Call yourself an ‘Information Systems Engineer’?

A few years ago, I was on the cusp of becoming a Chartered Information Systems Engineer. The night before my peer review interview, I sat imagining questions I might be asked. I had long been aware that there is no agreed, consistent, meaningful definition of the word “systems” but I suddenly realised I didn’t know what “engineer” meant either. Once again, the word has been so horribly misused that its value has been depleted. Luckily there remains a core meaning that an engineer applies scientific knowledge to solve practical problems. But everyone does that, surely? I preferred a definition I found that evening, “an engineer is someone who can do for ten shillings what any damned fool can do for a pound.” It has an element of quality and value. We were getting into Zen.

Many years later, I was working on a ‘Knowledge Management’ project; to capture snippets of information provided by engineers and scientists. I started to think about the difference between data, information and knowledge. I wasn’t convinced that you could build a computerised ‘information system’ that could store ‘knowledge’. At about the same time, several people around me were getting interested in blogs and wikis. With my colleague, a librarian, I attended a ‘Knowledge Management and Social Software’ event. There was an open question session so I asked the assembled experts what they understood to be the difference between information and knowledge. There was an awkward moment before someone tried to answer me, then a fairly rapid intervention by the chair, who said it was a very theoretical question and we all understood what we meant. A noticeable wave of relief radiated out as people retired to their comfort zones.

I’m still not sure if this had been discussed so many times, without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, that they were bored or if they didn’t want to think about it because it’s A Hard Question. I was forced to conclude that I didn’t even know what ‘information’ was. Awkward!

I’ve thought about the subject a lot since. I have a few ideas but I’m not there yet. I’ve decided to think of it as “Information Metaphysics”. What is information? Does it exist? What is it made from? How does it work? Some people think the universe is made of information. I think they are Wrong. I think information is related to matter, energy, order, disorder, chaos, entropy, intelligence and culture.  I think it is probably unwise to settle for ignorance. That is rarely a good idea. We need more information – whatever THAT is.

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