Information Obesity: The web site

Resources for chapter 1: Information and environment

1.1 What counts as "information"? [page 3]

THINK: Let us start with a thinking task. In the book, I use a very broad definition of "information", using the term to encompass all of the intangible but real resources we create and use as we interact with the world around us. These include (but are not limited to):

  • scientific data
  • texts (like books, newspaper articles, web sites, etc.)
  • spoken statements
  • pictures, works of art
  • stories, myths, legends
  • the way we dress, wear our hair, decorate our bodies, etc.
  • music
  • values, morals, faiths

More categories exist (and perhaps you could think about what I have omitted from this list). What I would like you to think about is whether it demeans something like a work of art, or a deeply-held religious belief or ethical value, to call it "information". If you think it does - why?

As with all the thinking tasks on this web site, no "answer" is provided: these tasks are intended to provoke your own self-reflection and, perhaps, to help reveal certain prior beliefs and assumptions in your psychology that might prove illuminating.

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1.2 The spheres of the Earth

The pictures below illustrate the interaction of the various spheres of the Earth. I do not claim to be an expert photographer and these have not been taken especially for this web site: I merely trawled my family's personal photo library. But I hope they make some useful points. For some truly professional illustrations of this, as well as a discussion of how the continents, oceans and life have worked together over billions of years to shape the enormous diversity of the Earth, see Ron Redfern's beautiful book, Origins (2000, Cassell, London).

In each case you can click on the image to see a larger version.

Thumbnail: water pouring from Glencoe

Glencoe, Scotland, July 2008. After a particularly heavy rain storm - not uncommon in this part of the world! - water pours off the steep walls of Glencoe in a dozen "gills" (mountainside streams), eroding further the hard rock walls of this famous valley.

Thumbnail: staffa deformed columns in Scotland

Staffa, Scotland, August 2006. The hexagonal basalt columns of this island (on which stands Fingal's Cave) were created hundreds of millions of years ago as magma cooled. Later, they were subjected to enormous pressures over eons which deformed them in the way you see here. Gradually, sea level changed and eroded the rock from around them, revealing them to view.

Thumbnail: view from Blecanthra

View from Blencathra, the Lake District, England, April 2007. The Lake District was sculpted into its current form thousands of years ago by glaciation, which carved out a patchwork of mountains and lakes (the one in the distance is Derwentwater). Contrast the bare, steep faces of the fells with the husbanded farmland in the gentler valley, crafted by the knowledge it takes to farm in this unfriendly environment. Lakeland valleys which are not farmed tend to be inhospitable marshes. Nowadays, fellwalking - a leisure pursuit that helps connect us to the aesthetic beauty of this place - both preserves and changes the high uplands and supports the whole economy of the region.

Thumbnail: a rock pool at Sanna bay

A rock pool at Sanna Bay, Scotland, July 2008. Anemones and limpets occupy a micro-environment: a seawater pool among the rocks at the shoreline.

Thumbnail: an old shipwreck at Morecambe bay

An old shipwreck revealed at Morecambe Bay, England, March 2008. Similarly here, the biosphere colonises an environment with enormous numbers of organisms: but here the setting is not a natural rock platform but an old ship, wrecked hundreds of years ago and now revealed again by the notorious, shifting sands of this huge bay.

Thumbnail: Morecambe bay at high tide

Morecambe Bay, March 2008. The same bay at high tide: atmosphere and hydrosphere drive the weather and tides are created by the rotation of Earth and Moon around each other and around the Sun. Their combined effect can sometimes be devastating. Humanity has tried to control and shape the resultant erosion by building a sea wall, which itself becomes part of the environment.

Thumbnail: natural environment turned into art

"Another Place", Crosby, England, October 2006. The natural environment turned into art. Antony Gormley placed many life-size human figures along this beach, which is itself an interaction of sea and land. Perhaps not immediately apparent in this photograph - but look at the sand in the middle-distance - was the 50mph (80kph) gale blowing when this photo was taken, whipping the sand grains along the beach and eroding it further. Over the next few decades sea and wind will make this beach disappear, taking the artworks with it.

Thumbnail:the Rochdale Canal

The Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge, England, 2006. Canals are technological artefacts, but they must work with the natural environment around them, following the contours as much as possible and depending on rain to refill them, directed there through reservoirs located near the summit. And as chapter 3 explains, Hebden Bridge would probably not exist were it not for the canal and (later) the railway which came through this valley in the Victorian era. The technological resource built here shaped later activity; the building of the town and also the lives of the people who live permanently on the canal, in the boats you see here.

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1.2 Information in the environment

Some of the pictures above contain information, though in subtle ways. The ones in this section show it more obviously. They show both how information shapes environments at the time of its creation: but also subsequently, in that we can read the society of the past (whether thousands of years ago, or only a few days previously) from the information left as a record. They are arranged, more or less, in chronological order.

Thumbnail:line of Standing stones, Kilmartin

Line of standing stones, Kilmartin, Scotland, August 2006. Among the world's oldest surviving structures are the neolithic monuments which remain standing in many countries. We remain unsure of their exact purpose but the most common interpretation is that monuments like these acted as places of worship, and were also aligned to sunrise and sunset at particular times of the year, allowing these societies to determine the time for planting and harvests, activities by the success of which they would live or die. They thus both gathered information, and later, supply it to us (see next picture).

Thumbnail:archeologists at Paphos

Archaeologists at Paphos, Cyprus, October 2007. Without the discipline of archaeology we would know almost nothing about any culture beyond its written records: which for most of human history were simply not kept. Archaeologists gather information through a painstaking process of revealing, removing and interpreting the environments of the past.

Thumbnail:Skipton Castle

Skipton Castle, England, February 2007. Castles were both defensive and symbolic. They and churches were by far the largest and most durable buildings of their age, highlighting the wealth and power of the nobility and the religious system which together ruled England (and many other countries) for hundreds of years. Coats of arms - the one here is of the Clifford family - were originally granted only to noble families, their status being a reward from the ruling elite for the supply of arms and gold (resources) in a time when most of the population did not earn enough to make it worth taxing them.

Thumbnail: sign at ironbridge.

Sign at Ironbridge, England, July 2007. At Ironbridge in Shropshire, the Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century. The Iron Bridge itself was the world's first such structure, a triumph of engineering and research into how to not only build such a structure but to do so successfully enough that it still stands today. It was a firmly private enterprise, indicated by this sign: the note at the bottom says, "This bridge being private property, every Officer or Soldier, whether on duty or not, is liable to pay toll for passing over, as well as any baggage wagon, mail coach or the Royal Family." A remarkable example of democracy for the time!

thubnail:collection of old railway signs

A collection of old railway signs at Ingrow, England, August 2008. This range of old signs shows various kinds of information displayed at railway stations in the past. Their being preserved and collected together now in a museum is also a sign: firstly that their time has passed (many of these stations have now vanished, and conventions in information display have also changed), and secondly, that the old forms of railway travel are deemed worthy enough of being so preserved.

Thumbnail: soldiers signature

Wartime graffiti in caves under Valkenburg Castle, the Netherlands, August 2007. Only in the southernmost tip of the Netherlands are there hills, and under Valkenburg castle, the mining of stone has created subterranean tunnels. In 1944, as the Allies fought the Axis powers, a squad passed a long night creating this memorial to themselves on the tunnel walls.

Thumbnail: a photo of a wedding

A wedding, Devon, England, July 2007. Life contains many rituals which mark the passage of important moments such as birth, death, and here, a marriage. This picture is full of symbolism, such as the clothing being worn, which is amongst the everyday ways in which we transmit information. Notice also the memorials in the churchyard behind; later versions of the stone circles at Kilmartin, but very similar in intent.

Thumbnail:Manchester city tactics

Dressing room, City of Manchester stadium, January 2007. Tactics are scrawled on the wall from the game the previous weekend. A slight sense of pathos (or, in Manchester United fans, amusement) might also be raised if I supply the information that this game came in the middle of Manchester City's having one of the worst home seasons in English football history, failing to score a home goal in several months' worth of games.

Thumbnail: CETL teaching and learning space

Centre of Excellence for the teaching of Creativity, Sussex University, October 2007. This is an innovative space for teaching and learning in which the designers have attempted to remove as many constraints as possible caused by architecture. Learners sit on beanbags, which can be moved around to any point in the room, rather than fixed chairs or tables. Any part of the room can be used for the projection of information, or the walls can be written on directly.

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All photos are © Andrew Whitworth except the two of Morecambe Bay which are © Clare Whitworth.

All information on this site is © Andrew Whitworth 2009. Site design by Marilena Aspioti. Information on this site can be freely reproduced and used for educational and/or non-profit purposes. For commercial use, contact the copyright holder.