Acknowledgments

The Difference that Makes a Difference: an interdisciplinary workshop on information and technology

Location: The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK
Dates: 7-9 September 2011

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.

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, 2011). 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 (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.

This workshop seeks to bring together those working with information in a wide range of disciplines - engineers and technologists together with scientists, philosophers, social scientists and artists - to discuss and expand our collective understanding of what we mean by information in our different disciplines. We are not seeking to combine these different understandings, but to share them and to explore commonalities. 

The title of the workshop is based on a celebrated definition of information by Gregory Bateson (1972, pp.457-9), who wrote:

A difference is a very peculiar and obscure concept. It is certainly not a thing or an event. This piece of paper is different from the wood of this lectern. There are many differences between them – of color, texture, shape, etc. But if we start to ask about the localization of those differences, we get into trouble. Obviously the difference between the paper and the wood is not in the paper; it is obviously not in the wood; it is obviously not in the space between them, and it is obviously not in the time between them. (Difference which occurs across time is what we call “change”.) ... 

Kant, in the Critique of Judgment – if I understand him correctly – asserts that the most elementary aesthetic act is the selection of a fact. He argues that in a piece of chalk there are an infinite number of potential facts. ... I suggest that Kant’s statement can be modified to say that there is an infinite number of differences around and within the piece of chalk. There are differences between the chalk and the rest of the universe, between the chalk and the sun or the moon. And within the piece of chalk, there is for every molecule an infinite number of differences between its location and the locations in which it might have been. Of this infinitude, we select a very limited number, which become information. In fact, what we mean by information – the elementary unit of information – is a difference which makes a difference.

The workshop will consist of four main sessions, each with keynote speakers and a number of presentations from others. Our goal is for maximum participation. If you are interested in the role and nature of information, we invite you to join us in Milton Keynes in September.


Magnus Ramage and David Chapman
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