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What's at Stake in the Information Debate?

  1. What’s at Stake in the Information Debate? by Craig Simon, Ph.D.
  2. A long-running and important debate about how to define information recently took a weird turn on YouTube. YouTube Science Entertainers say information is a thing. Academic Media Ecologists explain it in terms of context.
  3. “Information… It’s a physical thing. It’s embodied in actual objects… Like the words we say… They’re actual vibrations in the air. They’re not just concepts, but a real physical thing that you could measure and detect.” Lots of people watched this. Lots of people watch them. Michael Stevens Vsauce on YouTube Webby Winner 2014 Derek Muller Veritasium on YouTube Physics Ph.D. For the original see
  4. Their basic claim is correct. Claude Shannon’s 1948 theory proposing how to measure information as a thing revolutionized telecommunications. His concepts are foundational in modern computer science. Information Theory: 1948. But there was always a caveat… Proponents of the theory clearly stated that they were focused on the technical problems of communication rather than semantic meaning or effectiveness of messages.
  5. Definitions matter: Claude Shannon clearly informed his readers about the narrow technical focus of his Information Theory, and that he had intentionally put aside questions of how language molds thought. “The meaning of a message is essentially irrelevant.” Claude Shannon: Father of the Information Age. Enabled the world’s transition from analog to digital communication. Working at Bell Labs, he applied the term “bit” (binary digit) to mean a unit of information… not just storage, but the ultimate reduction of uncertainty about a signal sent across a channel.
  6. So…. what’s the problem? Derek Muller (Veritasium) says his interest in the topic is inspired by James Gleick’s non-fiction bestseller, The Information. But Gleick is utterly forthright about definitional incompleteness, as well as many other shortcomings and limits in Shannon’s approach. “Who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements?” James Gleick: Alpha Historian of Science. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood
  7. Jumping to conclusions: When describing information as a thing, Muller and Stephens not only ignore basic caveats about the incompleteness of Shannon’s definition, they go on to tell their viewers that information vibrations never “go away” and that, in principle, their conversation could have been deterministically extrapolated from prior vibrations. Propagating belief in complete information determinism. Is Veritasium -- “an element of truth” -- open to challenge? Statements found in a self-proclaimed truth-bearing context may count as information, but not as scientifically warranted information until the reliability of the statements’ claims are validated.
  8. Discourse and debate? Two University professors, Corey Anton and Lance Strate, challenged the overly narrow definition of information presented by Muller and Stevens. Anton’s request on YouTube for clearer explanations and better examples fell on deaf ears. Responding on Twitter, Muller dismissed Anton’s video as “pseudo-academic drivel.” Relatively few watched this. Relatively few know them. Corey Anton, Ph.D. Prof. of Communications Theory Lance Strate, Ph.D. Prof. of Media Ecology
  9. What’s at stake in leaving out context? Doing so raises potential for misconceptions of how entropy plays out the constraints of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Everyone in this argument seem extremely interested in pursuing that question. They would benefit by knowing the best ideas in the others’ arsenals. Entropy and information… A surprisingly curious parallel. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics explains how energy-dissipating, randomizing entropy orients time. We participate in formation of energy-using negentropic systems that organize further processes of entropy and negentropy. Entropy will win out. Shannon Entropy posits a message encoded to exclude predictably redundant information. Maximum uncertainty implies maximum physical randomness in the message.
  10. To demonstrate information in context, Anton offers a thought problem: Suppose 8 people simultaneously say “guacamole” with widely varying pronunciations. All would agree that 8 utterances of the word had just occurred, and also that only 1 word had been spoken. Anton argues that a robust, trustworthy definition of information would support an account of that sameness, but that Muller’s atomistic definition fails to do so. How much information generated this guacamole imagery, and where is it? How much information is contextual, and how? Since expressions of an undifferentiated genetic pattern may be repeated across multiple living creatures, some argue by analogy that a distinguishable pattern identifiable as “guacamole” is expressed through utterances repeated by people.
  11. Understanding context: Meaning is not solely a matter of information content. Marshall McLuhan described how communications technologies give rise to enveloping environments that shape the behaviors of senders and receivers. When people are informed by the context through which content is delivered, he argued, “The medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan. Celebrity intellectual of the 1960s. We experience books by their covers and by our immersion in linear text.
  12. Engineering participation: Tony Schwartz pioneered advanced sound technology in TV and radio ads, coining the term “partipulation” to explain his technique for manipulation of message recipients. It exploited the “resonant interval” inherent in a communications context. Senders could transmit message fragments, knowing that recipients could be led to participate in completing it by working to fill in absences. He had discovered how to build and leverage affordances within a media construct. Tony Schwartz. Sound Engineer, Advertising Guru. “It’s not what you say, but what they hear.”
  13. Shannon and McLuhan intersect: In 1928 Ralph Hartley defined information as a discrete sequence of signals sent across a channel from a finite symbol set. His formula H = n log S can be applied to illustrate how a communications environment influences the meaning of a message. With information as H, the count of signaled elements as n, and the count of symbols in the set as S, raising n increases H at a faster rate than increasing S. But n and S both matter. Examples follow. Hartley’s formula for the transmission of information. The H in Shannon Entropy builds on the H theorized by Hartley.
  14. Example 1: Prior to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, final consonants of written and printed Russian words were followed by an archaic “hard sign.” Soviet reforms dropped the redundancy, reducing the length of newly printed material. War and Peace shrank by over 35 pages. The H of the printed version decreased as its n decreased. But the informational impact of the novel – H of an enveloping media – increased, due to less costly reproduction and wider distribution under conditions of more easily-taught literacy. Cyrillic orthography before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. Removing the “hard sign” reduced n. Other changes reduced S. Though the “hard sign” was dropped from word endings, it was retained in the alphabet for use within words. Literacy reforms also mandated replacement of an archaic vowel by a retained vowel, further reducing the H of a given text, yet increasing overall H for Russian readers.
  15. Example 2: Adherence to authoritative spelling rules reduces the S of a text, and thus its H. But a smaller S is more easily shared by a subscribing population, expediting broader transmission of its n elements. The collapse of regional spelling differences enhances transmission of globalizing content. Also, evident violation of spelling rules by a sender may cause a reader to doubt the claims in the sender’s content. Thus, superfluous S may reduce the likelihood that the sender’s message will be retransmitted. Pruning and cultivation of language: Samuel Johnson, Dictionary Author. Reduction of S subsets by spelling reform occurs as overall S grows. Though the identically pronounced “easy” and “easie” once had the same meaning, now only “easy” is considered formally correct. Nevertheless, general proliferation of word choices typically outpaces standardization and harmonization.
  16. Example 3: Online content often reflects word and phrase selections (and also page creations), optimized for presumed search engine preferences. SEO keyword sets define namespace variants of S in Hartley’s formula, prompting people to develop skills for evoking multiple layers of S in the same document. Moreover, use of multiple types of communications systems -- where intervals may be channeled by some mix of aural, literal, visual, reflective, or other extending technologies -- results in multiple instances of H sharing some S. Sports Illustrated used these “natural considerations for digital media” during a recent layoff cycle. “Beneficial to advertiser” suggests SEO considerations.
  17. Understanding information in a mediated context: Participation vectors indicate how receivers of information may be activated by senders to echo or retransmit signal elements n, or fortify a channel optimized for resonating S. McLuhan and Schwartz equated style, intensity, and direction of activation with relative “hotness” of media and its effects on receiver imagination. Hotter media immerses the receiver while cooler media enlists receiver engagement. A hot media approach to branding. Cool media activates antenna handling.
  18. Methodological stakes: Evaluating the weight and shaping power of contextual meaning on human behavior is a challenging endeavor, vulnerable to misconceptions that information has a prior independent existence. For example, the expression “Ideas bubble up” implies that ideas can exercise agency. But propagation of ideas arises from social participation by intersubjective agents whose own access to agency depends on that participation. Bubblers rule as they play by the rules. Ideas don’t bubble up independently, but are borne and shaped in ways that shape the bearers. Agency and Information… molding thought by molding self. Interest-bearing intersubjective agents and structural background conditions (such a S) are co-constituted by agents’ skilled production and reproduction of rule-shaped and rule-shaping messages. Informative messages can be analyzed as signs and performative speech acts.
  19. Cultural stakes: Muller and Stevens (who usually do laudable work) are not outliers. Proponents of information determinism are highly prominent in advanced business and technical communities. Many make significant contributions to human advancement. Yet, many also express deeply materialist conceptions of human consciousness, including the fashionable notion that free will is an illusion. Rather than dismiss this increasingly influential point of view as ontological schlock, its various misconceptions should be examined in terms that resonate with open-minded adherents. Nicholas Negroponte, Eminent technologist, MIT Media Lab Founder. Leveraging a medium while simultaneously denying its power to leverage. Negroponte claims “the medium is not the message” because digital bits have replaced physical atoms as “the fundamental element.” Arguing that the bloodstream is a more efficient channel for manipulating brain development than eyes or ears, he has predicted that humans will eventually participate in learning by ingesting information in pill form.
  20. The meaning of context: Just as a bit can be 1 or 0, a light bulb can be on or off. Shannon recognized that the value of a bit sent across a channel isn’t known till received, resolving uncertainty about the sender’s intent. Meaning, of course, is another matter. It depends on what could possibly be expected, plus the character of subsequent effects in other channels. Think of Paul Revere waiting for the signal that would trigger his ride. McLuhan recognized that the invention and adoption of electric light provided an equally pure resolution of uncertainty, but one that conveyed no content of its own. Instead, electric light opened an always-on cultural channel within which countless other channels would be spawned.
  21. Notable Content Sources Include… • • • Wikipedia • YouTube Channels: Veritasium, ProfessorAnton, Vsauce • Amazon • Huffington Post • New York Times • Gawker • The Guardian
  22. What’s at Stake in the Information Debate Abstract: An approach is proposed for understanding how the Shannon- Weaver conceptions of measurable entropy within a message (conceptions that are foundational in Computer Science) can be shown to intersect with the McLuhan-Schwartz participation vectors and resonance intervals within a medium (conceptions that are foundational in Media Ecology) via reference to Hartley’s Formula for Information. Craig Simon, Ph.D. August 23, 2014 Dania Beach, Florida @gitis