A World of Informed Systems

A World of Informed Systems

Claudio Gnoli

We used to think of information as the content of documents and media. But contemporary physicists and philosophers are also suggesting a generalized meaning of information as any “difference that makes a difference.” In this view, absolute information simply is the fact that things are as they are, instead of being different: elephants are grey rather than red, the Eiffel Tower is squared rather than round, and so on.

Such informational perspective may help us understand important aspects in the overall structure of the world, that philosophers try to describe in the sub-discipline called ontology. One such structural aspect is the existence of several major levels of reality, including matter, life, mind and culture.

—Difference that makes a difference—

We know that, in order to exist, life needs matter, as its living cells are made of material molecules; and that minds emerge in some living organisms; and that culture in turn develops through individual minds. These connections between levels are what philosophers call emergence. But how exactly does such emergence happen?

French geneticist François Jacob, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, suggested that every major level involves the appearance of a new mechanism of memory. That is, it involves information. Genes indeed work as a memory that transmits information on how proteins should be assembled so to build an efficient organism. Now, genes are made up with long sequences of molecules (DNA and RNA), so here is the key connection between the material and the living. What is special in genes is not the material, but the free combination of a limited repertoire of DNA modules to produce unpredictable sequences: information is there.

The next level, that of mind, is based again on very large sequences and networks of modules made up from the preceding level: they are neurons, that is cells which have specialized in carrying information by getting connected in a huge number of possible combinations, to form brains. Neuron networks someway reproduce the shape of external objects and of relations between them – say the shape of a path across a forest – so that mind works as a model of reality. In a sense, genes do the same by recording molecular sequences adapted to the environment where organisms have to live.

We then come to the top major level, that of human cultures. Most scholars agree that the key capability that makes humans so special is language. Not by chance, language also consists in a limited number of modules (phonemes and words) that are capable of combining in infinite ways to model external reality – we are all familiar with how this is done. They also are a memory in Jacob’s sense.

So, each of these memories has a double function: it records module combinations that reflect external reality, and it triggers – that is informs – the production of systems that will be stable enough. Genes inform the development of whole organisms that will survive in their environment. Neurons inform the activation of behaviours that will be effective. And language informs the organization of institutions where culture will flourish. All this is just transmission and replication of information.

The way language informs culture has been described by such philosophers as John Searle. Laws and acts are just that: linguistic statements saying that people have to get organized so and so. Traffic laws of continental Europe state that people must drive on the right, and this informs all driving instances on all roads, avoiding crashes. An act states that Grazia and Mauro are married, and as a result they are.

Informed systems naturally undergo cycles of Darwinian selection. This simply means that the systems proving to be more stable also replicate more often and thus tend to spread. This is well known with organism reproduction, but also holds with mental information as it is learned by individuals, and with cultural information as it is taught and shared by language.

Cultural systems include scholarship, where replication consists in education and documentation. So here is the core place of information science in our ontology: it studies the ways cultural information is replicated, stored in linguistic memories (either oral or recorded) and used to inform a new generation of cultural systems.

About all this I have recently written more extensively in my paper “An informational approach to emergence” (Foundations of Science, ) and in Ranganathan Lectures Classification in the wider perspective of informational ontology to be published soon by SRELS.

Cite this article in APA as: Gnoli, C. A world of informed systems. (2024, May 9). Information Matters, Vol. 4, Issue 5.


  • Claudio Gnoli

    Librarian at University of Pavia, Italy, and researcher in knowledge organization. Author of Introduction to Knowledge Organization (Facet, 2020) and co-editor of ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization

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Claudio Gnoli

Librarian at University of Pavia, Italy, and researcher in knowledge organization. Author of Introduction to Knowledge Organization (Facet, 2020) and co-editor of ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization