Critical Thinking Media Competence

Knowledge as Bacteria

“Information, in its most restricted technical sense, is a sequence of symbols that can be interpreted as a message. Information can be recorded as signs, or transmitted as signals. Information is any kind of event that affects the state of a dynamic system that can interpret the information.”[1]


Bacteria constitute a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria have a number of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals. Bacteria were among the first life forms to appear on Earth, and are present in most of its habitats. Bacteria inhabit soil, water, acidic hot springs, radioactive waste,[2] and the deep portions of Earth's crust. Bacteria also live in symbiotic and parasitic relationships with plants and animals. They are also known to have flourished in manned spacecraft.”[2]


The first impression that arises, when reading these two definitions, is that they have nothing in common at all.

Therefore this essay illuminates some analogies between information and bacteria under the headline: “Information as bacteria”. The essay focuses on the most striking similarities as well as differences, which will be illustrated with some examples.


First of all, we focus on the development and the spread of information. As the definition above points out, bacteria were one of the first organisms on earth and they can survive under very hard living conditions. Information, according to the definition probably came first with cave drawings. It stayed there for a long time, being protected by nature and today we can derive culture from this old and fragmental information. This also shows the importance of information and its ability to look into the past. This already gives a hint to the tremendous importance of information.


Information is obviously a very useful and common tool in the world we live in. It can easily be shared and it can spread over long distances within seconds due to the internet for example. If information that is really important and that is affecting a lot of people, starts spreading, it can spread unbelievably fast. This spread of information can be put into a picture: Someone can inject someone else a virus. As soon as the injected person gets in contact with others, they receive the virus as well. This chain goes on and on until almost everyone, who is connected to other people, will be infected. Virus infections are transferred through bacteria by people getting in touch. Here we can clearly see an analogy in the distribution. In both cases, it underlies an exponential growth rate, just as the growth of bacteria itself. But now we have to make a clear distinction: a virus is definitely not desirable, while the spread and consumption of information is. Well, is it? Can we differ between good and bad information? Now this is dependent on what kind of lens you look through. Information spreading can be very positive, for example the birth of William and Kate’s child softens many people’s hearts. On the other hand, during the Great Depression, the spread of information about banking failures caused massive panics, which finally lead to a deepening of the crisis. These are only two examples out of a world which provides us daily with billions and trillions of new ones.


As it can be derived from the previous example, the information spread can, as bacteria, have a major negative impact on life. It was latest on the news, that the NSA collected information even in Germany. They even spied Angela Merkel’s telephone. For many people, this greed to gather information goes too far. It seems, there is a high demand for information, but for what purpose? Well, the NSA only wants to protect its nation at the end of the day. Therefore, they hurt people’s privacies to get as much information as possible. Now this turns into a moral question about how far to go. From this example we can also derive the damage that information can cause and possible problems information collection attends. To transfer this to the bacteria, all kinds of bacteria are also collected in certain bacteria bibliotheca. Imagine one country would take out one of the most dangerous viruses and spread it among mankind? What would happen? It is not likely to cause problems or vast damage, but certainly tremendous destruction. It is a biological weapon. During the First World War, some nations used the bacteria Anthrax to threat their enemies. But a deeper analysis about this reaches beyond the scope of this essay.


Whereas bacteria develop by multiplying themselves, information needs events to happen. One thing they have in common is how big their distribution factors are. Information can be distributed through the internet, radio, tv, etc. And the contact from people to a source which gives them information does not have to be directly, in contrast to bacteria transfer. They both come either in a passive way or can actively be consumed. People are under a constant influence and bombardment of information as well as bacteria.


All in all there can surprisingly many analogies be found between information and bacteria. There are many more than this essay shows. It only should give an input to the reader and make him aware of the importance and the vast impact of information. There can still a lot of research be done on the topic, but this essay at least gives an idea. Now, no one probably ever thought about that there can be something immoral about information, but there is. The open question, which remains, is how far can we go? Will the flow and amount of information steadily grow as rapidly as it does in the current years? Will any spread of information in the future have an impact as tremendous as a biological weapon?



Ira Ronzheimer

Yasmin Hoffmann

Nicolette de Boeur

Bellina Gehe

[1]          (22.1.2014)

[2]          (22.1.2014)