Mark Burgin, mathematician and information theorist, died on 18 February 2023. He was well-known for his leadership of interdisciplinary studies of the concept of information, particularly through the International Society for Information Studies (IS4IS) and its conferences, and the affiliated MDPI open access journal Information, of which Burgin was the founding Editor-in Chief.
He was the originator of a General Theory of Information, one of a number of ‘gap bridging’ theories which attempt to integrate ideas of information from different domains. A mathematical theory, aiming to incorporate previous approaches, including those of Shannon, Bar-Hillel, Dretske, and others, GTI provides a formalism to unify the varied ways in which information is understood, through a series of ontological and axiological principles which express what information is, and how it may be measured. It defines information as that which has a capacity to cause changes in a system, so that information may be seen as a form of energy. GTI may, in principle, encompass all forms of information including the physical, biological, mental, and social, and encompassing syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic information, although it has not yet been extended in any detail into social and ethical domains.
I became aware of Burgin’s death while reading his latest paper, co-authored with Rao Mikkilineni, on whether information is physical, and therefore has mass; the latest in a long series working out the implications for of the GTI formalism. Burgin and Mikkilineni argue that it isn’t and doesn’t. Information is not physical by itself, but always has a physical representation and physical carriers; different physical carriers can contain the same information. The properties ascribed to physical information are actually the properties of its physical representation. Landauer’s well-known far-reaching aphorism that “information is physical” is, for Burgin and Mikkilineni, incorrect; they prefer Landauer’s more nuanced “information is inevitably inscribed in a physical representation”. Nor have they any time for the idea that information is a ‘fifth form of matter’ or that dark matter consists of ‘raw’ information.
According to the GTI, information exists in an abstract world of structures, somewhat analogous to Plato’s ideal world of Forms. This world of ideal structures interacts with the physical and mental worlds; a conceptualisation strongly similar to Popper’s three world ontology. The relation between information and the structure of reality has been noted by other theorists, including Tom Stonier and Luciano Floridi.
Might these ideas be brought together, to create a fully unified and precise account of all aspects of the slippery concept of information? Perhaps. What is certain is that we will miss Mark Burgin’s contributions to the debate.