The Historiographic Conceptualization of Information--Abstract and Commentary

The birth of the digital interactive screen. Diagram of the SAGE defense system from Mitre Corporation advertisement, 1962.

Abstract: The historical pedigree and meaning of ‘‘information’’ has been hotly contested since its scientific definition in the 1940s. Scientists have authored very different explanations for the origins of informational research, the scope of information theory, and the historical significance of its findings. This survey classifies the historical literature into genres, offering a view into the changing environment of computer research.


Commentary: This essay is a few years old now, and in retrospect I realize that much of its agenda is implicit, so perhaps a few marginal comments are helpful. The main goal of this essay was to prepare a literature review of the historiographical literature on scientific definitions of information, mostly in relationship to information theory and cybernetics. In this regard, the essay is a critical, historiographical, and somewhat reflexive update (homage, even) to William Aspray’s 1985 essay "The Scientific Conceptualization of Information." In particular, I was interested in some of the ways research in the science studies, literary studies, and media studies had, in the intervening years, began to develop broader accounts of the cultural and political dimensions of scientific conceptions of information.  At the time I was also quite taken with essays by the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault, which argued that historiography -- the writing of history -- plays a role in constituting power and shaping history, and that part of the task of historiography is to strategically position the writing of history in relationship to the present. With that in mind, I was interested in trying to examine how an ever-shifting historical present organized and re-organized historiographic accounts of "information." In particular, I wanted to see how even "scientific" accounts of "information" had a certain politics of knowledge inscribed within them. Finally, the IEEE Annals is one of the few academic journals with contributions from historians and practitioners of computing, so I tried to present this research and questions in a style that didn't scream "poststructural theorist" or "constructionism," and which could engage readers audiences who, under other circumstances, might have been skeptical of critical or cultural historiography.

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December 31, 2007