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“For more than half a century we have known how to measure the information-conveying capacity of any given communication medium, yet we cannot give an account of how this relates to the content that this signal may or may not represent. These are serious shortcomings that impede progress in a broad range of endeavors, from the study of basic biological processes to the analysis of global economics.” Terrence Deacon in Davies and Gregersen (eds) 2010

It is a cliché to say that we live in an information age, but few people would deny that the development of information technologies has had a profound impact on modern society. Information technologies are changing the way we live and work, but they are also behind a more fundamental change in the way we perceive the world - a shift from a view that places matter at the base of a hierarchy of reality, to one in which information takes centre stage (see Davies and Gregersen 2010). The change is taking place to varying degrees within different academic disciplines, but is also permeating popular philosophy, with scientific materialism losing its grip on the ‘myths we live by’ as information becomes more central even within the physical sciences - “Information is Physical”, in the words that inspired the Oxford Physicist, Vlatko Vedral.

This shift from matter to information is nicely exemplified by our changing experience of music. There was a time before recording when music couldn’t be separated from people — whether singing or playing an instrument, it was a person or persons doing it. Musical scores provided instructions, but the music required people. Technology broke that tie, and music was available from an object, whether it was a musical box, pianola, a gramophone, tape or a compact disc (CD). The fact that the encoding on a CD was digital was a significant departure from analogue records and tapes, but it wasn’t one that necessarily had an impact on the user. The music was tied to a physical object even if it was a digital CD instead of an analogue record. Today, however, music floats free. You can download a file and use it wherever you want, transferring between laptop and MP3 player, television and mobile phone. Or you don’t even bother downloading the file, you just listen online whenever you want on your computer at the desk or via your smartphone. The music exists as information, and can flit from place to place like some disembodied spirit.

Similar discussions can be had about words, pictures, money, and many other entities. The language of information is sweeping through disciplines as diverse as sociology, economics, business and the arts.  Indeed, it is difficult to identify a field that is not at least starting to describe itself in terms of information. 

Everyone is talking about it: but are they talking about the same thing?  Rafael Capurro has summarised the problem by what has come to be known as Capurro’s Trilemma: Information may mean the same at all levels (univocity); something similar (analogy); or something different (equivocity) 

There is an urgent need to understand the relationship between the multiplicity of ways in which the language of information is used, but also, regardless of whether univocity, analogy or equivocity holds, there are important benefits to be derived from sharing insights between disciplines.

The Difference That Makes a Difference series of conferences/workshops aim at precisely that and have brought together participants from a wide geographic and disciplinary background to present their perspectives and, importantly, to engage in dialogue with people from people from different backgrounds. Over time, the emphasis of the group has shifted from a perspective which might be characterised as broadly scientific positivism (even while grappling with the role of people in the nature of information) to a much more active, participatory and critical engagement with information. This led to the renaming of the group from the Difference that Makes a Difference (DTMD) group, to the Critical Information Studies (CIS) group.

Our goal is for maximum participation. If you are interested in the role and nature of information, we would be delighted to hear from you.