Understanding Information in the Modern Age

Understanding Information in the Modern Age

You’re awash in information every day.  But do you know what information is, the roles it plays in the world, or how to maximize its value?  As Charlie Munger reminds us, without worldly wisdom, you end up a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Information is Data that Reduces Uncertainty

Luciano Floridi’s Information: A Very Short Introduction provides a map of the ways that we can speak about information.

Information is made of data.  When data are well formed and meaningful, the result is also known as semantic content.


map of informational concepts

Information understood as semantic content, comes in two main varieties: instructional and factual. For example, if your car displays a red flashing light and won’t start, you might interpret the red light flashing in two ways: (a) as an instruction to recharge the battery; and (b) as factual information, that the battery is dead.

Factual semantic content is the most common way information is understood and also one of the most important, since information as true semantic content is a necessary condition for knowledge.  This is what you’re trying to build and grow.

The Growth of Information

While humans have been recording and transmitting events and information since the invention of writing, Floridi explains that “only very recently has human progress and welfare begun to depend mostly on the successful and efficient management of the life cycle of information.”  Today, every G7 nation receives at least 70% of its GDP on information-related goods, generating “more data than humanity has ever seen in its entire history.”

This rapid growth has caused us to lose our understanding of information:

The information society is like a tree that has been growing its far-reaching branches much more widely, hastily, and chaotically than its conceptual, ethical, and cultural roots. The lack of balance is obvious and a matter of daily experience in the life of millions of citizens.

Copernicus taught us that we are not the center of the universe.  Darwin taught us that we are not the center of the world.  Freud taught us that we are not even the masters of our own minds.  What we are encountering now, Floridi argues, is a Fourth Revolution:

What we are currently experiencing is therefore a Fourth Revolution, in the process of dislocation and reassessment of our fundamental nature and role in the universe. We are modifying our everyday perspective on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one.

We are no longer independent beings, but “interconnected informational organisms,” sharing a world made of information.  This environment is made of all informational processes, services, and entities, and their properties, interactions, and relationships. This means that you are surrounded by a wealth of new opportunities, if you understand that they are there.

On the other hand, Floridi warns that those who do not (or cannot) adapt to this Fourth Revolution will suffer the consequences:

One thing seems indubitable though: the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information-rich and information-poor.

Build a Web of Information to Improve Your Knowledge


Understanding the current state of information is important because building knowledge depends upon it.

 Knowledge and information are members of the same conceptual family. What the former enjoys and the latter lacks, over and above their family resemblance, is the web of mutual relations that allow one part of it to account for another. Shatter that, and you are left with a pile of truths or a random list of bits of information that cannot help to make sense of the reality they seek to address. Build or reconstruct that network of relations, and information starts providing that overall view of the world which we associate with the best of our epistemic efforts. So once some information is available, knowledge can be built in terms of explanations or accounts that make sense of the available semantic information.

This echoes the best advice of Charlie Munger.  Understanding the best ideas from a broad array of disciplines will let you develop a comprehensive mental toolbox to attack and solve problems.  Understanding the value of connecting these mental models, Munger advises, “You must have the models, and you must see the relatedness and the effects from the relatedness.”

How do you do this?  Read a lot from a wide variety of fields.  Set aside time to think. Look for the connections between ideas, and watch your knowledge grow.

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