< Book Review: Information: a very short introduction


Floridi, Luciano. Information: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. xvi, 138 p. ISBN 978-0-19-955137-8. £7.99. (Very short introductions).

The series Very short introductions stimulating ways in to new subjects is a fascinating collection of pocket paperbacks on absolutely everything and anything from African history to Shopenhauer, from Classics to Global Catastrophes. Most are written by highest authorities in the subject, very short and easy to read but by no means simplified. They stimulate thinking on these various subjects, no doubt about it. In addition, the books are published in a very convenient small format; they easily fit even into a small female palm and are pleasant to handle. So, I was very glad to discover that a very short introduction to information was to be published in this series and waited for it impatiently.

The book did not deceive my expectations. How could it with a renowned author like Luciano Floridi? I would hesitate in agreeing that he is the founder of philosophy of information as the text on the cover says, as I remember studying the subject back in seventies. Yet, he is definitely one of the most interesting thinkers in this field at present. The little book confirms the reputation once again.

First, it is amazing that the whole complexity of information as a concept is revealed and covered within a very short space and in a really intelligent and transparent way. It is clearly the case of an author knowing his subject so well that he can explain it even to an ancient granny so that she fully understands it. I have not found any of the aspects of the concept that I am aware of missing from the text and even learned of additional ones. Mathematical and linguistic, physical and biological, economic and ethical information-related issues are introduced coherently and build on each other. The whole book introduces information as a meta-theoretical concept uniting a number of disciplines that would otherwise lack clear links between them. This view is also expressed in the explanation of changes in modern human beings:

In many respects, we are not standalone entities, but rather interconnected informational organisms or inforgs, sharing with biological agents and engineered artefacts a global environment ultimately made of information, the infosphere. This is the informational environment constituted by all informational processes, services, and entities, thus including informational agents as well as their properties, interactions and mutual relations (p. 9).

That is a profound statement, though I would not readily support the author's view that this modern condition of a human being was achieved with the help of computers and ICTs. Quite on the contrary, I would think that the advent of the computers and ICT has happened because of this human state. As a result, the technology has strengthened and highlighted the traits of human beings and the communities that determined their development.

To achieve this coherence the author provides a map of information concept and illustrates its main components by a simple everyday situation involving John, his car, and a mechanic. The initial account of information in the map is based on the concept of data (p. 2). A simple pointer You are here helps a reader to keep the track of more and more complicated aspects introduced in the subsequent chapters.

To my greatest relief, this increasing complexity was achieved without the senseless sequence of 'data-information-knowledge-wisdom' present in practically all introductory texts on the concept of information. Instead, we look into analogue and digital data, semantic content of information and informativeness, the scandal of deduction and Maxwell's demon, genetic and neuro information, and asymmetric and Bayesian information. Finally, we are introduced to infosphere and its ethics. The book is worth reading through to arrive to these final chapters and refresh one's information ecology positions.

The book is based on a coherent positivistic methodology from the beginning to the end. Some of my colleagues from the Faculty of Philosophy are certain that it is the only methodology applied and applicable in the philosophy of information. I am all in favour of it as it provides a very strong foundation accounting for most phenomena in the infosphere. However, it is far from the only one - Sience and Technology Studies, Actor Network Analysis and some other non-positivist approaches may prove quite fruitful for further investigations of information and the marriage of physis and techne. This little book does not prevent other perspectives in information studies. On the contrary, it stimulates interest and raises a number of questions that probably can be answered in different ways. It would be a very useful addition to the collections of teachers and students of information.

Elena Maceviciute
Faculty of Communication
Vilnius University
December, 2010