Christmas #25 by pagedooley Attribution License


Terrace Deacon

Information is probably the single most important factor shaping the beginning of twenty-first century social life. Without question, our current age is appropriately described as the “information age.” Every aspect of human life is rapidly being invaded and restructured by information technology.

We are swimming in an ocean of recorded audio and video that can be literally part of one’s apparel and one’s constant companion. We rely on the ability to communicate at a moment’s notice with our friends and acquaintances from almost anywhere in the world and at any time, using a cellular phone. We don’t think twice about our individual power to send thoughts, images, personal opinions, or intimate diary notes to potentially millions of recipients in a few minutes, while sipping coffee in a wifi-equipped café. And we casually take advantage of the capacity to instantly access a large fraction of the written knowledge of the ages—from a digital library that is orders of magnitude larger than all but the largest libraries in the world. This provides instant access to the greatest literary works ever written, the latest findings of science or medicine, as well as answers to the trivia about movie stars, the latest hair styles, scores of recent football games, or the location of the nearest northern Italian restaurant in an unfamiliar city. None of this was ever imagined by even the most prescient futurists of just a generation ago. O brave new world, that has such creations in it!

But do we really understand what has happened to us in these few short decades? We now find ourselves scrambling to keep up with the flood of new information technologies that come to the market daily, but are we equally as attentive to the global and personal consequences of their cultural influence? Does anyone have a clear perspective on how this is influencing our cultures, our identities, and our very thinking processes? Yes, there are innumerable new magazines and blogs surveying the rapidly shifting information technology landscape, but in this glut of info-talk is there anyone explaining what it is that is being processed, stored, mined, browsed, and corrupted?

Because information is not merely some tool that we can use or ignore, but is what also constitutes the very fabric of human identity and experience, these new information technologies almost effortlessly integrate into everyday life. Whereas a shovel or automobile remains physically separate from its users, the seemingly non-physical nature of information blends seamlessly into our everyday thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs. The very freedom from any fixed physical instantiation that makes information so fluid and sharable is also what provides it with remarkable stealth and influence. This easily blurred boundary between the churning of the information “out there” and what we imagine that we are and know and want “in here”, gives these technologies the power to remake the very nature of our humanness.

As immersed as we are in this sea of information and its centrality to every facet of contemporary life one might naively assume that we (or someone) must have a pretty clear idea of exactly what information is. Wrong! We seem to know it when we see it, but when asked to define it or explain what it is, even CEOs of major IT companies and professors in philosophy or computer science programs seem to prevaricate. Or worse, they offer a standard technical definition that is hardly even a shadow of the familiar concept, and whose mathematical formalism promises far more insight into the workings of information than it delivers.

So, what is information? And why is it such an enormously difficult question to answer with any clarity and thoroughness? It is an ambitious book that sets out to answer this question, much less present an elaborate theory of how it has morphed into a seemingly independent universe of meanings, rituals, art-forms, values, and technologies since our ancestors first learned to talk. Who would attempt such a challenge?

A generation ago Marshall McLuhan helped a whole culture notice how the nature of the media we use to communicate with (from speech to print to radio to television) can have far more profound social consequences than does the content it conveys. His famous catch-phrase “The medium is the message” inverted what otherwise had seemed like common sense. Unlike his many predecessors McLuhan focused on the ground rather than the figure as he examined the cultural and epistemological influences of the introduction of writing, print, electronic media and other communicative innovations. Not surprisingly, Robert Logan comes by his interest in the deeper aspects of the problem of information in large part because of his past collaborations with McLuhan on topics like the nature of number or the origins of writing. As a result, his tendency to notice and explore the non-obvious properties of information can be seen as a natural extension of this approach to communication in general.

The first couple of chapters review the history of ideas about information. This historical prelude plays the critical role in explaining how the concept of information was transformed from a fundamentally mental concept to a technical term that has little to do with the original colloquial use. In the process of providing a precise formalization suitable for engineering purposes, the concept of information was denuded of any of its mentalistic functions. So whereas the new technical concept of information—that grew out of the work of Hartley, Shannon, Weaver and others—essentially made the information age possible, in return it has robbed this defining term of its core meaning.

Logan is interested in exploring this lost meaning. He recognizes the powerful contributions of this exactly quantifiable notion of information to the fields of computation and communication engineering. But he takes his mission to be to reintroduce into theory the very features that were excluded in this process. Beginning with a survey of those thinkers who argued against this reduction of information to mere logical media properties, such as Gordon Mackay, Gregory Bateson, and even Claude Shannon himself, Logan argues that it is necessary to recognize a number of distinct and more developed concepts of information.

So rather than arguing that a given concept of information is accurate or not, he instead begins by showing in which contexts one or another theory of information works or doesn’t work. He then explores these different concepts of information and their wider implications. For Logan information is not one thing and what we call information depends on the context. In this way he attempts to rescue the current technical concept of information and its abandonment of the core defining features of information, by defining a number of higher-order concepts of information that reinstate the roles of meaning and function, and decouple it from specific medium properties.

To attempt to redefine information in a way that retains its functional as well as its logical features Logan turns to an approach suggested by systems thinker Stuart Kauffman. He relies heavily on a paper that he coauthored with Kauffman and others that argues that a fundamental feature of information is that it inevitably involves the propagation of organization. He refers to this paper (titled “Propagating Organization: An Enquiry”) throughout the book with the abbreviation POE. This approach is based on two realizations: first that it takes work to produce constraints and constraints to do work, and second that information is always dependent on constraints. The technical engineering concept of information is based on a statistical understanding of the concept of constraint, and organization can be described in terms of constraint. Ever since James Clerk Maxwell introduced the scientific world to his little imaginary demon who used information about the velocities of individual gas molecules to reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics people have assumed than in some way or other an increase of information is opposed to an increase in entropy, or disorder. Even though we know that in some sense this must be the case, showing exactly how has bedeviled researchers for the century and a half since then. This is an assumption that, while not completely explained, becomes a critical founding insight for the rest of the book. The remaining chapters offer probes of the implications of his novel way of conceiving information.

The core insight that runs through the book is a synthesis of two ways of conceiving of human thought and communication.

The first insight is the idea that mind—at least human mind—is not a phenomenon that is confined within a brain. The so-called “extended mind” hypothesis argues that what we consider a human mind is seamlessly integrated with the sea of communications it is embedded within. If, as Charles Sanders Peirce recognized over a century ago, cognition is a form of semiosis and each person is additionally engaged in semiotic exchanges with other minds, then in a real sense, no mind is an island. The boundary between your thought processes and mine is permeable, and the thoughts themselves exist in a distributed network that may extend across many individuals separated by thousands of miles and years.

The second insight is that this web of communication in many important respects exists and evolves and exhibits causal dynamics that persist in parallel with the physical-mechanical-biological world. This domain of meanings, purposes, and values has been called the “Symbolosphere” by John Schumann (2003).

These two insights are naturally compatible and are brought together in Logan’s exploration of the wider implications of information. In addition, Logan suggests an interesting parallel with a Cartesian concept that in other respects he rejects. This is the infamous mind/body dualism that suggest that mental processes take place in a realm without physical substance or extension—res cogitans—and that the physical body is a materially constituted mechanism that is part of the physical world—res extensa. Cartesian dualism argues that the physical world is completely distinct from the realm of mind. Logan and Schumann reject the potential supernatural implications of this split and recognize that the realm of mind is very much part of the physical world. Yet they argue that the symbolic meanings and values generated by language nevertheless have a curious partial independence from any particular physical embodiment. They propose to resolve the Cartesian dilemma concerning how minds influence the physical world, in a practical way by simply identifying the Symbolosphere with Descartes’ res cogitans. Although embodied in extended media, the meaningful contents of any communication are themselves not identical with this extended substrate. They are, as Deacon (2012) has noted, both physically absent from this immediate physical medium and yet an essential constituent, without which symbol tokens would be mere inert physical objects. So in this sense Logan and Schuman are prepared to treat the meanings and significance of these symbol tokens as separate from the res extensa. In this respect, this shadowy aspect of symbolic communication is consistent with a variant of Cartesian dualism, which Logan dubs neo-dualism. This provides a sort of compromise between a modern materialistic perspective and the classic mind/body dualism inherited from the Enlightenment.

Though I am not a fan of dualisms, I take Logan’s notion of neo-dualism to be a sort of pseudo-dualism that trades on certain connotations implicit in the metaphysical analogy to classic dualism, while avoiding both the problem of explaining the windowless parallelism between the mental world and the physical world, and the seeming paradox of their interaction. This allows him to focus attention on the many features that distinguish communication from the merely mechanical features of the physical world. Indeed, he locates the epistemic cut between the material and meaningful at a juncture that Descartes himself would have felt comfortable with: with brain and body on one side and the world of symbols on the other.

But of course all forms of communication are at the same time meaning-making processes and physical processes. It’s just that in many cases, such as in the symbolic communication provided by language, there is considerable flexibility with respect to this physical embodiment. Thus, the same linguistic meaning can be embodied in many different media, e.g., sound of voice, manual signs, hand-written scripts, print, or bits and bytes of computer memory. This doesn’t make communication non-physical, just substrate-transferrable. There is always something that is extended in space and time that the communication requires in order to be realized: i.e. a medium. Nevertheless, the purpose of an action, the meaning of a word, the function of a tool, or the value of a work of art are at once dependent on a physical medium and something absent from that embodiment.

It was, of course, the genius of McLuhan to recognize the fundamental role played by the form of this medium. So it might at first appear that Logan has forgotten this essential insight. But despite his neo-Cartesian treatment of the various “spheres” of information processes that humans inhabit in addition to the physiosphere, biosphere, and their own biosemiotic and neurological processes, Logan remains quite solidly rooted in physical processes that for Descartes would have constituted the res extensa. His explorations of information processes in language, culture, technology, economics, and so forth, smoothly meld the meaningful with the physical, and are constantly focusing attention their physical causal influences.

It is likely that many readers will conclude that Logan doesn’t exactly answer the question that is asked by the book’s title. Providing a theory of information that formally explains the basis of reference and significance, and demonstrates the relationship between information and physical work remains a complex challenge for future research. To additionally link such an expanded theory of information with a theory of the evolution of language and an analysis of the evolutionary dynamics underlying cultural and technological change makes this an extremely ambitious project. Even if we are not provided with a full reformulation of the concept of information, Logan clearly demonstrates the many serious limitations in our current conceptions of information. The recognition that such a theory will need to be a component of a larger theory of the “propagation of organization’, and not merely the reproduction and transmitting of bits of data, sets the stage for exploring the pragmatic aspects of symbolic communication. This provides him with a springboard for jumping into a far-reaching discussion of the many uniquely human modes of social-semiotic evolution that characterize our current historical era, from science and technology to computation and the internet.

Much of the remainder of the book highlights possibilities and challenges posed by these media and their different but related symbolic evolutionary processes, that only a more fully fleshed out theory of information can provide. Although neither the notion of the extended mind nor of the symbolosphere are mainstream science, this way of re-understanding media provides a fresh new perspective from which to view the unprecedented changes in the nature of human mentality wrought by being embedded in many levels of symbol-mediated information processing. We humans are the message being constantly reshaped in the image of the symbolic media we have and are creating. This is a book that clearly celebrates what it means to be a thoroughly symbolic species.

Terrence Deacon is a Professor of Anthropology in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and a member of the Cognitive Science faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of two important books, The Symbolic Species and Incomplete Nature.