Information Theory and Its Cultural Roots

Information Theory and Its Cultural Roots

Information, in a broad sense, is structured, processed and organised information. It gives meaning to information and enables effective decision making about what to produce or sell. For instance, a particular customer’s sale in a restaurant is statistical data-this becomes true information once the business has identified the most profitable or least profitable dish. It is the language in which we understand our own world. Information is the medium through which we interact with our environment and other people.


Information systems have evolved over time, becoming an important aspect of organizations. However, many people argue that the creation of new information and the updating of old information is also an evolving process. Information is no longer considered the informational equivalent of objects and places; it has become the cultural meaning of human action. Information may change formats from verbal to visual, from oral to written, from geographical to technical terms, from visual to product (although in some cases it is still useful to convert verbal representation into tangible forms).

This shift from information systems to culture is perhaps one of the biggest conceptual changes in information technology and probably one of the biggest changes in the history of mankind. What does this mean? Cultural change occurs because the people who use the information system to change the way they understand and interact with it. While every information system inherently has some internal structure to deal with the constraints of human behaviour, culture creates additional pressures, making information systems more like cultural artifacts than rational tools for understanding.

Information and communication technologies such as email, instant messaging, chat and text messaging are different from more established information systems like postal mail, phone calls and teleconferencing. What makes these technologies stand out is that there is no central entity controlling the content, the distribution or the use of the information. Each person interacts with the system on his own terms. There is no semiotics or logic; there is only what we consciously make of it. The centralisation of information systems is not a cultural change but it is a pragmatic one: the more easily information can be accessed, used and manipulated, the more effectively the use of the technology can be optimised.

How do we manage cultural change? The key is to think about it from two angles. On one hand, it is important to remember that information systems are cultural artifacts and that the cultural meaning of each system varies from individual to individual. If we treat an information technology as a whole, we may get some things right, but we will also miss a lot. For instance, many managers regard a technical document produced by a computer specialist as a more valuable object than a newspaper article or marketing brochure. But in fact, the quality of such documents is only partly determined by the skill of the writer, much more by the quality of the system they are run on.

We may perhaps understand this better if we look at the definition of the word informatio alius, the original meaning of which is, ‘acts made orally’. This shows that the evolution of information theory has involved a lot of back and forth communication between its different parts. In the end, all that remains is for us to summarise, as best we can, the main points on which we agree and disagree. It is for this reason why we need the discipline of etymology, just as we need a dictionary, because the evolution of language is a very complicated process.