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Information as Ontologization

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The traditional view of data, information, and knowledge as a hierarchy fosters an understanding of information as an independent entity with objective meaning—that while information is tied to data and knowledge, its existence is not dependent upon them. While traditional conceptions assume a static nature of information, expressed by the equation information = data + meaning, we have argued that this understanding is based on an ontologization of an entwined process of sense making and meaning making. This process starts from the recognition of a pattern that is interpreted in a way that influences our behavior. At the same time, the process character of meaning making makes us aware of the fact that this ontologized hierarchy is in fact an interwoven process. We conclude that the phenomenological analysis of this ontologization that makes into being data, information, and knowledge has to go back to this process to reveal the essential underlying dependencies.
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Information as Ontologization
David J. Saab
College of Information Sciences and Technology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park,
PA 16802. E-mail: dsaab@ist.psu.edu
Uwe V. Riss
SAP Research, CEC Karlsruhe, Vincenz-Priessnitz-Str. 1, 76131 Karlsruhe, Germany.
E-mail: uwe.riss@sap.com
The traditional view of data, information, and knowledge
as a hierarchy fosters an understanding of information as
an independent entity with objective meaning—that while
information is tied to data and knowledge, its existence
is not dependent upon them. While traditional concep-
tions assume a static nature of information, expressed
by the equation information =data +meaning, we have
argued that this understanding is based on an ontolo-
gization of an entwined process of sense making and
meaning making. This process starts from the recogni-
tion of a pattern that is interpreted in a way that influences
our behavior. At the same time, the process character
of meaning making makes us aware of the fact that this
ontologized hierarchy is in fact an interwoven process.
We conclude that the phenomenological analysis of this
ontologization that makes into being data, information,
and knowledge has to go back to this process to reveal
the essential underlying dependencies.
The traditional view of the relations between data, informa-
tion, and knowledge is often described as a data-information-
knowledge hierarchy (Rowley, 2007). It sees information
roughly as data plus meaning and knowledge as informa-
tion plus context. This idea of hierarchy recently reappeared
in Floridi’s (2009) information concept, where information
is defined as comprising sets of well-formed (i.e., syntacti-
cally precise) and meaningful data that has a truth function.
Meanwhile, others (Machlup, 1984a; Tuomi, 1999) have
raised the question whether this hierarchy really makes sense,
because the understanding of data is a process that depends
on knowledge—in fact, data, information, and knowledge
can be “said to be a specific type of each of the others, or
an input for producing each of the others, or an output of
processing each of the others” (Machlup, 1984b, p. 647). We
want to address this question by examining the processes
Received November23, 2010; revised June 22, 2011; accepted June 23, 2011
© 2011 ASIS&T Published online in Wiley Online Library
(wileyonlinelibrary.com). DOI: 10.1002/asi.21615
and relations between data, information, and, to some extent,
knowledge in more detail.
In this article, we will show that data basically describe
patterns. We argue that it is only the process of sense mak-
ing that makes data of patterns or, in other words, that we
use the term data to describe patterns that have undergone
a process of sense making. The result of this process gives
clues about the environment that provide orientation for our
actions (Stegmaier, 2008). These clues become manifest in
the way they influence our behavior. By this, we mean that
in a world without information, we would not be able to
act in a well-directed way due to the plethora of possibili-
ties; information reduces this variety by providing clues that
reduce these possibilities, a phenomenon that is also known
as inverse relationship principle (Barwise & Seligman, 1997;
Floridi, 2006). Before we go into details explicating these
ideas, we first give a brief recount of existing theories of infor-
mation to show the diversity of information concepts. Instead
of contributing to this diversity, this article aims at integrating
certain aspects in these information concepts. After having
offered a detailed analysis of information, we advocate for the
adoption of a phenomenological perspective in information
science.
A Brief History: The Evolution of the Concept
of Information
Capurro and Hjørland (2003) as well as Cornelius (2002)
have written detailed histories of the concept of informa-
tion, and we do not want to recapitulate that here. Instead,
we will trace a general trajectory of the concept that
has evolved among information scientists and philosophers
since the introduction of information theory (Shannon &
Weaver, 1949). Information has been cast as subjective,
as process, as physical, and as evidence. It has been con-
sidered as situational, social construct, and propositional
statement. The myriad ways in which information has been
JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
TABLE 1. Information perspectives and approaches.
Perspective or approach Description Favored by
Subjective/situational Information is dependent upon a cognitive interpretive
agent who is able to interpret both data elements and
context
Buckland (1991); Floridi (2003)a(a); Bates (2005,
2006)(b); Bawden (2007)(a); Hjørland (1992,
2007)(a); Bateson (1972)(c); Yovits (1975)(c);
MacKay (1969); Saracevic (1999)(d)
Process Information is a process and not an objective entity Boulding (1956)(a); Brookes (1980)(a); Shera
(1970)(a); Pratt (1977)(a); Belkin (1990)(a)
Objective/physical Information is an objective entity with physical properties Shannon (1948)(a); Shannon & Weaver (1949); Stonier
(1997)(b); Bates (2005, 2006)(a); Bawden (2007)(a);
Dretske (1981); Wiener (1961)(a)
Epistemic Information serves as the basis for knowledge about the
world
Furner (2004)(a); Floridi (2003)(a); Shannon (1948)(a);
Dretske (1981); Harms (1998)(a)
Phenomenal Information manifests as phenomena that cannot be
separated from either the subject or the objectified
world
Boulding (1961)(a); Brookes (1975, 1980)(b); Dervin
(1983, 1999)(b)
Social construct Information is a social construct in the traditional
constructivist sense and has no real objective correlate
in the physical world
Pratt (1977)(a); Belkin (1978)(b); Cornelius (2002);
Day (2001)(a); Hayles (1999)(b); Rayward (1992)(a);
Hjørland (2002)(b); Wersig (1997)(d)
Propositional Information is an element in an explanatory construct Dretske (1981)(b); Derr (1985)(b); Fox (1983)(b)
aFor references see (a) Furner (2010); (b) Bates (2005); (c) Capurro & Hjørland (2003); (d) Cornelius (2002).
conceptualized makes it “notoriously a polymorphic phe-
nomenon and a polysemantic concept” (Floridi, 2005). More
recent efforts to delineate a unified theory of information1
include Hofkirchner (2009) and Fuchs (2008). Table 1 briefly
captures the variety of theoretical perspectives concerning
information. One of the aims of this article is to show
that some of these meanings result from an ontologization
of the sense-making process that belongs to the concept of
information.
The information theory of Shannon and Weaver (1949)
sees information centrally related to a technical communi-
cation processes. Their information theory takes information
as an objective entity that can be quantified and measured
independently of sender and receiver. A message allows for
different possible codifications but is regarded as a static
mapping. A central question that has been raised is that of
measuring the “amount” of information, which accompanied
the introduction of the bit as a unit of information by Shan-
non and Weaver. However, depending on the context, one bit
can carry the same information as one page of text so that
the bit is a unit of data rather than a unit of information. Fur-
ther questions regarding information concern the nature of
its relationship to meaning and its truth-value.
Several researchers have criticized this concentration on
signal transmission. One of them was MacKay (1969), who
emphasized that information is inseparable from meaning.
He has defined information “as that which does logical
work on the organism’s orientation” (pp. 95–96). This view
sees information as becoming manifest in the organism’s
1See also (a) Unified Theory of Information Research Group at
http://uti.at/about.html, and (b) BITrum Project at http://sites.google
.com/site/ebitrum/, a multidisciplinary group whose objective is to develop
a conceptual and theoretical clarification of information as a plurality by
distinguishing different analytical levels: concepts, metaphors, theories,
consequences, and applications.
cognitive structures as reaction to its environment and there-
fore takes a broader perspective towards information than
Shannon’s. MacKay’s conception goes beyond communica-
tion processes and includes natural sources of information,
as, for instance, the height and direction of the sun that can
provide us with information about the time of day.
Qvortrup (1993) challenged Shannon’s theory as describ-
ing only the technical aspects of information. The sender
needs to select from a possible range of messages, hence some
meaning is attached to the decision regarding which message
to select. The position of the receiver is also ambiguous, as it
ignores the context of sender and receiver who must belong to
one social system; this context makes the message mutually
intelligible. Qvortrup points out that the exclusively technical
perspective of information theory leads to a contradiction:
Shannon views information as entropy, whereas Wiener
(1961) views information as negative entropy. Their “mutual
problem [is] that information is information only in relation
(be it directly or inversely proportional) to an observer’s idea
of order, organization, etc.” (Qvortrup, 1993, p. 8).
A principle problem of the criticized approaches is their
substance concept of information, as Qvortrup described it,
which regards information as an object transferable from one
location to another. He pointed to several flaws of such a
conception. By the transfer of information, for example, the
sender does not lose anything. Moreover, the information
received by the recipient is not identical with the sent informa-
tion. Here, additional process aspects come into play, which
Brookes (1977) expressed in his fundamental equation:
K[S]+!I=K[S+!S],
where K[S] symbolizes the subject’s knowledge structure
before receiving the information !I, while K[S +!S] sym-
bolizes the subject’s knowledge structure after receiving it.
It regards information as a process that changes the subject’s
2 JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
DOI: 10.1002/asi
knowledge and not as something that is simply added to the
receiver’s mind.
The idea that information is inseparable from meaning
ranges from individual comprehension to the whole sociocul-
tural context, in which both sender and receiver are situated.
This has led to a commonly accepted view of information as
“data +meaning” (Floridi, 2005; Saracevic, 1999). Describ-
ing information in this way allows us to account for both
the signal that exists independently of a cognitive being (i.e.,
data) and the result of the interpretive processes (i.e., mean-
ing); Winograd and Flores (1987) pointed out that even if we
assume a stable standard meaning of data, the respective con-
text generally requires an interpretative adaptation. Can the
objective and subjective dimensions of information be con-
sidered independently? Is the idea of data really independent
of the idea of information? If data appear as independent,
then what is it exactly? How do semantics manifest—as
an interpretive, constructivist, or phenomenological process?
Can the meaning of something be isolated from either the
cognitive agent or the process by which it manifests? These
are the questions we wish to explore in this article.
A Brief Roadmap: From Data to Information
to Knowledge
The starting point of our investigation is the insight that
information cannot be described as data that possess an objec-
tive meaning. We rather see information resulting largely
from a schema-based interpretation of data, in which the sub-
ject makes sense of a given pattern. Which sense is made of
such patterns depends on our background knowledge (Searle,
1997). Dretske (1981) describes it in the following way: “the
information one receives is a function of what one already
knows” (p. 81). This means that the term data already pre-
sumes the informational character of the respective pattern.
This informational character, which we call sense, describes
the scope of possibilities afforded to the subject by the data.
We also say that data provide the clues for the subject’s
orientation (Stegmaier, 2008), which enable the subject to
cope with the situation and identify action opportunities. The
character of these clues definitely depends on the person’s
individual capabilities. For a stock market trader, the latest
revenue announcement of a company can mean a clear signal
to buy or sell shares, while the layman does not know how to
interpret the data. Information is closely related to these iden-
tified action opportunities, as derived from the sense-making
process. Therefore, information is a product of a subject’s
capability, rather than an aggregation of data objects imbued
with objective meaning.
In most cases, sense making is not a single interpretative
process but a multifaceted one, in which data and informa-
tion appear at different interpretational levels. For example,
a letter provides a pattern that becomes data in the con-
text of a word, while the word appears as a pattern that
becomes data in the context of a sentence. Later, we will
relate this observation to Polanyi’s idea of stratification. This
view helps to better articulate the mutual dependence of data
and information. While the term data describes the physical
manifestation of interpretable patterns, information refers to
the subjective process and the resulting clues. The idea of
data cannot be thought of without the idea of information so
that the concept of data already presumes its informational
character.
This might seem curious because we sometimes call some
patterns data, even if we are not able to make appropriate
sense of them. For example, we refer to a hieroglyphic text
as data even if we cannot read it. In such case, however,
we assume that there has been at least one competent inter-
preter of this text, for example, the author. An automatically
produced random text can only count as data inasmuch as it
comprises interpretable patterns. In this case, it might happen
that such a text comprises meaningful words but meaningless
sentences for a reader so that the sense-making process, and
therefore the information, remains rather limited.
On the other hand, the reference to data is the main dif-
ferentiator between information and knowledge. The latter
describes a persistent capability (Riss, 2005) as an internal
point of reference, while information is—at least partially—
the transient result of a data-based, sense-making process
that is based on an external point of reference. Here, we pre-
scind from the fact that knowledge might have a physical
manifestation in the brain because this is not accessible to
the subject in the way that data are accessible. We can clearly
recognize the distinction of information and knowledge from
our use of the two words. If we say that A possesses the
information that p, it suggests that there is some data from
which this information originates; if we say that A knows
that p, this suggests that A might have learned this by her-
self. Knowledge does not primarily rely on (physical) data,
whereas information depends on it. In any case, we realize
that both information and knowledge are bound to persons.
We will come back to this point later.
Let us come back to the internal representation of knowl-
edge. Here, it is known that the ability to employ knowledge
relies on active cognitive patterns called schemas (Strauss
& Quinn, 1997, p. 140). Schemas help us to structure infor-
mation, which (a) facilitate our knowledge capacities with
respect to information as part of our individual experience
and (b) enable us to share information with others in ways
that allow us to narrow the possible senses of data into a more
specific and culturally shared meaning. To express the latter
aspect, we say that we are involved in meaning making, where
we distinguish subjective sense from intersubjective meaning
(Vygotsky, 1986). If we develop different cultural schemas,
our knowledge becomes structured differently, and the sense
making and meaning making in which we engage will yield
different information and data. Because we are never without
our schemas, we are continually bringing our knowledge to
bear on the patterns we encounter, making sense and mean-
ing of them such that they yield information and let us see
the underlying patterns as data. The introduction of schemas
into our discussion enables us to situate the concept of infor-
mation within a phenomenological perspective as a way of
better understanding the interpretive process related to it.
JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY 3
DOI: 10.1002/asi
What we have shown so far already indicates that the view
of a data-information hierarchy (Rowley, 2007; Tuomi, 1999)
must be revised in favor of such a phenomenological perspec-
tive. In particular, we posit that information is accompanied
by a process of ontologization.2The core of this ontologiza-
tion process comprises the transformation of patterns through
an entwined process of individual sense making and social
meaning making, through which we can discern and under-
stand the underlying data as well as the resulting clues, which
are merged into one being (hence ontologization): informa-
tion as an ontological whole. In the following subsections we
explore the view in more detail.
In the next sections, we examine the process of sense
making in more detail and describe how we discern data
from patterns by their informational nature. We continue with
a detailed discussion of ontologization that reveals infor-
mation’s process character. We proceed to an examination
of schemas and the meaning-making process that allows
us to discern knowledge, which is also informational in
nature. Finally, we reflect on how our orientation helps to
bias our ontologization of data-information-knowledge and
to shape the stratification of information inherent to our
communication of data-information.
From Data to Information
In this section we explain why we think that we can under-
stand data only in relation to a process of sense making. To this
end, we start with the concept of pattern, by which we mean
any recognizable and physically manifest structure. This can
be a reoccurring event, a thing, or any other perceivable entity.
A pattern may vary from simple geometrical patterns such
2Ontologize and ontologization have been used in a variety of ways in
different domains. Semantic technologists use it to refer to the aggrega-
tion or linking of lexical units to taxonomies and computational ontologies
(Kozareva & Hovy, 2010; Pantel & Pennacchiotti, 2008; Pennacchiotti &
Pantel, 2006). Social and cognitive psychologists use it to refer to categor-
ical exclusions of others and the making of outgroups (Roncarati, Perez,
Ravenna, & Navarro-Pertusa, 2009; Schoeneman, Schoeneman-Morris,
Obradovic, & Beecher-Flad, 2010). Ecologists use it to refer to the orga-
nizing conceptualization of ecosystems (Schizas & Stamou, 2010). Our use
of the term ontologization refers to the parallel processes of sense mak-
ing and meaning making in which data-information-knowledge is “made
into being,” to recognize it as being, as existing as part of one’s concep-
tualizations that are grounded in a real-world experience. As part of our
conceptual networks, whatever is ontologized is also stratified such that
parts of the conceptual network can be segmented into ontological wholes
and include/exclude/subsume various relationships with other ontological
wholes that may also be expressed as categories, taxonomies, or formal
ontologies. We see stratification as a multilayering and multifaceting of that
which is being ontologized and which allows us to move in the conceptual
space between sense making and meaning making. We use ontologize rather
than reify to so as to not lose focus on the cognitive processes involved, to
keep the discussion focused on the processes of sense making and meaning
making rather than just the object that has been reified. For example, we
could argue about the reification of a particular entity or phenomenon as to
whether it actually exists, but it is much less arguable as to whether or not
it has been ontologized by a person or culture. We discuss ontologization
extensively in a subsequent section.
as a Penrose tiling or the regular ticks of a metronome to
sequences of letters, words, or entire sentences. The recog-
nition of such patterns is to be seen as an act of abstraction
(Saab & Riss, 2010) that prescinds from individual particu-
larities of an object and subsumes it under a common identity.
As we know from physical measurements, even the ticks of a
metronome are not completely identical if we examine them
in sufficient detail. Pattern recognition is essential to all kinds
of living beings and provides a central means of orientation in
the environment (Bich, 2010; Hutchins, 2000/1; Maturana &
Varela, 1998; Riedl, 1987). Such capability can be innate
or learned. For instance, the recognition of patterns such as
faces is a mainly innate capability, arising out of evolution-
ary processes, though there are cultural differences to which
degree certain features of the face are taken into account.
Generally, the recognition of patterns is based on acquired
capabilities that are more complex and depend on our indi-
vidual experience as well as our sociocultural background.
For instance, we are only able to recognize a bill and dis-
tinguish it from an ordinary piece of paper because of our
education (Searle, 1997).
An important point is the affect of a pattern on us, which
can be significantly different between individuals or at differ-
ent times. Some patterns (e.g., ornamental patterns) have only
a minor influence on our behavior even if they may be aes-
thetically pleasing. Other patterns such as traffic signs have
a much more significant influence on our behavior. Does this
mean that it has more meaning for us? What is the differ-
ence between these two cases if we compare the ornamental
pattern to a traffic sign? Although we clearly recognize both,
there are different affordances in play in our encounter with
each. We stop our vehicles at a stop sign, which helps us avoid
accidents, but if we stopped while driving at every ornamen-
tal pattern encountered, we’d more likely cause accidents.
We must not confuse impact on our behavior with mean-
ing. We would not say that a traffic sign is more meaningful
to us than Shakespeare’s King Lear, although its immediate
influence is likely to be more significant.
This makes clear that we need clarification of the role of
meaning. We will use a distinction that has been introduced
by other authors, namely, that of sense and meaning. While
sense is personal and situational, meaning is more stable and
determined by the sociocultural context. Vygotsky (1986)
describes the meaning and sense, respectively, as follows:
A word in context means both more and less than the same
word in isolation: more, because it acquires new context; less,
because its meaning is limited and narrowed by the context”
(p. 146). Engeström and Sannino (2010) interpret the dif-
ference in the context of activity: meaning refers to general
activity (as part of sociocultural context), while sense has the
focus of individual action. For instance, they see a medical
treatment under the aspect of maintaining health (meaning) or
under the aspect of treating the problem of a particular patient
(sense). Stegmaier’s philosophy of orientation relates sense
with our personal need for orientation to clarify our action
opportunities (Stegmaier, 2008). Such orientation requires
making sense of a situation.
4 JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
DOI: 10.1002/asi
In the process of sense making, the person realizes what
she can do with the data when she sees them as a possible
starting point for action. Hereby, the data become a clue, a
reference point for action. Let us go back to our traffic sign
example. The fact that it is a pattern only means that we
have seen something similar before, and the fact that it is
data means that the observer can connect it to some prior
knowledge, for example, what it means in terms of known
and commonly understood traffic rules; the fact that it is a
clue describes that it influences her behavior how to cross the
street in a specific way, which is not a direct consequence
of the knowledge but leaves space for alternative action—for
instance, she can cross the street although the traffic light is
red because she is in a hurry.
Moreover, sense is developing in time, meaning that I
might react in another way if I have more time to make
sense of a pattern. The longer we reflect on a pattern the
more senses we might discover. Imagine, for example, you
get a message from a friend telling you that she cancels an
appointment that you had arranged some time ago. In this
case, you might reflect on the message for some time to dis-
cern possible reasons for this cancellation (e.g., Has she been
very busy recently? Have you and she recently argued? Is her
canceling a common occurrence?) and what consequences it
might entail. The more you reflect on the message the more
possibilities might come to your mind, and each possibil-
ity brings about different starting points for action, that is,
more clues. Sense making, therefore, is an open and ongoing
process that can lead us to multiple possible meanings and
multiple clues, i.e., various starting points for action.
How do we distinguish random patterns from meaningful
ones? An example that is often discussed in this respect are
texts that we take for meaningful information, although we
do not understand them, such as the Egyptian hieroglyphs
before the discovery of the Rosetta stone (Floridi, 2005). The
hieroglyphs seem to support the view that meaning is inher-
ent in the object and independent of the observer, who cannot
read them. This view is based on an assumption, namely, that
someone has purposefully written these texts to communicate
some message. However, such expectation is always based
on a number of scientific assumptions, and we could imag-
ine an Egyptian artisan who simply mixed informative data
with senseless but decorative textual patterns. Even if such
an assumption is unlikely, we cannot exclude it as long as we
do not completely understand the hieroglyphs.
Ontologization and Stratification
As the hieroglyph example shows, information is gen-
erally ascribed to objects. This is expressed, for example,
when we describe information as meaningful data. In this
section, we will further advance the view that this is only
one aspect, and that information includes other aspects such
as that of a process. This view is reflected in Buckland’s
distinction of information-as-thing, information-as-process,
and information-as-knowledge (Buckland, 1991). However,
we cannot consider these in isolation, which would serve
only to amplify the ambiguity of the concept of informa-
tion, but rather as distinct yet interdependent aspects of
information.
We discussed above how information is closely interwo-
ven with sense making, starting from a recognized pattern
that informs the observer and ending with the determination
of clues. The fact that we nevertheless regard information as
a unity is because of an ontologization of this process. Gener-
ally, to ontologize is to “make into being” and being is always
what we understand, however implicitly, in our encounter
with entities (Cerbone, 2008). To better understand ontolo-
gization let us start with an example that illustrates what we
mean: If we consider the arithmetic expression “2 +3,”
we can understand in two different ways. On the one hand, we
can understand it as an expression that is equal to “5”. On
the other hand, if we consider this object in more detail, we
can realize that it actually stands for a process (Sfard, 1991),
namely, the process of counting to “2” that is followed by the
process of counting to “3.” In this interpretation, the expres-
sion “2 +3=5” just describes that this process yields the
same result as the process of directly counting to “5.” We
state that we use the term information in the same way as we
use the expression “2 +3,” that is, as an expression for the
result of the process of making sense of the respective data
that consists in the clues that we derive from it.
In the same way as we use the description “2 +3” to refer
to the object “5” while keeping the process of addition in
mind, we also phenomenologically use the ontologization of
information to refer to the derived clues while keeping the
original sense making of information in mind. We can also
realize this from another phenomenon. If we say that two doc-
uments contain the same information, we do not necessarily
mean that the two documents are identical, but that we derive
the same clues or action possibilities from it in the same way
as we say that “2 +3” and “1 +4” are identical.
It is interesting to note that we can also consider ontolo-
gization from a Polanyian perspective (Polanyi, 1962). For
example, when someone reads a word, she sees the indi-
vidual letters but her focus is on the word as a whole; the
reader is subsidiarily aware of the letters but her focal aware-
ness is placed on the word as a whole. The same holds for
words and sentences. In the same way as “2” becomes a sum-
mand under the process of addition, patterns become data
under the process of sense making. When we focus our atten-
tion on the pattern, we are aware that the process is still
subsidiarily, which we express by denoting the pattern as
data. When we focus on the results, the clues, we are also
still subsidiarily aware of the process and its origin and call
it information. As Polanyi has described it, we can shift the
focus of our attention from the process to the underlying
objects and back, but in doing so there is still a subsidiary
awareness of the other constituents. The idea of subsidiary
and focal awareness nicely illustrates what we mean by say-
ing that data presume information; if we talk about informa-
tion as data, we mean the pattern, but we are still subsidiarily
aware of the sense making and the resulting clues. In the
same way, if we focus on information as the process of sense
JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY 5
DOI: 10.1002/asi
making, we are still subsidiarily aware of the pattern and the
resulting clues.
Another Polanyian idea that is related to subsidiary and
focal awareness is that of stratification (Polanyi, 1962). For
example, the recognition of letters allows for the identifica-
tion of words, to which a sense is given that goes beyond that
of individual letters. In the same way, we proceed from words
to sentences, from sentences to paragraphs, and from para-
graphs to the entire content of a text (Lyre, 2002). The
meaning that we find at a lower level helps identify a larger
pattern as data. However, as we said before (referring to
Vygotsky), the sense of a word is also influenced by the sen-
tence to which it belongs. Here, we discover what Gadamer
(1975) has called a hermeneutic circle. This stratification
often leads to an ambiguous use of the term information
because we do not explicitly specify the respective level of
interpretation—usually it is implicit in our communication
and others infer the level for interpretation. Such stratifica-
tion refers to the segmenting of patterns at different levels of
abstraction (Floridi, 2008) such that they form meaningful
ontological wholes. Polanyi (1962, 1969) describes this inte-
gration process (of ontological wholes) with a comparison
to Gestalt theory. Recall Sfard’s above-mentioned example
regarding the mathematical expression “2 +3” and the pro-
cess it exemplifies. This expression ontologizes the process
of adding at a particular level of stratification: this includes
the sum “5” as the upper and determining level of stratifica-
tion and the summands “2” and “3” as the lower level that
are connected by the process of adding.
A slightly more complex example would be the ontolo-
gization of as the golden ratio derived originally the process
of segmenting a square and use that measured segment to
extend one side of the square to create a rectangle. Repeat-
ing this simple sequence of measures and extensions, creates
a proportional shape that produces structurally-sound archi-
tectural forms, has been recognized in the shape of the
nautilus’ shell arising from evolutionary processes over eons,
and reveals an underlying mathematical formula for gaug-
ing aesthetic beauty in both natural and artificial forms. Φ
symbolizes and encapsulates the ontologization of a fairly
complex process enacted in various contexts, but that is
belied by its simple form. The information and data discerned
from patterns can be determined only from the perspective
of the receiver and depends on how they ontologize it. An
architect might ontologize Φdifferently than a mathemati-
cian, for example, recalling the Parthenon as opposed to the
Fibonacci sequence. We can recognize the informational con-
tent only after the interpretation, after we have ontologized
the pattern of data and information at a particular level of
stratification. At each of the levels of stratification that occur
during the sense-making process, we find subordinate sense-
making processes that are mostly automatically integrated
as part of the enactment of schemas. Hereby, the interpre-
tation of the subordinate level helps identify larger patterns
that are then integrated again. This stratified sense-making
process becomes largely schematic based on shared cultural
experience.
From Information to Schemas
How does knowledge manifest, i.e., emerge as part of our
experience? We can say that the external manifestation of
information is transformed into internal schemas. Strauss and
Quinn (1997) describe schemas as “networks of strongly con-
nected cognitive elements that represent the generic concepts
stored in memory” (p. 6). D’Andrade (1995) expands on this
concept and describes schemas as “flexible configurations,
mirroring the regularities of experience, providing automatic
completion of missing components, automatically general-
izing from the past, but also continually in modification,
continually adapting to reflect the current state of affairs”
(p. 140). Schemas facilitate our cognitive functioning, includ-
ing use of our knowledge, in a world overflowing with all
kinds of patterns.
People recall schematically embedded patterns more
quickly and more accurately than schema-inconsistent pat-
terns or events. In fact, schemas hold such sway in our cogni-
tion that people may falsely recall schematically embedded
events that did not occur (DiMaggio, 1997). They are more
likely to recognize patterns embedded in existing schemas
because of repeated activation of the schemas. This repeated
activation evokes expectations within cognition and the easy
recognition of contradictory or challenging information that
does not conform to those expectations formed as part of
the existing schemas. Patterns that are orthogonal to our
schematic expectations are much less likely to be noticed
or recalled.
Because schemas also function as pattern-completion pro-
cessors, they allow us to generate expectations that we use
in conjunction with clues to orient ourselves to the environ-
ment. Continued exposure to the same or similar patterns
will eventually become meaningful in the sense that it will
be associated with other ontologized schemas. We rarely
encounter isolated patterns in the world; our experience is
more complex than that, and our schemas reflect that. As
new patterns appear, new clues are generated, which activate
other schemas and generate new expectations that enable our
active orientation within the world. Experience of varying
contexts facilitates the strengthening of schematic conceptual
connections and their extension to other concepts.
Sense Making and Meaning Making
Thus far, we have argued for a distinction between patterns
and data where the latter connect to clues. We find that the
sense-making process associated with data is both objective
and subjective—besides its binding to the pattern, as part of its
objective facet, it depends on the interpreter’s knowledge and
the situational context in which it is interpreted. To express the
difference between the subjective and the objective side, we
will distinguish sense making, as a plainly subjective process,
from meaning making, as the social dimension of informa-
tion. In doing so, we want to explain how it is possible that
information appears to us as objective even though it is based
on an individual interpretative process.
6 JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
DOI: 10.1002/asi
FIG. 1. Ontologization: The phenomenological character of information.
The sense making of patterns allows for the discernment
of data, which provide clues for possible action as an orien-
tation bias for the subject. We cannot say how much sense
we must have to discern data within a pattern because this
is a continuous process and depends on the amount of time
we invest in it. The longer we reflect on a pattern the more
sense we can associate with it, and the more clues it provides
to us. Our schemas, which are necessarily tied to previous
experience, generate these clues.
Though sense making is a process of an individual, it
also takes place in a shared environment that produces
similar experiences in cognitive agents who are further-
more embedded in similar sociocultural contexts. These two
factors—sharedness and embeddedness—lead to a stream-
lining of the individual sense-making processes towards a
cultural meaning-making process. This streamlining com-
prises a continuous, mutual adaptation of individual sense
and social meaning via communication and collaboration. It
is the manifestation of Gadamerian play, where the player
is acting within the context of the game, but is simultane-
ously aware of the rules of the game that are shared among
all the players. This requires that the individual subject is
usually aware to what degree the sense that he or she gives
some pattern deviates from the average sense that others
might give and which are reflected in others’ schemas—in
other words, where there is a fusion of horizons as part of a
hermeneutic circle (Gadamer, 1975). For instance, for some
people, the concept of liberty includes the free disposal of
firearms while the same means a constriction of liberty for
others. Regardless of which understanding of liberty adopted
(sense-making), one has to take the positions and arguments
of both sides into account when one takes a public stand in an
open discussion in order to avoid misunderstanding or plain
confrontation (meaning-making). In terms of meaning mak-
ing, we also have to take our own family, social, and historical
background into account as basis of our attitude.
Heretofore, we have discussed patterns, information, data,
clues, orientation, stratification, sense making, and meaning
making as integral parts of ontologization. We have made
mention of underlying schemas, but haven’t explicated their
roles in ontologization. Figure 1 above depicts how we see
the process and character of ontologization. With this rep-
resentation in mind, we will delve further into the role of
knowledge, schemas, salience, and the sociocultural dimen-
sion of meaning making as part of this process in the next
section.
In pattern completion, schemas function, in some sense,
as flexible experience-based filters that make us attend to the
salient features of a pattern while filtering out the nonsalient.
Schemas’ role in regulating what is salient and nonsalient is
essential to our understanding of sense making and meaning
making. What is salient in a particular context depends on the
focus of our sense making and meaning making, as the focus
of our ontologization. This does not mean that that which
is not salient at any given moment is not being ontologized,
rather it is simply subsidiary to the salient. It can be meaning-
ful only if we have the appropriate schemas for recognizing its
salience. Our assertion here contrasts with Dretske’s assertion
that information does not have to be meaningful to a subject
to be information; it can simply reflect a stable pattern, such
as relevant contextual or background information available to
a subject. Being relevant means being salient to some degree,
which does not imply that what is less salient is not meaning-
ful, only that it is subsidiary to that which has greater salience
at that moment. Ontologization and stratification, through the
enactment of schemas, reveal that the patterns we perceive
JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY 7
DOI: 10.1002/asi
are always meaningful in that we are able to identify what
is more salient and comes to occupy our focal awareness
and what is less salient and comes to occupy our subsidiary
awareness. Dretske was correct in that we should not confuse
information with meaning, but we also assert that we should
not confuse meaning with salience, nor should we mistake
schematic for “not meaningful.”
So, how do we acquire an understanding of what is
salient, which becomes integral to our schemas? Certainly,
we develop schemas individually, as they are part of our
cognitive networks. But we also develop cultural schemas,
which are those schemas we co-develop with others. The
notion of what becomes salient often depends on our socio-
cultural interactions with others, though it may also arise
out of purely personal experience as when encounter some-
thing that is about to cause us injury. The co-development of
schemas does not require people to have the same experiences
at the exact same time and place, but rather that they experi-
ence the same general patterns. Our experiences as agents in
the world are organized in ways that ensure ease of interac-
tion, coordination of activities, and collaborative interaction.
Because of this fact, people in the same social environment
will indeed experience many of the same typical patterns and
interpret them in a similar way. In experiencing the same gen-
eral patterns, people will come to share the same common
understandings and exhibit similar emotional and motiva-
tional responses and behaviors. However, because we are
also individuals, there can be differences in the feelings and
motivations evoked by the schemas we hold. “The learner’s
emotions and consequent motivations can affect how strongly
the features of those events become associated in memory”
(Strauss & Quinn, 1997, p. 133). Individuals will engage the
external world structures and experience the same general
patterns. Similar stimuli and experiences will activate simi-
lar schemas. It is in that sense that we considered them shared
schemas. It‘s their quality of sharedness that makes them a
dimension of the cultural.
It is this process of creating a mutual cultural understand-
ing of patterns within our experience that we call meaning
making. It is sense making on a sociocultural level, where the
awareness of others’ knowledge capacity allows us to refine
the sense of a thing into meaning (Vygotsky, 1986). Both
sense making and meaning making are aspects of the inter-
pretative process that appears to us as an ontologization—one
allowing us to ground perceived patterns in data tied to
the physical world, and the other allowing us to reconfig-
ure the associations of these patterns in ways that can be
communicated meaningfully in context.
From Information to Knowledge
Our capacity of meaning making is important to our under-
standing of information and knowledge. Knowledge is often
characterized as information plus context (Nonaka, 1994).
We normally think of information as the foundation for
building knowledge; however, as we have seen, we need
knowledge in the same way to discern information. To under-
stand why this is so, we first have to distinguish different types
and sources of knowledge. Then we have to ask which kind
of knowledge we get from information. To this end, let us
consider the following proposition to get an initial idea of the
fundamental difference between information and knowledge:
(1) A knows how to recognize trees.
This proposition is clearly an example of A’s knowl-
edge, but not information. More precisely, (1) is a case of
knowledge-how, in which (1) describes a specific capability
of A, namely, that A can recognize trees in various situations;
we can also say that A can actualize her respective capability
in an appropriate action. An example of such actualization is
the case in which A stands in front of a tree and we realize
that:
(2) A knows that this is a tree.
Proposition (2) obviously describes A’s knowledge that the
respective object is a tree. We infer that A knows this because
she sees or is experiencing the tree in some way. She disposes
of visual data that she interprets in a way that the object is a
tree.
What is the difference between these two propositions and
the following one?
(3) A has the information that this is a tree.
In (3), A has information that is not especially charac-
terized as knowledge. However, by reading (3) we would
not assume that A is standing in front of the tree, but we
interpret the situation in such a way that, for example, she is
reading a piece of paper on which this is written. While in
(2) we assume that A relies on her capability to (directly) rec-
ognize trees, in (3) we assume that A relies on her capability
to interpret (mediating) data.
Thus, we pose the question: What is the difference between
visual data of the tree and textual data on a piece of paper?
First, A has the information because she is engaged in an expe-
rience whereby the information that is emerging is doing so
as part of A’s sensory capacities of sight, touch, smell, etc.,
which are connected to the patterns she is experiencing, and
so through her sense-making ability, she is able to discern
information and the corresponding data grounded in a phys-
ical world. Repeatedly experiencing this or similar patterns
enables the formation of schemas that enable the transfor-
mation of information into knowledge. Second, A has the
information because someone else has provided it as com-
municated knowledge, perhaps as a photograph or drawing
as part of a science or reading lesson. In (3) we would not
assume that she has seen the tree herself. In this second sce-
nario, A is relying on schemas that she has developed (or if
A is a very young child, then perhaps still in the process of
developing), that, through her meaning-making ability, allow
her to incorporate this information into her already existing
8 JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
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knowledge structure. Either scenario is possible, and both
illustrate that the transformation of information to knowl-
edge is enabled through schemas. How do we know thatA has
transformed this information into knowledge? It is simply the
case that A can leave the place and still claim to know that
the object she had seen was a tree, without any visual infor-
mation still available—knowledge is persistent, information
less so because of its dependence on data.
Both information and knowledge refer to experience and
differ only with respect to their point of reference. A person
who claims to have information about something refers to
some data and must be able to provide the respective data; a
person who claims to know something might be required to
justify this claim but this justification can be different from
data, for instance, it might consist in the accomplishment of
a specific action. In that moment that the data have vanished,
the subject has to rely on knowledge instead. We can also
express this in the following way: information relies on exter-
nal reference, while knowledge relies on internal reference.
Another aspect is that information complies with knowledge-
that rather than knowledge-how. However, this assignment is
not completely exclusive. Forinstance, a picture might give us
some understanding even if we are not able to verbally express
this. In most cases, however, data consist in texts and spoken
language, particularly if the intent is to more narrowly con-
strain a person’s sense and meaning making through greater
specificity.
Comparison to Other Views on Information
It is interesting to have a look at some existing theories
of information and investigate to which extent they com-
ply with the theory that we have described. Because of the
plethora of available theories, we have to restrict this to a
few, namely, Shannon and Weaver (1949), Floridi (2005),
and Dretske (1981).
Although the information theory of Shannon and Weaver
is regarded as fundamental, interpretations of its meaning
are rare. The theory consists in a drastic reduction of the
information concept to a few technical features. The core is
the uncertainty of an event i, given by
I(i) =log pi
where pidescribes a discrete probability distribution for a
finite set of event i=1,...,n. We can understand the distri-
bution pias the background knowledge about a situation that
reflects the observer’s expectations regarding the occurrence
of the event i. If pi=1, then there is no uncertainty, that is,
I(i) =0. According to this interpretation, the occurrence of
the event ireduces the uncertainty by I(i). We can also say
that I(i) is the information gained by the occurrence of I
so that Shannon’s formula
I=
n
!
i=1
pilog pi
can be seen as the averaged information gained by the
occurrence of an event in the given situation.
An interpretation process, for which we have argued in
this article, does not seem to appear in Shannon’s theory.
Information or reduction of uncertainty depends only on the
foreknowledge, expressed in pi, and the actual occurrence of
an event i. However, the assumption of a fixed distribution is
not realistic. Let us explain this by an example. If we wait at
a red traffic light, our assumption might comprise the states
(a) “the traffic light will switch within the next 2 minutes
(and we will reach the coming bus)” or (b) “the traffic light
will switch later (and we might miss the bus).” The case that
the traffic light does not switch at all is assumed to have the
probability 0. However, sometimes traffic lights are defective
and do not switch at all; after waiting for quite a while, this
possibility becomes more and more salient to us. Now the
probability of a defective traffic light is definitely larger than
0. Here, our schemas come into play and help us to adapt
to the changing situation. This means that the sense making
appears in the adaptation of the distribution piand hereby
reflects the adaptability of our knowledge as expressed in the
concept of schema. However, the same also happens if we
simply make sense of data that might result in an adaptation
of the distribution pias well.
We can now turn to the question of how the presented
description of information complies with further traditional
views. For example, how does this conception of data com-
port with Floridi’s diaphoric definition of data? Actually, it
enriches this definition by including the process dimension.
The diaphoric definition of data states: “A datum is a putative
fact regarding some difference or lack of uniformity within
some context” (Floridi, 2011). The term fact here refers to
the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition “something that
has really occurred or is actually the case.” This corresponds
to our understanding of a pattern as a structure that we find
in a real object. A lack of uniformity is the negative formula-
tion for the existence of a (potential) pattern. An object that
contrasts with a uniform background is something that might
reoccur in another context; otherwise it would not be dis-
tinguishable from the background. The question is whether
this definition actually describes data or only patterns. This
is not clear because of the introduction of context in this defi-
nition. Floridi’s definition lacks a subject, whose abstraction
capacities enable recognition of the lack of uniformity and
the sense-making process. We can say, rather, that his con-
cept of data corresponds to what we call a pattern, while the
process aspects are hidden in the concept of meaning.
As well, Dretske (1981) stands for a traditional under-
standing of information. Thus, he distinguishes information
from meaning by requiring information to be true, because
knowledge (as justified true belief) requires information, and
therefore information must be true to qualify as information.
Although we dissent from him with respect to the traditional
conception of information, we agree that data are not infor-
mationally barren, per se. However, Dretske also argues that
information does not have to be meaningful to a subject to
be information as well and that it can simply reflect a stable
pattern, such as relevant contextual or background informa-
tion available to a subject. The problem we see with this
JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY 9
DOI: 10.1002/asi
characterization is: How does contextual information acquire
its relevance if it is not meaningful? How is meaning sepa-
rated from the recognition of a pattern and the sense making
of data? We argue that the processes of sense making already
starts with the recognition—if something is recognized, then
it is meaningful at least in some minimal sense. Through the
act of recognizing, in which we bring to bear our previous
experience and knowledge, we are engaged in a process of
meaning making as we try to make sense from the pattern.
Conclusions
While traditional conceptions assume a static nature of
information, expressed by the equation information =data +
meaning, we have argued that this understanding is based
on an ontologization of an entwined process of sense making
and meaning making. This process starts from the recognition
of a pattern that is interpreted in a way that influences our
behavior. More precisely, the pattern provides us with clues
that help us to find orientation for our actions. In this sense,
information is to be primarily understood as a process that
differs from person to person and from situation to situation.
It is only this process that makes patterns data. It also tells us
that it is a fine line that separates meaningless patterns from
meaningful data.
Such interpretative processes are not arbitrary, however.
We are bound to objective conditions that become manifest
in our experience and a specific cultural background that we
share with others. These factors limit the difference in under-
standing specific data. These convergence factors are also
responsible for the fact that different data can result in the
same information, that is, the same clues for our actions. On
the other hand, we also have to realize that the same data
can lead to different clues, as when stock market information
causes one trader to sell and another to buy. Ontologization
allows us to refer to data, process, and clues by means of one
entity in which the respective meaning, that is, the particu-
lar aspect we refer to, becomes apparent from the context.
The data-based interpretative process is closely related to our
schemas, which are internal cognitive patterns and not trans-
parent for the subject. Therefore, the term, information, is
used to refer to the schemas that are related to the specific
interpretations of data.
Despite the persistence of a static view of information,
we think that it is necessary to expose the process charac-
ter of information. The traditional conception assumes an
objective, fixed, and data-dependent meaning that is attached
to data. Nevertheless, we have to understand that because
of the process character, this meaning is primarily subjec-
tive and only becomes objective by shared sociocultural
background and experience. We can also say that it is an
ongoing task to establish objective meaning of data, which
is achieved by permanent communication. It also explains
why this meaning can change in the course of longer time
horizons. These insights are not completely new. For exam-
ple, Polanyi already described communication processes as
sense-giving and sense-reading (Polanyi, 1969).
Ontologization also supports the stratification of data, as it
especially appears in language with its hierarchies of letters,
words, sentences, and texts. This stratification brings some
order to data. At the same time, the process character of mean-
ing making makes us aware of the fact that this ontologized
hierarchy is an interwoven process. The meaning of a word
is influenced by the sentence in which it appears—a word
can be replaced by a metaphor or be misprinted, and still we
can make meaning of it. All this is because of the process
character of information.
Regarding technological solutions in information science,
one consequence of information as ontologization is that we
should never mistake data for information, but also we must
always realize that sense making requires specific conditions
to be successful. It also tells us that the mere provision of
data, as through the Internet, does not result in information
if we have neither the time nor the schemas to make sense of
it. Nowadays, semantic technologies are able to articulate the
required links between data that can help users to engage in
sense making. Developers of information-based applications
must be aware of their respective applications’ require-
ments, and a more complete understanding of the concept
of information, provided here, is a necessary precondition
for this.
Recognizing the mutual entanglement of data and infor-
mation is important with respect to our definitions of infor-
mation. Information does not depend only on data as part
of its definition, but the concept of data already presumes
the concept of information and the process of sense mak-
ing. We have shown that data become mere patterns when
we abstain from any sense making: there is a mutual depen-
dence in data and information such that we cannot separate
one from the other, even though we generally consider them
to be self-contained and independently meaningful entities.
In our analysis, data is a moment and not a constituent (pace
Vygotsky) of information. The definition of data-information
is a simplification that abstracts it from its process charac-
ter. We hope that we have shown that the phenomenological
nature of ontologization necessitates that we consider data,
information, and knowledge in such a way that none of the
three can exist independently of the others.
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JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY 11
DOI: 10.1002/asi
... -Evolution of old information assets into new knowledge assets means the massive ontologization [36] of historical data, which will eventually lead to an explosive growth of distributed but digitally linked knowledge sources such as museums, archives and sites. -Practically, HB stakeholders will still enjoy the comfort of "accessing the database", but technically, the knowledge based approach is more than just data crunching, therefore the knowledge bases for the 21st century will be used [17]. ...
... At the same time, there is also a need to identify which information represents perturbation or noise and accordingly include or filter it out from the knowledge model. This is generally referred to as the ontologization process [36], or, as defined by the dictionary, "to ontologize" means "to convert into ontological entities or express ontologically". Similarly, Zouaq refers to ontologization as the ability to build a bridge between the natural language level and the abstract/conceptual level" [45]. ...
... Information-N existiert nicht für sich, sondern wird in einer aktuellen Handlungssituation konstruiert. Das ist eine Wende von einem ontologisch (Saab & Riss 2011), aber auch von einem strikt epistemologisch (Floridi, s. Abschnitt 4.2) begründetem Verständnis von Information zugunsten eines dynamischen (Rauch 2004), konstruktivistischen (s. ...
... As one of the objectives is to provide a uniform base for the common concepts and their detailed standardized and validated description, ontologies also encompass the machinereadability side, combining semantic meaning with fully digital prepared information [28]. Another advantage of developing dedicated ontologies is the connection of concepts, establishing links and relationships, to specific processes. ...
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