World 3

There are definition problems when talking about the entities of “Information Technology”: what should we call the main ingredients? Intuitively it would seem that there is a technological domain, consisting of machines and programs that work with something called information. Inversely, information would be that which machines and programs can work with. Well, not only is that a recursive definition, but the word information in misleading. Particularly for students of communication theory who learn that information can only be that which is not already known – information is news, once we have it – it ceases to be information. Does it then become knowledge? Do we really want to think of all the terabytes on the Internet as knowledge? Who really knows when we should say information, and when should we say knowledge? What is the difference anyway?

In this essay I will often speak of the hardware of IT intermittently as machines and computers and I choose to call the soft stuff dW3, digitalized world 3. Here is why.

Borrowing from a scheme of classification made famous by the philosopher of science Karl Popper1, we can avoid information– knowledge definition disputes by calling all data (knowledge, information, signification, representation, what have you) external to our minds for world 3 or W3, and whatever goes on inside our minds; thoughts, memories, dreams, perceptions and so forth, for world 2. Finally, world 1 is the physical world – all the atoms of the universe in what ever form they happen to combine – be it super novas or milkshakes, jumbo jets or comic books.

In W3, the production of our subjective minds finds a support structure and varying vestiges of permanence. Languages are the dominating vehicle of human discourse and consequently the aristocracy of W3. Joining language is art, architecture, calculation and symbolic science, bookkeeping, music, photography, sound recording, graphic imagery of processes and systems, cartography, signs and much more. W3 is the human mindprint. It might be information at some times, knowledge at others, or just somebody having aimless fun.

The significant thing about W3, is the degree of autonomy it enjoys. Existing on the outside of our heads, objectified in some form of representation that is decipherable by more than one subjective mind with some degree of shared meaning or impetus, W3 lives on, though dependent on its W1 vestige – independent of its W2 origins.

It follows of course that our mental W2 production, once out of the chute, must have some form of W1 (something physical) to hang on to. Some W1 material must be rearranged to represent our mentalese; some marks scratched on a stone, or ashes on the wall of a cave. Take, for example, the idea of a house. Someone can think of a house and then go right out and build it from her vision of that house – off the top of her head so to speak. This W1 house becomes the manifestation of her W2 conception. Alternatively, she could have drawn some plans first and made up a list of the materials she wished to use. Both the plans for the house and the house itself are W3 objectifications of a mental vision, and they each have their advantages as such: You can’t live in the drawing plans and you can’t make 10 copies of the physical house at Kinko’s2.

Anything we can dream of, or reason about; anything we can hear, or see, or touch, can be replicated in W3, though the representation, the form and expression, of the reproductions will greatly vary. Some representations will seek exactitude – others beauty and eloquence, or even purposeful distortion. Yet once represented, once incarnated in W3, all such representations are themselves reproducible.

1Karl Popper is no longer with us to protest against the simplification I have made with his three worlds. He would no doubt argue that I have confused objective with objectified; that world 3 status should be reserved for objective knowledge, or that world 2 is also capable of holding world 3 content – these points are somewhat vague in his texts, and I make no pretence of accurately representing his position. I believe the utility of defining worlds 1-2-3 as I have done here is apparent. There are of course other classification schemes – some of which would also distinguish between types of knowledge based on their a priori truthfulness. I mention this distinction here, because a priori truths, whether they are true or not, are the base of all digital computer programming.

2Kinko’s is a chain of stores in the United States where one goes to print and copy documents.

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