Active Information

BLG02x - edited feature imageWe are used to talking about data and information as passive things. They are the facts, the result of what we do, the answers to the questions that we have. The question is whether this passive perspective on information is complete or the most valuable. Could information also be active? And which opportunities would that provide us with? One of the things that triggered my question was the insight that information is really the foundation of our reality. Another trigger was that someone asked me whether information could protect itself.

I will start with the last question about self-protecting information. When thinking about it, I came up with the idea that metadata is already a big step towards self-protecting information. If information is accompanied (and encrypted) with security-related information, then only people that are authorized can access it. This does, however, require a lot from the recipient of the information (it requires context). It needs to understand how to process the information, and probably not all of this can be part of the metadata. How can you even understand the metadata if you do not have metadata about the metadata? A better approach would be if the information could just “unfold itself” when confronted with an authorized recipient.

The first trigger for my quest was that I learned that several groups of people believe that everything is information and that the universe is just a big computer. If you dive down to the deepest level of matter everything you find, whether a particle or field, can be expressed in the form of information. I found out that this even has a name: digital physics. For me, as a computer scientist, this is not a very strange idea. I am used to thinking about how reality can be encoded into bits and bytes. I know that in the end everything that our traditional computers process is simply information. Even the instructions that we feed our computers are just information. The concept self-modifying code has also been around for a couple of decades. It has been an important part of viruses. So we know that information can be active and can even change itself.

A big step we could make is decoupling the activity of information from the computer, or at least from a computer as we currently know it. Ideally, active information is context-independent and timeless. If everything is information, and this information is depending on specific context or legacy computing technology, then the usage of this information is severely limited. Compare it with how our cells reproduce; information that is available in our DNA is used and copied without depending on a computer in the traditional sense.

The Turing machine provides an interesting perspective on this. This generic computing concept invented by Alan Turing, provides a timeless way of computing. It is based on a limited number of timeless concepts, that when combined can basically do everything that your everyday computer can do. If we could bootstrap such a timeless computer, then that would open up a whole new world of opportunities. Reality could transform itself based on the information we feed it. It could solve all the global challenges that we are confronted with.


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About Danny Greefhorst

Danny Greefhorst, MSc., is a Principal Consultant and Director of ArchiXL in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, and acts as an architect and consultant for clients in the financial and public sector. He has extensive experience with the definition and implementation of enterprise architectures, application architectures and technical architectures. In addition, he coaches organizations in setting up and executing their architecture function. Danny is responsible for the EA portal Via Nova Architectura and is a member of the governing board of the architecture department of the Dutch Computing Association. Danny is active in the architecture community, regularly publishes on IT and architecture related topics and is co-author of the book Architecture Principles: The Cornerstones of Enterprise Architecture. He can be reached at