2012-11-07

Is Data Real?


After tutoring one of our Residential Life students in philosophy today, I was pondering yet again how to explain the reality of the non-empirical world.

And I thought that the ontological status of whether data is something "real" might be a way to get the point across. Specifically, what is the ontological status of data stored in digital form?

And while I am sure someone has written about this somewhere. This is a new analogy for me.

It seems that the ontological status of digital data may be a concrete way of expressing the ontological status of any type of symbolic information. And the ontological status of symbolic information is a sub-type of the ontological status of all non-empirical realities (maths, logic, signification, etc.)

So, back to digital data: Is it real?

If I was to empirically examine a 2 gigabyte USB drive that was empty versus a 2 gigabyte USB drive that was full of data, would there be any difference? Does adding 2 gigabytes of data add any weight to the USB drive? No. Does it change the physical topology of the USB drive? No. Is there any permanent change that would survive a powerful magnet or electric shock? No. I'm not even sure that a powerful electron microscope would be able to discern the difference between a full USB drive and an empty one. And even if it could, it would not be a change of the matter of the USB drive, only an infinitesimal change in how that matter is arranged.

The only way to access the "reality" of the information on the drive is "subjective" so to speak: Only by internal interface with a computer with the right hardware and software internally accessing the data.

And the reality of that data can then be cloned millions of time, without changing the empirical attributes of the machines on which it operates, so that its reality has been multiplied exponentially. And that real data changes the way the physical machines run, even though it has no physical attributes at all (no extension in space-time, no dimensions, no weight, no matter, etc.)

The data itself is a system of rules and procedures which has no empirical reality whatsoever, and yet it can still affect the empirical reality which is qualitatively, categorically different from it.

So then you have two different ontological categories of reality:

1. Non-Empirical data/information
2. Empirical matter and energy which is controlled by the data/information

So, my question is: Does this hold as a test case for the existence of non-empirical realities? Is it a good analogy to get at the philosophical problem?
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