Curators of the Infosphere

Here is a short, personal account of our panel (27th March) at the iConference, held in Sheffield 26th-28th March 2018.

Curators of the Infosphere

Philosophy, in its concern with ontology, epistemology and ethics, is of fundamental relevance to library & information science (LIS). Our panel posited four provocations, from which to debate the value of Floridi’s philosphy of information (PI), as a foundational philosophy for LIS.

LIS can be defined as the study of the processes of the information communication chain, and the interactions between them.

I first wrote about the usefulness of the communication chain model as a framework for LIS in 2009, and over the ensuing decade, I have updated the processes to include those shown below.

Information Communication Chain 2018

Definition of Library & Information Science, Robinson 2018

The processes and associated interactions are affected by changes in society: new technologies, contemporary politics, economics, and socio-cultural behaviour. There is a need for continual study of informational processes, so that we can anticipate and understand the consquences and impact of drivers for change on how information can be accessed and used to enable a fair and prosperous society to flourish.

Within the field of LIS, we understand information as being instantiated as documents. Documents, assuming the widest possible definition, are the means by which LIS performs its stewardship of the record of humankind.

Much of our world is now living hyperhistorically (Floridi, 2014, p4), where ICTs are not only required to record and transmit our transactions, but are essential for maintenance and further growth of society, welfare and wellbeing.

Following Floridi’s keynote presentation: “What human project should be pursued by a mature information society?”, our interactive panel, organised by David Bawden, debated the value and potential Floridi’s philosophy of information (PI) as a foundation for LIS. The panel members, of which I was one, are listed below, alongside a summary of their provocations:

David Bawden (City, University of London)

Luciano Floridi (Oxford Internet Institute)

Jonathan Furner (UCLA)
A little bit about (what I perceive to be) a difference between philosophy of information (as a branch of philosophy, like philosophy of mind or epistemology) and Floridi’s Philosophy of Information (as a philosophical position, like realism or naturalism), and about the implications of making that distinction

Ken Herold (Adelphi University, New York)
A brief note on my own discovery of PI in 1999 and the process of deriving the PI literature within LIS through my Library Trends issues, with observations regarding an applied philosophy using the example of the philosophy of time/computation.

Lyn Robinson (City, University of London)
A short reflection on the move to on-life as a once-only transition in the life of a civilisation (Floridi 2018), and the response of LIS.

Betsy van der Veer Martens (Oklahoma) (contributing remotely)
A brief note on the concept of “ontic trust” as it might expand LIS’s remit beyond our interests in information collection (well described by Richard Fyffe, 2015) and into the collective interests of the infosphere (well described by Massimo Durante, 2017).

What is (Library &) Information Science?
The first point of discussion revisited the well known debate surrounding the relationship of information science to library & information science, and the perceived lack of agreed definition for either. The question was whether such a lack of agreement meant it was difficult to debate the value of PI.

A similar question raised the issue of if, and how, PI applied to archives and records management.

Whilst the different approaches taken between UK/Europe and the US to information science are understood, I believe that the information communication chain model offers those of us who lean towards the documentation movement to explicate and define information science, an entirely suitable framework for linking not only library and information science, but all the information sciences, including archives and records management.

All of the information sciences are concerned with the processes of information communication, which can be regarded as a spectrum of activities. Whether research and practice may be termed library science, information science, archival work or records managment, depends entirely upon from where within the communication chain the viewpoint arises. Library related activities focus on processes associated with collections and services; information science may focus on technological solutions to information retrieval, or analysis of data; whilst archival practice may focus on the authority, provenance and access for a given set of documents. All are encompassed by the categories comprising the information communication chain.

In this case, there is no difficulty in considering the value and potential of PI to the collective disciplinary range.

What Kind of Philosophy is the Philosophy of Information?
A second point of discussion considered at which level Floridi’s philosophy of information was to be understood; as a branch of philosophy, PI, at the same level as epistemology, or as a philosophical position, pi, akin to realism, for example.

Floridi responded that it was not an important distinction. My suggestion would be that it is useful to view Floridi’s philosophy of information from the principles set out below:

Floridi describes PI as a philosophia prima:

‘PI asks what is the nature of information?’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)

PI, like philosophy of mathematics, is phenomenologically biased. It is primarily concerned with the whole domain of first-order phenonema represented by the world of information, computation, and the information society, although it addresses its problems by starting from the vantage point represented by the methodologies and theories offered by ICS (information and computational sciences) and can be seen to incline towards a metatheoretical approach in so far as it is methodologically critical towards its own source.’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)

‘PI: The philosophy of information (PI) is the philosophical field concerned with a) the critical investigation of the conceptual nature and basic principles of information, including its dynamics, utilization, and sciences; and b) the elaboration and application of information-theoretic and computational methodologies to philosophical problems.’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)

Further, he goes on to elaborate that:

‘… its task is to develop …. an integrated family of theories that analyse, evaluate and explain the various principles and concepts of information, their dynamics and utilization…’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)

‘Dynamics of information’ includes:

‘information life cycles, i.e. the series of various stages in form and functional activity, through which information can pass, from its initial occurrence to its final utilization and possible disappearance;’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)

In the footnote, ‘a typical lifecycle’ is said to include the following phases:

‘occurring (discovering, designing, authoring, etc.), processing and managing (collecting, validating, modifying, organizing, indexing, classifying, filtering, updating, sorting, storing, networking, distributing, accessing, retrieving, transmitting, etc.), and using (monitoring, modelling, analysing, explaining, planning, forecasting, decision-making, instructing, educating, learning, etc.).’ (Floridi 2011, p 14)

The information lifecycle is readily recognised as a more fine-grained description of the processes of the information communication chain.

It would follow therefore, that PI is of relevance to LIS as a first philosophy, which investigates the nature of information, to subsequently address the problems of information communication.

The philosophy of information does not relate exclusively to LIS however, and PI should be understood to address the overarching nature of information and the information society.

“PI can explain and guide the purposeful construction of our intellectual environment, and provide the sytematic treatment of the conceptual foundations of contemporary society.” (Floridi 2011, p 25)

Whilst Floridi states that the task of PI is not to develop a unified theory of information, an examination of the ways in which the semantic information of LIS is understood in relation to the concepts held by different domains, is certainly of value, and in a small contribution to this wider remit, David Bawden and I have considered the ways in which different disciplines understand the concept of information, attempting to draw out unifying threads (Robinson and Bawden, 2013). For more work on information within different disciplines and domains, see also Floridi 2016).

A Retrospective Fit
The third issue acknowledged that we were applying the philosophy of information to LIS retrospectively, and asked whether this was ever really possible or appropriate. Is it a requirement for underlying philosophies to exist before the discipline for which they provide the building blocks, or is it feasible to apply a philosophical foundation after the event, as a discipline develops?

The outcome from the ensuing discussion was that it is acceptable, and often valuable to apply a philosophical position to a discipline retrospectively. Indeed this often happens in the case of recently emerged fields such as media studies, or new branches of medical science. The question of whether a given philosophical position is appropriate or valuable to a discipline still remains however.

A Response from LIS
My provocation was to give a response from LIS as to whether Floridi’s philosophy of information has value for LIS. The short answer, I believe, is that is does, furnishing us with a more holistic foundation than those offered by alternative philosophical writings such as social epistemology or Popper’s three worlds (Bawden and Robinson, 2018).

All disciplines require a philosophical foundation, although often such stances may be implicit rather than explicit in the literature. As LIS can be described as the study of information communication processes, a philosophical underpinning focused on information would seem desirable to provide the conceptual basis for our disciplinary activities.

LIS has been connected with technologies of communication since written record keeping emerged around 5.500 BCE. It is agreed within the discipline that technological development is the most significant force driving activities within the LIS field.

‘Although a very old concept, information has finally acquired the nature of a primary phenomenon only thanks to the sciences and technologies of computation and ICT.’ (Floridi 2011, p 15)

The contemporary significance of this is further described succinctly by Floridi, in drawing attention to the fact that we live in a unique time, as the more senior amonst us are what remains of the last generation which will have known a completely analogue world. (Floridi, 2018). With the move to our hybrid environment, incorporating Floridi’s concepts of the 4th revolution, the infosphere, hyperhistory and onlife, LIS transitions from stewardship of the physical record to stewardship of the infosphere.

Floridi’s philosophy of information seems to be the most helpful foundation to date, in its alignment with and consideration of concepts relation to data, information, socio-technological and ethical concerns.

A question often asked by LIS students in my classes, arises, I think, from a difficulty in relating the somewhat abstract study of the nature of information, to concrete tools that can be used to form answers to the questions which are important to LIS. At the end of my slides, I am usually asked ‘ – but what is the philosophy of information?’

Floridi sets out the central problems that the philosophy of information seeks to address, in five areas:

‘problems in the analysis of the concept of information, in semantics, in the study of intelligence, in the relation between information and nature, and in the investigation of values.’ (Floridi 2011, p 26)

LIS, regarded as the applied philosophy of information, aligns itself well with these concerns.

At the risk of oversimplification, I offer the students a list of selected ideas from Floridi’s work which we can use to build our understanding of information, and the information society,  and thus act as points of reference for the wider study of the nature of information. I would be grateful for any comments from which to further develop this answer – indeed it is likely to be of wider interest, not only to students, but also to practitioners and researchers.

4th Revolution
General Definition of Information (GDI)
Ontic Trust

OVerall, the discussion and debate emphasised a need for more widespread agreement on the terminologies relating to philosophy, (branches of philosophy vs positions for example) and identified a gap for further work on the identification, description and examination of philosophical viewpoints as they relate to LIS. We also need a basic framework from which to critique philosophical literature as it relates to our discipline and practice.

During the panel, in addition to Floridi’s philosophy of information, Egan and Shera’s social epistemology was mentioned, as was Popper’s three worlds and open society. All have affinity with LIS, but their applicability is not as well investigated and documented as might be, so that despite its critical role within our society, LIS fails to benefit fully from a firm conceptual and philosophical basis.

The panel concluded with a show of hands, indicating a strong (25+ people) interest in further exploration of the distinctions and interrelationships between philosophies, paradigms and theories within, and as they relate to LIS – this is an area that is hard for students (and researchers) to comprehend, and one where there is little consensus of an agreed framework of understanding for the concepts themselves.

As library & information science transitions from stewardship of the record to curation of the infosphere, we look forward to further exploration and understanding of the philosophy of information, to enable our committment to ensuring that the record of humankind persists.


Floridi L (2011). The Philosophy of Information. Oxford.

Floridi L (2014). The 4th Revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford.

Florid L (Editor) (2016). The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information. Routledge.

Floridi L (2018). Soft ethics and the Governance of the Digital. Philos. Technol. vol 31(1)

Bawden D and Robinson L (2018). Curating the infosphere: Luciano Floridi’s Philosophy of Information as the foundation for Library and Information Science. Journal of Documentation, Vol 74 (1) 2-17

Robinson L (2009). Information Science: the information chain and domain analysis. Journal of Documentation, Vol 65(4), 578-591.

Robinson L and Bawden D (2013). Mind the gap: transitions between concepts of information in varied domains. In: Theories of information, communication and knowledge. A multidisciplinary approach. Ibekwe-SanJuan F and Dousa T. (Eds.) Springer.

Information is the new black

It must be the popularising effect of James Gleick’s new book “The Information”, because suddenly everyone I meet wants to talk about information: its history, its epistemology and Shannon-Weaver’s 1948 mathematical theory of communication (MTC), which became known as the mathematical theory of information. This is certainly good news for our information science course, where information has been considered from an academic perspective since 1961. I feel my time has come; all those hours spent memorizing equations to show that I truly, deeply understood how many signals you can push down a channel of a certain size, allowing for noise, have finally been rewarded, and I can now brandish my information-science credentials with a superior air of I told you so. Information is the new black, and everyone is wearing it.

I believed that I would forget Shannon’s theory entirely, as soon as the exam was over. It did not seem so relevant to my work at the time, which was with information resources in toxicology. Life, however, with a patient smirk, ensured that the ashes of the MTC rose like a phoenix 20 years later, when I was faced with presenting the mathematical good news to contemporary LIS students taking our Library and Information Science Foundation module as part of their masters. I dusted off my 1986 copy of Robert Cole’s “Computer Communications”, my notes still there in the margins of page 10, where I left them.

The issue I faced was one of presenting a definition of ‘information-science’, and of outlining its history as a discipline, to modern LIS students. Many of the papers considering the origins of information science gaze back in time to illuminate Shannon’s equations with a rosy pink glow, suggesting that his theory somehow led to the birth of information science as a true science (Shera 1968, Meadows 1987). This was the story in the 1980s, but in the 21st century, a more plausible thread is emphasized, the work of Kaiser, Otlet and Farradane on the indexing of documents, which suggests that the MTC was a bit of a red herring in respect to the history of information science. Rather then that information science grew out of a need to control scientific information, coupled with the feeling amongst scientists that this activity was somehow separate from either special-librarianship or the more continental term for dealing with the literature, documentation (see Gilchrist 2009, Vickery 2004, Webber 2003).


A look back at the original ideas and documents show that Shannon’s work was built on that of Hartley (1928). Stonier (1990 p 54) refers to Hartley:

“.. who defined information as the successive selection of signs or words from a given list. Hartley, concerned with the transmission of information, rejected all subjective factors such as meaning, since his interest lay in the transmission of signs or physical signals.”

Consequently, Shannon used the term information, even though his emphasis was on signalling. The interpretation of the MTC as a theory of information was thus somewhat coincidental, but this did not prevent it being embraced as a foundation of a true ‘information science’.

Shannon himself suggested that there were likely to be many theories of information. More recently, contemporary authors such as Stonier (1992) and Floridi (2010), have reiterated that MTC is about data communication rather than meaningful information.

Floridi (2010 p 42 and 44) explains:

“MTC is primarily a study of the properties of a channel of communication, and of codes that can efficiently encipher data into recordable and transmittable signals.”

“.. since MTC is a theory of information without meaning, (not in the sense of meaningless, but in the sense of not yet meaningful), and since [information – meaning = data], mathematical ‘theory of data communication’ is a far more appropriate description…”

He quotes Weaver as confirming:

“The mathematical theory of communication deals with the carriers of information, symbols and signals, not with information itself.”

Floridi’s definition of information as ‘meaningful data’ is more aligned to the field of information science as understood for our LIS related courses. Whilst we can still argue what is data and what is meaning, we can see that the MTC utilizes ‘information’ as a physical quantity more akin to the bit, rather than the meaningful information handled by library and information scientists.

This difference is set out  by Stonier (1990, p 17):

“In contrast to physical information, there exists human information which includes the information created, interpreted, organised or transmitted by human beings.”

Nonetheless, the MTC is still relevant to today’s information science courses because it has a played a pivotal role in the subsequent definitions and theories about information per se. And it is rather hard to have information science without an understanding of ‘information’. Many papers have been written on theories of information, and on the relevance of such theories to information science (see, for example Cornelius 2002).

MTC and other disciplines

The MTC provides the background for signalling and communication theory within fields as diverse as engineering and neurophysiology. At the same time that Shannon was writing, Norbert Wiener was independently considering the problems of signalling and background noise. Wiener (1948 p 18) writes that they:

“.. had to develop a statistical theory of the amount of information, in which the unit amount of information was that transmitted as a single decision between equally probable alternatives.”

Further (p 19), that

“This idea occurred at about the same time to several writers, among them the statistician R.A. fisher, Dr. Shannon of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and the author.”

Wiener decided to:

“call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics”.

The relationship of information to statistical probability (the amount of information being a statistical probability) meant that information in Shannon and Wiener’s sense related readily to entropy (anecdotally von Neumann is said to have suggested to Shannon that he use the term entropy, as it was already in use within the field of thermodynamics, but not widely understood).

“The quantity which uniquely meets the natural requirements that one sets up for ‘information’ turns out to be exactly that which is known in thermodynamics as entropy.”

Shannon and Weaver (1949) p 103

“As the amount of information in a system is a measure of its degree of organization, so the entropy of a system is a measure of its degree of disorganization; and the one is simply the negative of the other.”

Wiener (1948) p 18

The link between information and entropy had been around for some time. In 1929, Szilard wrote about Maxwell’s demon, which could sort out the faster molecules from the slower ones in a chamber of gas. Szilard concluded that the demon had information about the molecules of gas, and was converting information into a form of negative entropy.

The term ‘negentropy’ was coined in 1956 by Brillouin:

“… information can be changed into negentropy, and that information, whether bound or free, can be obtained only at the expense of the negentropy of some physical system.”

Brillouin (1956) p 154

Brillouin’s outcome was that information is associated with order or organization, and that as one system becomes organized, (entropy decrease), another system must becomes more disorganized (entropy increase).

Stonier (1992 p 10), agrees:

“Any system exhibiting organization contains information.”

A well-known anomaly becomes apparent, however, when over 60 years later we try to understand the correlation between information and either entropy or probability. A trawl through the original equations and explanations, and subsequent revisitations, reveals that an increase in information can be associated with either an increase or decrease in entropy/probability according to your viewpoint. Tom Stonier (1990) refers to this in chapter 5, but Qvortrup (1993) gives a more detailed explanation:

“In reality, however, Wiener’s theory of information is not the same, but the opposite of Shannon’s theory. While to Shannon information is inversely proportional to probability, to Wiener it is directly proportional to probability. To Shannon, information and order are opposed; to Wiener they are closely related.”

The correlation between the measurement of entropy and information did however, lead to the separate field of information-physics, where information is considered to be a fundamental, measurable property of the universe, similar to energy (Stonier 1990).

This field stimulates much debate, and is currently enjoying what passes for popularity in science. A recent article in New Scientist tells how Shannon’s entropy provides a reliable indicator of the unpredictability of information, and of thus of uncertainty, and how this has been related to the quantum world and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Ananthaswamy (2011).

Information-biology also appears to stem from work undertaken around the MTC. The connection between signalling in engineering and physiology was made by Wiener in the 1940s, and in 1944 Schrödinger, in his book “What is Life?”, made a connection with entropy as he considered that a living organism:

“… feeds upon negative entropy.”

Further that:

“.. the device by which an organism maintains itself stationary at a fairly high level of orderliness (= fairly low level of entropy) really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment.”

In the same book, Schrödinger outline the way in which genetic information might be stored, although the molecular structure of DNA was not published until 1953, by Crick and Watson (see Crick 1988). The genetic information coded in the nucleotides of the DNA is transcribed by messenger RNA and used to synthesize proteins. Information contained in genetic sequences also plays a role in the inheritance of phenotypes, so that informational approaches have been made within the study of biology (see Floridi 2010, also for discussion of neural information).

Information and LIS

For the purposes of our library and information science courses here at City University, we consider information as that which is ‘recorded for the purposes of meaningful, human communication’. Although I personally find Floridi’s definition helpful, information in our model is open to definition and interpretation, and is often used interchangeably with the term ‘knowledge’. In either case we regard the information as being instantiated within a ‘document’. The term ‘document’ also does not demand a definitive explanation, it merely needs to be understood as the focus of ‘information science’, its practitioners and researchers.

To complete the picture, when I became Program Director for #citylis at City University London, I wanted to strengthen and clarify the way in which we defined ‘information science’, and particularly to explain its relationship with library science (Robinson 2009). I suggested that library science and information science were part of the same disciplinary spectrum, and that information science (used here to include library-science) could be understood as the study of the information-communication chain, represented below:

Author  —> Publication and Dissemination —> Organisation —> Indexing and Retrieval —>  User

The chain represents the flow of recorded information, instantiated as documents, from the original author or creator, to the user. The understanding and development of the activities within the communication chain is what library and information specialists do in both practice and research. As a point of explanation, I take organisation in the model to include the working of actual organisations such as libraries and institutions, information management and policy, and information law. Information organisation per se, fits within the indexing and retrieval category.

Our subject is thus a very broad area of study, one which is perhaps better referred to as the information sciences. The question of how we study the activities of the model can be answered by applying Hjorland’s underlying theory for information science, domain analysis (Hjorland 2002). The domain analytic paradigm describes the competencies of information specialists, such as knowledge organization, bibliometrics, epistemology and user studies. The competencies or aspects distinguish what is unique about the information specialist, in contrast to the subject specialist. Further, domain analysis can be seen as the bridge between academic theory and vocational practice; each competency of domain analysis can be approached from either the point of view of research or of practice.

There are many definitions of information science, and there are other associated theories or meta-theories. The latter of which may also be associated with a philosophical stance. Nonetheless, the model portrayed above has proved to be a robust foundation for teaching and research, yet it is flexible enough to accommodate diverse opinions and debate as to what is meant by ‘information’. It allows for diverse theories of information.

It is interesting to reflect on whether ‘information’ as understood for the purposes of library and information science has any connection with ‘information’ as understood by physics and/or biology, or whether it is a standalone concept. Indeed later authors such as Bateson (1972) have suggested that if information is inversely related to probability, as Shannon says, then it is also related to meaning, as meaning is a way of reducing complexity. Cornelius (2002) reviews the literature attempting to elucidate a theory of information for information science (see also Zunde 1981, Meadow and Yuan 1997).

At a recent conference in Lyon, Birger Hjorland’s (2011) presentation considered the question of whether it was possible to have information science without information. He writes that there should at least be some understanding of the concept that supports our aims, but concludes:

“.. we cannot start by defining information and then proceed from that definition. We have to consider which field we are working in, and what kind of theoretical perspectives are best suited to support our goals.”

I agree with him. I do not think we can have information science without a consideration of what we mean by information – but information is a complex concept, and one that can be interpreted in several ways, according to the discipline doing the interpretation, and then again within any given discipline per se. It is not an easy subject to study, despite its sudden popularity. The literature of information theory is extensive, and scary maths can be found in most of it. Nonetheless, it is essential for anyone within our profession to have in mind an understanding of what we are working with; otherwise it is impossible to justify what we are doing, and we appear non-descript. Understanding information is like wearing black. Any colour will do, but black makes you look so much taller and slimmer.


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