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.
What’s at Stake
Craig Simon, Ph.D.
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.
“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.
Vsauce on YouTube
Webby Winner 2014
Veritasium on YouTube
For the original see
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
Alpha Historian of Science.
A History, A Theory, A Flood
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
Is Veritasium -- “an element of
truth” -- open to challenge?
Statements found in a self-proclaimed
may count as information, but not as
scientifically warranted information
until the reliability of the statements’
claims are validated.
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
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.
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,
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.
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.”
Celebrity intellectual of the 1960s.
We experience books by their covers
and by our immersion in linear text.
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.
Sound Engineer, Advertising Guru. “It’s not what you say, but what they hear.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
A hot media approach to branding. Cool media activates antenna handling.
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 can be analyzed as signs and
performative speech acts.
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.
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.
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.
Notable Content Sources Include…
• YouTube Channels: Veritasium, ProfessorAnton, Vsauce
• Huffington Post
• New York Times
• The Guardian
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
Craig Simon, Ph.D.
August 23, 2014
Dania Beach, Florida