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The physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions of information

Glen Edwards, January 2024

At its core, information possesses a triadic nature, encompassing the physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions. This interdisciplinary framework helps us to examine the information as a multifaceted concept, each layer contributing to a richer understanding of its complexity and impact.

Each dimension of information also has implications for states thinking about information as part of DIME and information warfare.

Physical dimension: tangibility in bits and atoms

In the physical dimension, information manifests as a tangible entity with a material presence, revealing itself in bits, atoms, and material substrates. Whether quantified as a collection of apples, encoded as electrical impulses in a computer circuit, or manifested as neuronal patterns in the brain, information inherently possesses a physical nature. This dimension acknowledges that material systems and objects serve as carriers or embodiments of information.

Implications stemming from the physical dimension encompass the study of information storage, transmission, and the material constraints influencing its representation. Understanding the corporeal aspects of information holds profound significance for fields such as data storage technologies, communication systems, and the development of novel materials for information processing.

From a state perspective, the physical requirements and limitations of information and information systems significantly impact the generation of information power. A robust information infrastructure becomes imperative to support an information-enabled society, including archives, libraries, telecommunications networks, media sectors, schools, universities, and research laboratories. Within this infrastructure, adequate storage and processing facilities, including (but not limited to) books, servers, journalists, records, and researchers, are essential.

Examining the physical aspects of information becomes particularly apparent from a warfare perspective. Concepts such as reconnaissance, camouflage, deception, and emissions control seek to leverage or minimise the observable physical dimension of military activities. The mere presence or absence of military personnel and equipment conveys information about a state’s capabilities and intent. Additionally, the targeting of physical information infrastructure, such as Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence systems (C4I systems), is often a priority effort for militaries—whether to collect information or to generate effects, such as the destruction of such systems, to degrade adversary information power.

Consequently, sophisticated information power involves fostering, maintaining, and protecting information infrastructure whilst also understanding and managing the information conveyed by the physical activities and posture of the nation. This encompasses the physical substrates and capacities required to generate and leverage information, all while safeguarding the entire system from unauthorised access, modification, and destruction. In competitive or contested environments, information power also necessitates the design and application of physical assurance efforts, such as physical, personnel, and information security; critical infrastructure and privacy laws; and societal education and training programs. Such environments also necessitate an understanding of physical messaging and signalling that is, or should be, occurring.

Informational dimension: virtual patterns, links, and structure

In the informational dimension, the focus shifts from the physical representation to the content and structure of information. Here, information is perceived as patterns, meanings, and relationships, independent of its material manifestation. Information, in this sense, is not confined to a specific medium; it is the essence that can be extracted and understood regardless of the physical form it takes.

The implications of this dimension extend to the study of information theory, where researchers delve into the fundamental principles that govern the transmission, compression, and decoding of information. From cryptography to data compression algorithms, the informational dimension shapes how we analyse, manipulate, and extract meaning from information.

However, the constraints of the physical dimension introduce inherent limitations: available information is often incomplete which introduces informational uncertainty into our understanding and meanings. Due to the observer's physical constraints and factors like entropy, we seldom possess perfect information. This leads us to grapple with incomplete datasets and inherent uncertainties about the past, present and possible future. The concept of incomplete information acknowledges that, as observers, we are not privy to every detail. This necessitates the use of deductive reasoning, where we draw specific conclusions from general principles, and inductive reasoning, where general principles are inferred from specific observations. Both deductive and inductive reasoning serve as crucial instruments in navigating the informational landscape, allowing us to make sense of incomplete datasets and reduce uncertainty.

From a societal standpoint, the informational dimension influences the generation and leveraging of information power. The ability to collect new information, shape understanding, maximise the flow of information, and influence opinion relies on a vibrant informational dimension. Education, intelligence services, the media, communication channels, and information platforms become strategic tools for wielding knowledge and influence. Insights and datasets become strategic resources, from intellectual property to opinion data of a population or even covert collection of foreign government decisions.

In warfare, the informational dimension becomes a battleground where strategic advantages can be gained or lost. Concepts such as disinformation, propaganda, and psychological operations leverage the informational content of messages to achieve military objectives. Understanding the informational dimension is critical for military intelligence, influencing adversaries, and shaping the narrative surrounding military activities.

Cognitive dimension: agency, creativity, and intent

In the cognitive dimension, information takes on a dynamic character, transcending its physical and informational forms. Here, information intertwines with cognition, becoming a bedrock upon which agency, intent, and creativity unfold. Unlike the physical and informational dimensions, the cognitive dimension delves into the human mind, exploring the intricate processes that shape how we perceive, interpret, and act upon information. Implications arising from the cognitive dimension extend to the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and communication studies. This dimension emphasizes the influence of individual and collective cognition on the shaping of information, highlighting the dynamic nature of meaning construction.

Central to the cognitive dimension are the concepts of agency, intent, creativity. Agency is the capacity for cognitive agents to act with purpose and make choices based on their own volition. In this realm, information becomes more than a passive entity; it’s a catalyst for human decision-making, motivating actions, and influencing the direction of intent. Human agency introduces a level of unpredictability, creativity, and adaptability that goes beyond the largely deterministic nature of the physical and informational dimensions. Intent represents the purpose, goals, and motivations that cognitive agents attach to the information they encounter. Whether shaping diplomatic strategies, formulating military plans, or crafting economic policies, intent serves as the driving force behind decision-making. Creativity marks the capacity to generate novel ideas, solutions, and perspectives. Information, when processed through a cognitive process, becomes a source of inspiration, innovation, and problem-solving. The cognitive dimension thus becomes a space where individuals can transform information into new insights, perspectives, and artistic expressions.

However, the evolving nature of artificial intelligence introduces an emerging facet to the cognitive dimension. As AI technologies advance, there is the potential for artificial intelligence to evolve into cognitive agents. These agents may exhibit not only sophisticated information processing but also elements of agency, intent, and creativity. The prospect of AI as a cognitive agent raises profound questions about the future distribution of cognitive and political power. If sufficiently advanced, AI could challenge the traditional human role as the peak cognitive and political actor within this dimension. The development of AI as a cognitive agent would necessitate careful consideration of ethical, societal, and political implications, as well as the potential coexistence and collaboration between human and artificial cognitive entities.

Within the realm of information power, the ability to understand, interpret, and strategically leverage information relies heavily on the cognitive processes of individuals and societies. In this dynamic interplay, the cognitive dimension magnifies the impact of information power, transforming raw data into nuanced narratives that resonate with human perceptions and motivations (for good or ill). The effectiveness of information power hinges on the adept navigation of the cognitive landscape, tapping into the intricacies of human agency, intent, and creativity. Those who master the cognitive dimension gain a strategic advantage, wielding information power not merely as a tool of dissemination but as a force that resonates with the diverse and complex nature of societal cognition.

For militaries, understanding the cognitive processes of adversaries and friendly forces alike is essential for military commanders seeking to shape narratives, influence public opinion, and make informed decisions in real-time. The cognitive dimension amplifies the significance of psychological operations, where the manipulation of beliefs and perceptions can have tangible effects on the battlefield. Additionally, the rise of artificial intelligence introduces a transformative element, potentially giving militaries access to cognitive agents that can process vast amounts of information, analyse patterns, and contribute to timely decision-making. However, this evolution also poses challenges, including ethical considerations, the potential for AI to be manipulated, and the need for effective human-machine collaboration in navigating the complexities of the cognitive battlefield. As information warfare continues to evolve, the mastery of the cognitive dimension becomes paramount for military strategists aiming to achieve not only informational superiority but also cognitive dominance in the digital age.

Integrated power: bridging the dimensions

While each dimension provides distinct insights, it is the interplay between them that enriches our comprehension of information. This perspective acknowledges that information is not confined to a single mode of existence but rather exists in a complex interplay between the physical substrates that carry it, the content and structure it embodies, and the cognitive processes involved in its reception and interpretation. Recognising the interconnected nature of the physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions opens avenues for interdisciplinary research and activity. It prompts us to explore not only how information is transmitted and structured but also how it is perceived, interpreted, and integrated into the fabric of our societal landscapes.

As we navigate the complexities of information in the digital age, this triadic exploration serves as a guide, offering a comprehensive framework for researchers, scholars, and practitioners alike. The implications of each dimension underscore the need for a holistic approach, one that embraces the tangible, the virtual, and the cognitive aspects of information in its myriad forms. In doing so, we unravel the layers of information, revealing a tapestry of knowledge that extends beyond conventional boundaries, inviting us to explore the profound implications that lie at the intersection of bits, meanings, and minds.

The Information Power Institute of Australia seeks to integrate these dimensions, helping Australia to understand and effectively leverage Information Power and Information Warfare.

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