We tend to think of information systems as new constructs of our digital world. And I, at least, used to have a smug belief that information itself was a relatively new concept, lifted from its primitive mud by the inventions of speech, writing and the evening news...
But when I started poking around, I found that the concept of information is at least as old as the concepts of matter and energy-- and that as soon as they came into being (or maybe before that, as the fuse that lit the big bang itself) information existed.
The scientific view of information is basically anything that can exert change or influence on anything else. Gravity is a form of information that tells nearby bodies how to move. Light is information. Wind is information. In fact the coherence of the universe itself exists because of constant, interrelated streams of communication between that starts with subatomic particles 'talking to' each other about how to behave, and ends with galaxies 'telling' each other how to move about the cosmos...
Sounds interesting, but rather esoteric? Think again-- when you think of information as being in the same class as matter or energy, you get to some odd places pretty quick. Is there a finite amount of information in the universe (answer, yes!). Does it have weight or consume energy? (answer, yes!). Did Al Gore invent it? (Answer, no...). When we think of ourselves creating information, what we need to realize is that what are really doing is reshaping information systems and those complex communication paths. We are not creating information, we are transforming it. And since it's a zero sum game (as I'll discuss later) how we choose to transform it has implications on our environment and all the other choices we make about it.
Information is like matter. Basic building blocks of information gain coherence through their own interactions and various external forces (like carbon atoms get smushed into diamonds). They build ever more complex systems that start interacting with each other, like protein molecules-- and these more complex systems develop more complex means of communication, hijacking these building blocks to their own ends. Atoms turn into proteins that turn into structures that help build bacteria, birds and baseball players, all just layer upon layer of information systems. But creation of information in one form means destroying it in another form. A breakfast sandwich is an information system, with each molecule and substance 'talking' to each other via attraction forces, chemical interactions and the like (typically bound together by a slice of melted American cheese...). But to create the information system known as your breakfast sandwich, the information system called a pig had to be broken down into constituent parts, and recombined to create a sausage pattie... good for your breakfast sandwich, bad for the information system called the pig..
Cast in these terms, what our digital revolution is really doing is not creating information so much as reshaping the information flows that already exist around us. Sand is reshaped to form silicon wafers to make chips. Iron is reshaped into tiny pieces to create particles on hard drives that can be aligned one way or another to record binary digits. Coal is converted to heat to drive electrons down wires to make those hard drives spin and those disk particles align one way or another to record binary code-- a constant reforming of the information system known as planet earth, driven by the information coming from the sun in the form of radiation.
We often think of the information economy as a rather 'green' economy-- the reasoning being that an information-based economy that makes money by swapping ideas and delivering services is easier on the earth's resources than one that is smelting steel or churning out poisonous plastic toys. While there is a bit of truth in that, evidence is starting to mount that our digital economy is in fact starting to make a real impact on the physical world around it, as we continue to convert information systems known as oil fields and trees to those called SecondLife and YouTube. The EPA estimates that in 1996 it took 61 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to the US's IT infrastructure. The peak IT load equated to the output of 16 power plants. The EPA also estimates that another 10 plants will need to be added to fuel the growth in information over the next few years. There's evidence all around us-- Data centers that cannot expand because the power grid that supports them cannot supply more electricity. Recycling centers that are wresting with CRT tubes and CPU boards containing toxic materials. New solar technologies that can't get off the ground because they compete for materials with highly-profitable microprocessors...we are literally transforming our physical world into our information technology system.
So think of information a zero-sum game, with complex various information systems like me, you and the trees out front simply trading back and forth the simpler information systems known as carbon molecules, proteins etc. In that light, the information age is not just a transformation of how we communicate or think-- it is a physical transformation of the planet and its resources, no less impactful than the industrial revolution that preceded it. Said more simply, every byte of digital information created is one less bite of breakfast sandwich available to the world.