The Information Age and Nonmaterial Reality

Register now

We all know we live in the Information Age, but it is very difficult to get a precise understanding of just what the Information Age is.

A very common viewpoint is that technology is at the heart of it, but as a data management professional, I profoundly disagree that technology is the essence of the Information Age. I think that information - and data - are what matters, and technology is secondary.

One way of trying to prove that the Information Age is defined by information is to contrast it with the Industrial Age. The Industrial Age was defined by a tremendous rise in manufacturing. Technology played a role in the Industrial Age by providing machines that could replace human labor. Process improvement, such as division of labor, also made a vital contribution. Yet, it was possible to manufacture things prior to the Industrial Age. What changed was the scale.

The Information Age is not characterized by manufacturing, nor is it characterized by technology that replaces physical human labor. So what is it? It seems that a lot of things are cataloged under the term Information Age, from personal communication to new forms of entertainment to new media channels. These certainly exist, but they are not something that the vast majority of IT workers deal with.

I submit that the vast majority of investment and work in IT is oriented to what used to be called data processing, or dealing with data. To understand the core of the Information Age, we have to separate the part that is concerned with communications or entertainment from the part that is concerned with the management of data. Data and its relationship to information is the key.

Another problem with the term "information" is that it means a wide variety of things. For instance, Claude Shannon developed information theory, but he was only concerned with the fidelity of transmission of signals in channels and not with meaning or interpretation of these signals. While signals are important, they are not what most enterprises are dealing with in the Information Age.

IT environments are managing data. This data represents different things with something in common: they do not have material existence. Accounts, mortgages, ownership, debts and so on do not exist as entity instances made of matter and energy. They only exist in so far as they are represented; they only have existence as data.

Before the Information Age, individual humans kept track of such things in ledgers or file drawers or in human memory. This parallels the craftsman-based manufacturing of the time before the Industrial Age. However, technology allows us to build vast ecosystems in which nonmaterial entities can be managed. Just like the Industrial Age, there has been a revolution in scale.

What is a nonmaterial entity? Consider the letter I received from my bank saying that I have an overdraft. If the letter itself were the overdraft I would simply burn it and be happy not to owe anything to the bank. I could dispose of the letter, but in a few days I will get another letter saying that the overdraft still exists. Where is the overdraft? It is not something made out of matter and does not exist in the same way that a coffee cup does on your desk.

Nor is it valid to say that it exists somewhere in the bank's data as a string of 0s and 1s or as pixels on a screen displayed by an application in the bank. These are only representations of the overdraft, and there could be many of them - even though there is only one overdraft. This type of thinking is an unsuccessful attempt to pretend that the overdraft has a material existence, whereas in reality it does not.

The overdraft exists because the bank and I agree that it exists based on logic applied to managed units of money (another type of nonmaterial entity). The overdraft can be represented many times in data, printouts, screens, etc., but it is still the single overdraft that I owe. It would disappear if I could erase every representation of it, including all human memory of it. (However, trying to do that would only get me into a lot more trouble.)

The Fundamental Problem

If we accept that we manage vast numbers of nonmaterial entities represented as data in technological ecosystems, it is easier to understand the problems that confront us. A major challenge is that material entities look after themselves to a great extent, but nonmaterial ones do not. I am pretty sure that the table I am sitting at will still be here tomorrow. It will not duplicate itself, dissolve into nothingness or change its shape overnight.

The same cannot be said of data. In the application I am currently working with, an ETL job may fail and I will lose data, or the ETL job may accidentally duplicate the data, or there may be a logic error that creates a data quality problem. To the extent that we think the Information Age is simply technology, and that data is just another form of material reality, we will not be able to understand the true challenges we need to overcome.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.