We rarely think of what ‘information’ is, but it is the single most important factor shaping our lives, writes Satyen K. Bordoloi

In the 1997 film Nothing To Lose, Tim Robbins sees his wife intimate with his boss. At the edge of a breakdown when a carjacker gets into his car, he does not respond to his threats. After a mad journey that risks his life, the film ends with him realizing his wife was not having an affair after all.

Though a comedy, the film highlights something crucial: the power information – in this case misinformation – has to influence not just minds and bodies, but the world at large. Since ‘living’ beings erupted on the planet, nothing has changed the world more than the creation, dissemination and use of information.

Yet we rarely think about ‘information’. It’s not something we can touch or see. Where does it reside then or come from? How does it come to us?

Information Science

What you see in books, data storage systems or say this website is not information. These alphabets, words and sentences are nothing but a collection of symbols that has to be interpreted by your brain which knows its predetermined meanings for it to become information. If you didn’t know English, this would be gibberish.

Science, thankfully, has had a close relation with information as it has both been shaped by and has been shaping it for many millennia. In physics, information has sometimes been proposed as the fifth dimension, the first three being the three axes of space, and the fourth being time. This is because information influences and shapes the physical reality of the universe similar to space and time.

Information science is the field that studies the practice of effective collection, storage, retrieval and use of information and encompasses a variety of other disciplines from computer science, cognitive science, psychology, mathematics, logic, information theory, electronics, communications, linguistics, economics, classification science, systems science, library science and management science among others.

In information theory, the concept of information as the fifth dimension is the relationship between information, entropy, and the potential for information processing and decision-making. Information theory provides a mathematical framework for understanding the flow of information and its influence on the behavior of complex systems.

This perspective emphasizes the idea that information is not just a representation of reality but is also a key factor in shaping the structure and behaviour of physical and biological systems.

The 5th Dimension of Computing

In computing and information science, information is at times considered a fifth dimension, with the other four being data, processing, storage, and transmission. This concept is based on the idea that information is not just a by-product of computation and storage, but also of communication and interaction between different elements of the information ecosystem.

In network science, the idea of information as the fifth dimension refers to the temporal aspect of information flow in complex networks, including the dynamics of information spread, the evolution of network topology, and the effect of time on network structure and function.

Network science provides a framework for understanding how information flows through complex systems and how it affects the behaviour of these systems over time. This perspective emphasizes the idea that information is not just a static entity, but is also a dynamic and evolving force that shapes the behavior of complex systems.

Effects of this 5th Dimension

Looking at information as the fifth dimension has big implications for the design, development and use of technology. It helps scientists to approach the development and design of systems from a more data-driven perspective, optimize technology for the needs of users, develop data-driven methods for understanding, predicting user behavior, etc.

The key here is that looking at information as another dimension means you consider the human perspective as key in the design and use of technology (non-living things neither need nor use information), putting the needs and preferences of users at the core of design and thus the development of human-centered computing.

Yet the biggest influence of the idea of information as the fifth dimension is on what we call ‘big data’ which is the collection of data we use to train artificial intelligence. The entire training using big data is in a way nothing but helping the AI system understand the data and cull out ‘information’ that is useful to humans and in a context, we understand and can use.

This means that the data is not just managed but analysed to turn ‘big data’ into information that is useful for humans. This context is what has led to the exponential rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the last decade.

The weight of Information

The weight of an object is a measure of its mass that is determined by the amount of matter it holds. Information is something nebulous, something that does not exist in the physical domain as we know it, the very reason why we call it the fifth dimension. However, that does not mean scientists have not tried to weigh it. A decade ago, professor John D. Kubiatowicz from UC Berkeley explained that a stored data byte does actually have a physical weight, albeit a very small one – around 1 attogram i.e. one-quintillionth of a gram.

University of Portsmouth physicist Melvin Vopson calculated that the literal mass of all the digital data we are creating, i.e., the images, texts, and videos stored in all the systems on Earth, is making the planet a touch heavier. He commented in this article that, “The growth of digital information seems truly unstoppable. According to IBM and other big data research sources, 90% of the world’s data today has been created in the last 10 years alone.”

In 130 years, the amount of power and resources needed to sustain our digital transformation would “equal all the power currently produced on planet Earth, and by 2245, half of Earth’s mass would be converted to digital information mass.”

The idea of information as the fifth dimension is thus not just an idea but has serious implications for our future. Used in computer science and data science to describe the organization and processing of information, where by organizing data along multiple dimensions it becomes easier to analyze the relationships between data elements and make better-informed decisions based on it.

Information as a fifth dimension also leads to the development of new algorithms and techniques for processing, analyzing, and visualizing large amounts of data. It thus has played an important role in the advancement of data science and computer science. And whether we think about it or not, this fifth dimension has and will continue to change not just the world, but the entire universe.

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Satyen is an award-winning scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness, and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.

1 Comment

  1. Niraj Dasa on

    What an amazing article! The theories of all the dimensions are just theories out there but you have tried to explain it in a way that none has done so far. The aspect of describing ‘information’ and AI was something intriguing I must say. Also the theory that information can also be a dynamic force rather than just being a static entity that shapes many complex systems….just WOW!…..Great job 🙂

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