The Life of Information

Jannis Kallinikos and José-Carlos Mariátegui

25 May 2007


In 2003, a group of economists and information theorists at the
University of Berkeley, published their study How Much Information,
one of the first systematic attempts to measure the amount of
information produced and stored in all kind of media, among which
digital media figure prominently. Their study shows that information
is growing at an accelerating pace, doubling itself in increasingly
shorter time intervals. The numbers cause dizziness and elude the
human perception of quantity. A recent study by the International Data
Corporation (IDC) provides further evidence that information growth is
a key socio-economic development at the outset of the 21st century.

The IDC study predicts that digital information will increase more
than six-fold from 161 exabytes to roughly 1000 exabytes in 2010 (1
exabyte is around 1 trillion gigabytes). There are several drivers
to this information growth, including the migration of images to
the digital realm and the transformation of analogue to digital
information, the proliferation of mobile media like cameras and
cellular phones and the spectacular circulation and duplication of
information. Over the next few years, one quarter of this expanding
digital universe will come from cameras and video recorders. Many
organizations that rely on massive amounts of video information are
trying to make it available in digital form. For example the BBC,
one of the world¹s biggest broadcasting companies, is planning to
become Œtapeless¹ for 2010, which means it will exclusively rely on
information available on digital storage.

The proliferation alone of devices of capturing, producing and
diffusing information does not suffice to account for the phenomenon
of information growth and its subtle implications. It is interesting
to observe that organizations, major producers and containers of
information, have less than 10% of their information classified. 95%
of the content of the internet is unstructured data. As information
grows it requires efficient ways of managing it. This is one of the
reasons why information search tools like Google become fundamental
ways, if we are to believe Google¹s motto, of ³organizing the world¹s

Organizing information does help people make sense of the bewildering
array of data and images populating the infospaces of contemporary
life. However, counter-intuitive as it may seem, ordering and editing
information does not reduce but rather increases information. This
happens because the organization of data items is often itself
information, produced out of the rearrangement of these items.
When your bank orders and sorts out your transactions, significant
information about your spending habits is revealed. The rearrangement
of the data items is substantially aided by the fact that digital
information is always recorded and updated while its granularity makes
it increasingly possible to recombine it with other information items,
often across data sources.

For all these reasons, digital information is frequently crossing the
boundaries of the specific domains within which it is conventionally
produced and utilized. Text, image and sound become increasingly
interoperable. Interoperability is a key motive behind the
transformation of analogue information (low granularity, low
combinability) to digital. The digital traces left out by our
internet habits (surfing and shopping on the internet) are bought by
commercial companies that recombine them into consumer profiles and
life styles to be used for targeting promotion. Insurance companies
try to combine information about individuals that is spread across
different digitized sources (e.g. banks, medical records, tax returns,
travel agencies, sport clubs etc) to produce individualized premiums
that map the risk and life profiles of individuals. Police forces
construct profiles of criminals by data mining aggregate financial
transactions and other data. Examples of this sort are encountered
across most domains of contemporary life. They attest to one of the
most interesting characteristic of current developments, that is the
production of information out of information in self-reinforcing and
expanding cycles.

Less clear is the contribution, which the short-lived character of
information makes to the phenomenon of information growth. Information
obtains its informativeness (its value or capacity to inform) due
to its adding something new to what is already known. Reciting a
statement that is already known does not qualify as information,
no matter how important such a statement may be. In order to be
informative, information has to pick up a new fact or state and convey
it. But novelty does not and cannot last. It dies out at the very
moment it is consumed. Information is today becoming perishable and
for that reason easily disposable. Market information, for instance,
that reaches stock exchanges all over the world in terms of price
changes often lasts no more than few minutes. Traffic information, so
useful in the rush hours, is of no use a little later.

Information as Niklas Luhmann suggests is no more than an event,
a semantic flash created against the background of memory and
knowledge to which it is assimilated. In so doing however the value
of information is consumed. The pending evaporation of information
triggers a complex institutional game to maintain its value through a
variety of mechanisms. Key among them is the ceaseless updatability
of technological information and the constant expansion of the data
universe it leads to. Without constant updating, stock markets, to
mention the same example, around the world would collapse or become
seriously impeded. Paradoxically, the more frequently information
is updated the faster it becomes out-dated. Thus understood, the
prevalence of information inflates the present and makes the event
and its ephemeral constitution central elements of social and
institutional life.

There is little doubt that a variety of objections could be raised as
regards the particular methodologies employed to measure and document
the growth of information. But this should not be the major point. The
recent attempts to estimate the amount of information mark the growing
awareness of which most of us bear a clear testimony: information
and the artefacts and technologies by which it is produced penetrate
deeper and deeper into the fabric of everyday life. They remake,
often quite imperceptibly, a large range of everyday tasks, redefine
the meaning of established practices and modes of doing things and
introduce new habits and activities. Looked upon at an aggregate level
and over larger time spans, these developments reshuffle the balance
between things and images, objects and representations, reality and
artifice. How many fictional or semi-fictional characters are really
created by the algorithmic techniques of data mining and profiling
(the construction of individuals out of data)? Be that as it may,
the developments underlying information growth do lend empirical
support to the speculative, albeit highly original, and dystopian
visions of Virilio, Baudrillard and others. Technological information
segments, dissolves and transposes social life to digital marks. Once
a description of reality, it is increasingly becoming reality itself.

Some of these phenomena are analyzed in significant
detail in the recent book by Jannis Kallinikos,
"";> The
Consequences of Information: Institutional Implications of
Technological Change, published by Elgar in 2006.

Jannis Kallinikos is Professor at the Department of Management, London
School of Economics (LSE) and leader of The Information Growth and
Internet Research (TIGAIR) project.

Jose Carlos Mariategui is an image/media art expert and member of The
Information Growth and Internet Research (TIGAIR) project at LSE.

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