Information as Order

By Colonel Brian Russell (@OIECol)

Part 2

IBM had its origins in Jacquard’s endeavours in Revolutionary France. And indeed IBM is, indeed, a direct descendant of the work that went on in Jacquard’s workshop during the last years of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth.

James Essinger, Jacquard’s Web: How a hand-loom led to the birth of the information age

I finished my last post, Toward a Simple, Useful, and Common Understanding of Information, with an idea that information fundamentally represents order. An idea born out of research predicated on my desire to simplify the understanding of information for both Marines and commanders.  With so much information about information available, I found it difficult to reconcile all the emerging concepts, functions, and terminology into something more practical for intuitive understanding and application. Questions will remain as we implement Operations in the Information Environment (OIE). Is information a signal, a function, or a theory? How do the seven functions of OIE now relate to the four elements of military information power? I believe we need a simple way to think about information in order to bridge theory and application while doctrine evolves and concepts mature.  A Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) on Information should include a clear and basic understanding of the nature of information and its impact on leadership and warfighting.  Why do I believe information as order is the most useful construct for that understanding?

Because science and history tells us this is the way to think about information. If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to watch The Story of Information with Professor Jim Al-Khalili. In less than an hour, he provides an incredible synopsis of mankind’s understanding of information through the ages from writing to telecommunication to computing. From that analysis, the best way to think about information is ordered pairings.  We recognize that in our modern computing world as binary digits or “bits.”  This underlying structure (ordered pairs) and its translation from thought to paper to electron to speech, and now back and forth across all those mediums, has been a driving force for society.

According to David Ronfeldt, information has literally ordered society.  His Tribes, Institutions, Markets and Networks (TIMN) model clearly shows the impact of information technology on the way in which we order ourselves.  Oral-based tribal cultures slowly evolved with the written word that stayed painstakingly hard to reproduce for generations.  The Guttenburg printing press changed that, enabling hierarchical organizations to exert influence over extended populations and spurned massive societies like the nation state.  Just under 200 years ago, electrified information (telegraph to radio) was able to revolutionize and expand market economies across the globe, not to mention the concurrent revolution in military affairs of the early 20th century.  And now, we are all very familiar with the computer age once again changing the way we store, transmit, and access information – usually right from the electronic organizer in the palm of our hand – enabling unprecedented levels of local to global networking. Has anyone else re-ordered the accomplishment of daily life through Zoom, Google Meet or other applications over the past month or is that just me?

Some say this is the information age, but we’ve always been in an information age. Nature is based on information.  Society is based on information. In the 18th century, Joseph Marie Jacquard figured out how to translate a weaver’s design into intricate fabric through automated punch cards (binary information) on a loom. Today, the ordered pairing of information is translated and transmitted across mediums at a speed and scale we just haven’t seen before – but it’s still based on an underlying order.  The current information environment can seem a little disordered at times and this reflects the latest calls for big data analytics and artificial intelligence to help us make sense of it all.  Those calls betray our desire for order and reinforce the importance of information in our lives.  This tension between order and disorder is something I will discuss in my next post as a defining characteristic of our profession and the resultant implication that understanding information as order increases our effectiveness military leaders.