11. Floridi’s Varieties of Information – Fixing Your Battery

To Start – What Can we Know About Information that is Useful?

What new questions could we ask, and what new insights could we generate if we could discover how information or communications create and recreate organizations continuously?

And how must the concept of information be thought about differently from the concept of energy? For example, it seems far-fetched to imagine that information be measured in any meaningful sense? (It seems chimeric; to illustrate: how could we ever measure the whole of human history or the simultaneous whisperings of lovers lying together in beds around the world? Or how can we keep accounts of information that is forgotten – like the intentions of the artists who drew the deer in the cave at Lascaux? Unlikely as these examples may seem, considering them helps put the question of measuring the information in the universe into perspective.)

Rather than focusing on the limited definitions represented by bits and megabytes in our computers or in Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication (MTC), I am concerned with the broader conception of information presented by philosophers such as Luciano Floridi in, for example, his “Philosophical Conceptions of Information.” 1 and by Gregory Bateson over his long career developing insights into communication patterns that are common across in biology, anthropology and psychiatry.  2 . We may even want to consider Wheeler and other recent physicists who have explored the idea that information is the underlying structure of matter in our universe.

These authors have taken on the broad definition of information itself and tried to gain perspective on what it is and what regularities can be found across the whole spectrum of information.

Philosophy and Epistemology – Entry Points

The most quoted definition of information is Bateson’s: “a difference that makes a difference,” he wrote. Of course, he assumed the necessity of a relationship between the original pattern, the difference (or change detected) itself, and the mechanism or organism that detects it; in other words he also implies an observer who detects a change or a difference between foreground to background. This may seem to take us far afield from the study of organizations, but bear with me.

Three Varieties of Information – Structure Behind Algorithms and Routines

As such an observer, Floridi has asked what varieties of information can we ascertain? (I.e., What differences can we regularly observe?) And his answer is three: environmental, semantic, and instructional. To make his distinctions understandable, he has used a simple, clear example. In both the article I have cited and in an earlier, more accessible publication, Information: A Very Short Introduction, 3 Floridi presented the same simple, understandable but comprehensive example to illustrate the three varieties of information that he proposes.  I paraphrase his example here:

John, a motorist hoping to start his car in the morning, turns the key. Nothing happens. The motor fails to turn over. He notices that a red light on his dashboard begins flashing. He has now encountered two kinds of information. The silence from the engine compartment conveys (negative) environmental information: no response. Since the flashing red light represents an encoded signal, it is conveying (positive) semantic information – i.e., that the battery is dead.

Upon reading it, John calls his mechanic and describes what he sees (semantic information), and the mechanic tells John (another example of semantic information) that the flashing red light indicates that his battery is dead.

But then the mechanic introduces his third kind of information:  he gives John directions, and those are what Floridi calls instructional information. He tells John to do the following: get his jumper cables out and connect his dead battery to a charged one. If he doesn’t have a spare battery in his garage, the mechanic continues, he should ask his neighbor if he has one that he can borrow, and if so, link his jumper cables up to it, positive to positive and negative to negative, and try starting the motor again.

The contents of Instructional information can arise either from environmental information (e.g., the motor fails to start and thereby indicates that John needs to do something.) or as semantic information (e.g., the red light on the dashboard flashes and the mechanic knows the code and reads it, and based on that, tells John what to do, i.e., how to jump start his car using another battery.)

These three types of information interact in a sort of hybrid form. A generation or so ago, computer scientists coined the term Algorithm to characterize the instructions encoded in computer programs, which took the same general form. That fundamental form, it turns out, is characteristic of how information generates autopoiesis in all living systems as well as in organizations and machines designed to process information.

Algorithms embody the basic pattern: “if…then.” That is, if you perceive that conditions a, b, c…n are met, then perform the following sequence of actions: x, y and z. And it turns out that this pattern is fundamental to human organizations as well as to life itself – as well as to the Boolean algebra used to program computers.

How to Test for Instructional Information

In what comes next I am going to focus on how this hybrid form that combines two of the three varieties of information guides actions from individual employees all the way to the C-suites, from mastering the violin all the way to guiding strategy on the battlefield. Instructional information is fundamental to creating routines in organizations. So please be patient as I introduce it in a little more detail.

“Whether environmental or semantic,” Floridi writes, “instructional information is not about a situation, a fact or a state of affairs w and does not model, or describe, or represent w. Rather, it is meant to (contribute to) bring about w. Compare the difference between ‘the water in the kettle has just boiled’, which is an instance of factual semantic information, and the process caused by the steam when it heats up the bimetallic strip enough to break the circuit of electricity flowing through the element inside the kettle, which might be interpreted in terms of instructional information. In our example, when the mechanic tells John, over the phone, to connect the dead battery of his car to a charged battery, the information John receives is not factual, but instructional.

“… as a test, one should remember that instructional information cannot be correctly qualified as true or false. In the example, it would be silly to ask whether the information ‘only use batteries with the same rated voltage’ is true. Likewise, stipulations, invitations, orders, instructions, game moves and software cannot be true or false.” 4 They only guide succeeding action – which has not yet occurred.

Algorithms Combine Two Varieties

Either way, the algorithm would seem to be a peculiar joining of environmental or semantic information (e.g., either you recognize condition x or someone tells you x) with instructional information (e.g., then do the following sequence y, z, etc. in that order.)  And that hybrid combination is one aspect of what I will be talking about when I focus in succeeding entries on the routines and the hierarchies of routines that people continuously use to create and maintain an organization – or that any living system or subsystem uses to create and maintain itself.

To illustrate, l’ll offer here a generic example of a mythical transaction in a simplified company that traces the varieties through the chain of transactions in an organization, in this case a manufacturing company.

When a new salesman is trained in how to deliver his sales pitch, that’s instructional information. As he makes his presentation to a real prospect, he completes the sequence of actions specified in his training (instructional).  When he closes the sale, he turns in an order form on which he has recorded information about the customer and the quantity, specifications, and price of the product he has sold (semantic). (BTW, the procedure for filling out the order form is instructional, although the contents recorded are semantic.)

He turns in the sales order to his manager, who follows a routine by sending copies (semantic information) to the division sales department, which following its routine, sends copies to the shipping, manufacturing, and accounting departments, at the very least. Consequently several such orders are combined (instructional information in a routine) and in turn shared with supply chain management (to replace raw materials), marketing, management, and in the end to personnel (tracking our salesman’s success) and to payroll (calculating his commission).

Each of those departments, in turn, receives the semantic information in the report and begins utilizing it, transforming it into instructional; that is, receipt of the report sets off in each one a routine, a sequence of actions by that department, in response – potentially among them,  assembling the parts, making the product, packaging and shipping it, replacing the raw materials used to make it, recording the company’s revenues, or rewarding the employee.

The money received is, in turn, deposited in the company’s bank account (semantic information) and merged (instructional) with all other sales results into revenue figures for that product and thence for the company’s total annual sales, which the CEO will provide to the Board of Directors and in succeeding teleconferences to investors as well as Wall Street analysts.

The forms and routing of the various messages, deposits, and summaries are subject to regulations and in many cases to Federal laws, which are also information (semantic, of course). But the routines by which they are formed, transmitted, and enacted consist of instructional information.

I happen to think this topic is intriguing in itself, although I understand that not all you readers may share my fascination. I am presenting it at length here, nevertheless, as a foundation for our investigation, and I invite you to stay with me as we plow through it. I think you’ll find your effort rewarded when you have read a few more entries and we begin to illustrate how it applies to analyzing organizational freedom to innovate.

Organization Created Constantly Through Alternating

The point is this: a company such as Weyerhaeuser exists as a structured process made and held together by information (as well as energy and matter) stored in and passing through it among its subsystems.  Along the way the information alternates between various forms, and they are often combined in the hybrid form of algorithm that specifies first the conditions and then the steps in the routine and the expected results.

The algorithm form provides, through its instructional information, the coherent action that results in the regular activities of the company. That’s the main point of this entry: all corporate action is determined by algorithms that are hybrids of  descriptive and instructional information. The two normally alternate: description (semantic information) leads to action sequence, which is then described (semantic again) and becomes the basis for the next action sequence – often by the next department.

  1. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2009, 5363, 13-53, downloaded from <http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/67/2014/05/sipiat.pdf>
  2. See Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind ((1972), NY, Ballentine Books and Chandler Publishing), and Mind and Nature ((1979) NY, Dutton and (2002) NY, Hampton Press.) 
  3. Floridi (2010) Information: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  4. Ibid., pp. 35-36

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