9. What’s So Important About Information? Instructions and Stacks of Contexts

Originally I though this entry would be short. But it is vital to our understanding, so I’ll have to make it longer than I had hoped.

Suppose that you accept my generalization: that the fractal pattern of routines and on top of them, routines for coordinating routines, the hierarchy that I experienced in Weyerhaeuser, is representative of large governments and corporations where most of us go to work most days. And suppose further that you accept that the process that selects a given routine moves from “if…” to “then do [a specific sequence.]” Then we need to explore the implications.

To influence organizations we work in (not just Weyerhaeuser, which is necessarily acutely aware of its environmental connections), to change their collective courses away from environmental disaster, we will have to understand more about the principles that govern their metabolisms, how they create and maintain their structures.

A New Way to Talk About Organizations – As Information

To understand their structures and the underlying principles by which they carry on day-to-day, we need to adopt a new way of looking at human organizations. And the core of that new approach is to see them as hierarchies of algorithms governing routines.

Before I began this blog I had read a great deal about organizations. I knew about spans of control, about dysfunctional relations between competing departments, and about introducing lean manufacturing, the Toyota method. I knew about the basic structural-functional premises, corporate cultures, and how executives take on roles. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, after all, on the management of information in the State Department.

But one day I realized that the common thread through everything that humans do when we go to work in organizations is communicating. We exchange information. Granted we do many other things too – build roads and cut logs, for example – or bend things, use tools, melt or freeze things, move things from here to there, get them out and put them away, open and close apertures, measure and inspect, start and stop machines, and so on.

But the core activity that no one seems to have focused on in the mainstream of organizational study is the central issue in the action of all these bodies: the way that communication directs and structures everything in an organization – our orders, our grievances, our operating procedures, our sales, our reports, our accounting, our blueprints, our owners’ manuals, our histories, laws, and even our hopes and dreams – our visions. They are all forms of information.

If we want to gain insight into the metabolism of human organizations, it seems to me, we might benefit by exploring how the information guides and structures the actions of organizations.

Information Creates Reality – by Agreement

Of course we already do track one kind of information, i.e., money, very closely. We raise and destroy empires with it. If you are one of those who haven’t yet considered that money is merely information, here’s a chance to think about it in a new way: the most common form in which money appears in our civilization is as a line on a computer screen; it also appears as numbers in ledgers, in written notes torn from checkbooks, and as currency printed on pieces of paper and stamped on coins. Granted, it symbolizes other things – work done, promises for the future, or profits from an initiative, for example – but symbols are information that represents something else. The core word here is information.

That’s really all money is – numbers on a screen or a sheet of paper. Yet we strive for it, covet it, commit suicide for lack of it and murder to get it. We starve, go without medicine, and freeze to death on the streets for lack of it. Governments rise and fall on their budget surpluses and deficits. Our personal life chances are governed by its possession through generations, and our judgment of success or failure depends on our ability to increase the right numbers that represent money, which in turn represents other values.

We treat money as if it were a reality of its own. We do that for a reason: it is. So prevalent is our collective belief in it that a reality is created by agreement. Our agreement to the story of money makes reality of it.

In fact, we humans make reality by agreement over a range of discrete subjects as if they were real. Thus we have entire traditions of law, history, engineering, anthropology, mathematics, for example, and art.  We speak of culture, and for the most part we fail to notice that it consists among other things of patterns of communication, assumptions that form a context, and rules that direct proper actions, forbid improper (immoral) acts, and determine inclusion and exclusion in the social body we call “our people.”

The results: these traditions, our cultures – our communications  of information in these categories – do take on a reality that no amount of denial can remove. You can’t, for example, simply deny the law without suffering the consequences that are spelled out in the law. You can’t arbitrarily decide to be Pakistani or Native American or German – or American – at least without going through an arcane process. You just are.

Entering the Early Stage of Investigating Information’s Effects

Despite its power to create reality, whether money or culture or another realm,  only a few social scientists and philosophers have examined information and communication with enough care to begin teasing out its essential qualities, and they are IMHO only in the early, primitive stages.

We are in roughly the same stage of discovering how information works and how to analyze it as our forbears were when Leibniz and later Young, Kelvin, Joule and others began seriously experimenting with energy, realizing that a single concept referred to many apparently distinct phenomena – heat, motion, electricity, light, etc. – and that it could be transferred from one medium to another.

I don’t claim to have insights into the concept of information that no one else has ever conceived. I do, however, know some of the basic first steps – for example, how a few, more or less isolated, observers have treated it to reveal things in their fields that could prove to be useful insights into my search for analogous patterns in the ways that organizations work.

Gregory Bateson, for example, elaborated on Russel and Whitehead’s theory of logical types as they showed up in schizophrenia and paradox. 1 But no one has yet thought to ask how that discovery might yield insight into the actions of a large corporation or an army maneuvering on a battlefield. I suspect it might be illuminating to think that way.

By the same token, Luciano Floridi, a philosopher at Oxford, has distinguished three patterns in the way information is used and, based on that distinction, opened the possibility of discovering how life itself is created from information. But he has not yet taken that analysis further to apply it to human organizations. I’ll return to that further down in this entry.

Biology – Based on Information

It’s different in biology. Beginning with a set of lectures by the quantum physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, in 1944, 2  Information took center stage in biology. One way or another, Schrodinger’s questions about information patterns in living cells and their twin processes of growth and reproduction, started a process that culminated in the discovery of DNA by Watson, Crick and Franklin. It was they who finally observed how accurate information was coded and stored for passage from one generation to the next as well as how the stored information is used by the organism to recreate in itself the structures of living things – the cells, organs, and behaviors of viable life.

So here I propose to begin exploring that same question in organizations made up of humans. What can we say about information, beginning with routines of action, that will illuminate how organizations live, work, and reproduce, maintaining and changing their patterns day after day through years, decades, even centuries of linked human effort?

Learning More about Information and Patterns of Information

I believe that’s how they really work, that the core of an organization is the information. Of course thinking that way will require a stretch of your mind. So I’ll begin by linking together some of the things we already know or suppose about various forms of information, based on some of the ways scientists and philosophers have thought about it.

Not how information is passed from one person to another. Not how it is stored in the files that give their name to bureaucracies – our bureaus. Not how it is used as a political weapon or to gain advantage over an opponent. Not even how corporations create such wickedly effective advertising. And especially not how it occurs in nature in non-linguistic forms.

What I want to explore first, rather, are the fundamental principles of information and an aspect that has rarely been mentioned or studied: the categories and structures inherent in information.  Perhaps I should refer to it as structures of epistomology – that’s the word that Bateson used. The topic after all is limited for the most part to the information and the manipulations of information made possible by the human invention of language. For it is language and the ability to create and change descriptions, meanings, and contexts that sets human organizational work apart from the colonies of other living creatures such as ants, bees, prairie dogs, and great apes.

This is not the place to rehash a primer on the mathematical theory of information (MTI). Shannon’s formula for entropy, the question of how much uncertainty a symbol resolves, and the separation of noise from information -these three aspects of his work – are less relevant here than the varieties of information and the structures inherent in communication that make up our living world.  3

This is, rather, a step into much more profound and mysterious aspects of information than those questions. For in my view, information indeed structures all our actions, from drawing on memories and stored records to communicating patterns of action and summaries of patterns right on up through nested levels of organization.

I first want to expand our appreciation of how those occur.  Then I want to begin exploring how  communication among groups coordinating work necessarily forms a hierarchy – of contents as well as of commands.

Hierarchy and Pattern – The Basis for All Existence

Necessarily forms hierarchies – did I say that? Yes. To understand organizational action requires us to understand how information works in but also among groups, how it builds layers upon layers of reports up and guidance down (to use the common metaphor of up-down instead of the more accurate periphery to center and back), how past actions, memories, files, laws, regulations, customs, etc. set limits on present action, and how information, on the one hand, depends on energy but, on the other, also structures the flow of energy into future patterns of actions that are both coherent and effective at maintaining life and organization.

Quantum physicists report that the concept of information that structures energy patterns may be as important in determining everything in the universe as is the concept of energy itself. (Famously in the phrase coined by John Wheeler, “It from Bit.”)

But scientists have not yet explored information as fully as they have energy. Some have tried, especially in computer development, to fashion laws or principles of information that would be analogous to the laws of energy. That seems like it would be easy to do, since the equations derived from Shannon’s Law (MTI) fit so well with Boltzmann’s earlier equations about entropy.

But consider that a star of quantum mechanics such as Wheeler considers that information might be the structure of everything. It is easy then to imagine that it is at least the pattern that guides all action and all coherence.

When Wheeler framed his famous “It from bit” statement, he meant, as I understand it, that ultimately all matter, every thing in existence, every instance of reality that we perceive consists of particles/waves interacting, that they actually may come into existence only when they encounter other particles/waves that detect their existence in a sort of mutual dance; in other words everything in our universe exists only through the relationships, the communications and recognition that occurs between waves of probabilities; that the fundamental building blocks of matter in our universe go in and out of existence based on communicating with one another. (My technical friends, please forgive my sloppy wording here. I’m doing my best to get it right, and my excuse is that no one, as Feynman said, really understands quantum mechanics anyway. So just bear with me. Remember, I was an English major.)

But in any case, we can be certain that the principle holds on the scale of human life – that the communication and storage of information, the interaction of tasks, orders, histories, cultures, perceptions, and memories/files is the stuff that human organizations are made of. Information is the fundamental element of which human organizations are made.

Even in basic industries such as mining and manufacturing, the physical stuff – matter ranging from raw material to finished products – is secondary to the information that creates and maintains the existence of the organization from moment to moment – relationships, reports, directives, action routines, schedules, maintenance procedures, shipping documents, money, conferences, accounting – even goal-setting and planning.

Floridi and Varieties of Information

I cannot overstate the sense of importance of this topic. I’ll focus in my next entries on those two aspects of information that I have mentioned, for I think they  warrant our attention: first, the distinction among functions of information and second, the structures inherent in information as it forms logical types and hierarchies.

A few years ago Luciano Floridi wrote a very short book on the principles of information that he called, fittingly, Information: a Very Short Introduction.  4

There Floridi drew a distinction among three varieties of information: Environmental, Semantic, and Instructional.  The combination of the three, culminating in the instructional, will give us a critical insight into how organizations operate, like all life, based on algorithms. In my next few entries we’ll look at the implications of that.

  1. See Bateson, G., Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (1972), NY, Ballantine Books and Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity (1979) NY, Dutton and (2002) Cresskill, NJ, Hampton Press.
  2. See Schrodinger, Erwin (1944, 1951),What is LIfe?, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  3. See C.E. Shannon, (1998) [1949]. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL:University of Illinois Press.
  4. 2010, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press

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