Why Information Matters

Essay by Luciano Floridi in Special Issue of Atlantis on Information, Matter and Life: “…As information technologies come to affect all areas of life, they are becoming implicated in our most important problems — their causes, effects, and solutions, the scientific investigations aimed at explaining them, the concepts created to understand them, the means of discussing them, and even, as in the case of Bill Gates, the wealth required to tackle them.

Furthermore, information technologies don’t just modify how we act in the world; they also profoundly affect how we understand the world, how we relate to it, how we see ourselves, how we interact with each other, and how our hopes for a better future are shaped. All these are old philosophical issues, of course, but we must now consider them anew, with the concept of information as a central concern.

This means that if philosophers are to help enable humanity to make sense of our world and to improve it responsibly, information needs to be a significant field of philosophical study. Among our mundane and technical concepts, information is currently not only one of the most important and widely used, but also one of the least understood. We need a philosophy of information.

How to Ask a Question

In the fall of 1999, NASA lost radio contact with its Mars Climate Orbiter, a $125 million weather satellite that had been launched the year before. In a maneuver to enter the spacecraft into orbit around Mars, the trajectory had put the spacecraft far closer to Mars than planned, so that it directly entered the planet’s atmosphere, where it probably disintegrated. The reason for this unhappy event was that for a particular software file, the Lockheed Martin engineering team had used English (imperial) units of measurement instead of the metric units specified by the agency, whose trajectory modelers assumed the data they were looking at was provided in metric.

This incident illustrates a simple lesson: successful cooperation depends on an agreement between all parties that the information being exchanged is fixed at a specified level. Wrongly assuming that everyone will follow the rules that specify the level — for example, that impulse will be expressed not as pound-seconds (the English unit) but as newton-seconds (the metric unit) — can lead to costly mistakes. Even though this principle may seem obvious, it is one of the most valuable contributions that philosophy can offer to our understanding of information. This is because, as we will see, failing to specify a level at which we ask a given philosophical question can be the reason for deep confusions and useless answers. Another simple example will help to illustrate the problem…(More)”