 1 (1953): 22–43; James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986); Jérôme Segal, Le Zéro et Le Un: Histoire de La Notion Scientifique D’information Au 20e Siécle (France: Editions Syllepse, 2003); and Associate Professor Ronald E. Day, The Modern Invention of Information: Discourse, History, and Power (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), esp. 38–59.

2. John Durham Peters, “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 12, no. 2 (July 1988): 9–16, doi:10.1177/019685998801200202.

3. See William Aspray, “The Scientific Conceptualization of Information,” Annals of the History of Computing 7, no. 2 (1985): 117–40. and Steve J. Heims, Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group (1946-1953) (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 92–112; Although the authors cited in the text above mostly work in US-American and British contexts, complementary and important efforts also developed in other regional and national contexts. For discussions of some of these parallel efforts, see Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002); Segal, Le Zéro et Le Un: Histoire de La Notion Scientifique D’information Au 20e Siécle; and Philip von Hilgers and Wladimir Velminski, eds., Berechenbare Künste: Mathematik, Poesie, Moderne (Berlin: Diaphanes, 2007).

4. Ron Kline discusses intersections between the rise of information theory and schools of information science are discussed in Ronald Kline, “What Is Information Theory a Theory Of? Boundary Work Among Scientists in the United States and Britain During the Cold War,” ed. W. Boyd Rayward and Mary Ellen Bowden, The History and Heritage of Scientific and Technical Information Systems: Proceedings of the 2002 Conference, Chemical Heritage Foundation (Medford, New Jersey: Information Today, 2004), 19–24; On the characteristics of an information society, see Daniel Bell, “The Social Framework of the Information Society,” in The Computer Age: A 20 Year View, ed. M. L. Dertoozos and J. Moses (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979), 500–549.