A Brief History of Information

More than ever before, information is all around us and, while most people take it for granted, few can define the term. The word “information” in English is rather flexible and it means many things to many people.

The Urra-hubullu encyclopedia, one of the earilest of its kind

To borrow from Justice Potter Stewart, who was writing about the difficulty of defining “obscenity,” I know information when I see it.

When we need a phone number, we dial “information” (well, we used to, before the Web). We get information about a specific event (a party, a wedding) and we get information when we read a newspaper (be it online or a printed version).

We get information when we chitchat and we get information when we attend meetings and conferences.

The American Heritage Dictionary has one of the better definitions I’ve found, namely “knowledge derived from study, experience, or instruction.” It goes on to add “Knowledge of specific events or situations that has been gathered or received by communication; intelligence or news” and “A collection of facts or data.”

A brief look at the roots and origin of the word “information” also helps us to better understand it. The word comes from the Old French “informacion,” which in turn came from the Latin “informationem” (nominative “information”), which means an outline, concept, or idea. Informationem was the noun of action from informare, from which we derive our verb “inform.”

But I digress.

The reason information is important is because human beings simply have had to communicate with one another since the dawn of civilization. From cave paintings and oral history to the beginnings of a written tradition, mankind has documented and recorded that which is important and left it for future generations.

An increase in the human population, combined with improved tools for sharing information (starting with the tablet, paper, movable type, and going all the way into the computer age), has resulted in more information being created today than perhaps anyone had ever anticipated. What haven’t been developed in lockstep with this are tools that allow us to filter information so we get not only what we need but also that which we can absorb.

Despite great technological advances, we actually understand very little about how to manage information. Until we do learn more about managing what really has become a flood of information, all we can do is try to cope with the reality of Information Overload.

This Analyst Opinion is also available online at

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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