Over at Facebook I entered into a short dialogue about the question, "What is information?" It led me to do a little Googling and a little noodling.
I think there's a lot of understandable confusion about this question. It results from the different meanings assigned to the word information in different contexts.
In the context of everyday life, information basically means news. "Your flight has been delayed for an hour." "Okay, thanks for that information." When used this way, information is a function of awareness. There can be no information without someone—a conscious agent—who is being informed.
This is logical and commonsensical, but it's not the way the term information is used by information theorists. Here are a couple of online definitions.
From Merriam-Webster: the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects.From Dictionary.com: (in information theory) an indication of the number of possible choices of messages, expressible as the value of some monotonic function of the number of choices, usually the logarithm to the base 2.
Here's the way I usually see it explained. Suppose you have a motion sensor that is set up to trigger an alarm siren if the electric-eye beam is broken. There are two possible states: State A (beam unbroken) and State B (beam broken). There are also two possible behaviors: Behavior C (no siren is triggered) and Behavior D (siren is triggered). A change from State A to State B will result in a change from Behavior C to Behavior D.
This simple system depends on information. The current state (A or B) is itself a datum of information. The change in states is also a datum. The data influence the behavior of the sensor mechanism—to trigger the siren or not trigger it.
Of course, the sensor is not conscious. Neither is the beam, nor the siren. Nevertheless, information is present here. It may not be what you and I would call information in a casual talk, but it is information in a technical sense.
An example from nature is the genetic code, which allows a cell to manufacture proteins by unfolding strands of DNA and copying sequences encoded there. There is no need to assume that the cell or its organelles are conscious; nonetheless, the coded sequences do constitute information (and a great deal of information, at that). Even if no conscious agent is aware of the existence of DNA, the coded information still exists and the cell still depends on it for replication and repair.
What's crucial to information is not awareness but alternatives. In the case of the motion sensor, there are two alternatives: State A and State B. In the case of the genetic code, there are nearly infinite combinations of the four basic nucleotides. The other important factor is that the alternatives lead to different results. If a change from State A to State B does not change Behavior C, or if any random sequence of nucleotides will yield the same protein as any other, then there is no (or minimal) information. In this limited sense, we can say that information has "meaning"—not meaning to a conscious mind, necessarily, but meaning because it affects the outcome of a system in specific ways.
This is just a lengthier way of saying what Merriam-Webster already said: information is "the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects."
In this sense, there is information everywhere in nature. It can even be argued that, at root, the physical world just is information, pure and simple—in which case our consciousness perhaps does the work of "breathing fire into the equations" by rendering information as sensory images. There are many possible objections to this essentially Kantian view, of course.
Another possibility is that both the physical world and consciousness are emergent properties of an information matrix.
Yet another possible notion is that consciousness as such is something apart from information, something akin to the pure awareness of the Witness (the I-Thought); but individual consciousness is the I-Thought filtered through the prism of the particular information matrix associated with a given personality. In that case, we are all one (we share the I-Thought) but also are all different (we have different informational prisms that serve to individuate our consciousness).
The latter viewpoint is, I think, pretty close to what our commenter Matt Rouge has said on the subject. I suspect it offers at least a lead to the truth. But I could be wrong; I don't know for sure.
I guess I need more information ...