TANGENT: ON INFORMATION
Much confusion abounds about the meaning of the concept of information . And because of this confusion, our use of the term in biogenetic structuralism is sometimes rendered ambiguous where we intend to be quite precise. So I want to spend a while clearing up the ambiguity for you.
The confusion about what information means arose because Claude E. Shannon's theory of information coopted the term for its own particular purpose. And its purpose was to define information in such a way that:
In his 1948 article, "The Mathematical theory of Communication," Shannon (see his paper reprinted in Shannon and Weaver 1963), then a Bell Laboratories scientist, defined information in a very special sense. If knowledge may be represented mathematically as a distribution of probabilities -- a numerical code if you will that "stands for" knowledge -- then information is "anything that causes an adjustment in a probability assignment" (Tribus and McIrvine 1971:179).
In other words, information is anything that changes the measure of uncertainty (i.e., entropy ) of knowledge. So information relative to a question may range from absolutely wrong (probability = 0) to absolutely correct (probability = 1). If your answer is totally wrong (p = 0), then the entropy is said to be complete (S = 1), and if your answer is totally correct (p = 1), then there is no uncertainty and thus no entropy (S = 0). However, as is often the case, there may be competing knowledge relative to a question. A question may have a number of answers. And the probability of the correctness of any particular answer may be assigned between the extremes of totally right and totally wrong (ranging from over 0 and under 1). The information content of a message, then, is a measure of the change in the observer's knowledge (from knowledge X before the message to knowledge X' after the message). A message that tells you what you already know produces no change either in knowledge (X remains the same) or in probability assignment and therefore conveys no information. (Tribus and McIrvine 1971:180)
And herein lies the rub in trying to relate "objective" and "subjective" notions of information. Notice that according to the Shannon model no matter how much energy is expended in sending the message, if X does not change to X', no information has been conveyed. I will return to this point, for as useful as it may have been in designing electronic systems, and in digitizing information, it is false relative either to the phenomenology, or to the neurophysiology of information.
OLDER MEANING OF INFORMATION
Let us begin unpacking the modern meaning of information by returning to the etymology of the term, for as is so often the case, the older meanings are closer to the phenomenological reality connoted by words. According to the OED, the verb "to inform" has the following meanings: "To give form to, put into form or shape," "to take form, to form or be formed, to appear in a visible shape," "to be the formative principle of, to give a thing its essential quality or character," "to impart life or spirit, to inspire, animate, actuate," "to give form to the mind, to discipline, instruct, teach (a person), to furnish with knowledge," "to form, mold, or train (the mind, character, etc.), esp. by imparting learning or instruction; hence, to impart instruction to (a person), to instruct, teach (in general sense)," "to train or discipline in some particular course of action; to instruct in some particular subject, doctrine, etc.; to teach how to do something," "to give instructions or directions for action; to instruct, direct, bid (to do something)," "to impart knowledge...," "to gain knowledge, instruction, or information; to acquaint oneself with something; to get to know, to learn."
Notice if you will the emphasis upon instruction , which of course is related to the word structure , and the gaining of knowledge by way of training . All of which implies the changing of the organization of whatever is being "informed." Something appears to have been changed in structure when it is informed. And when that something that is changed in a person, then the organization of that person has been changed in some way. The mind has been altered. Something has been learned, a skill has been imparted, a characteristic has been developed.
Now, also notice a more subtle attribute of these definitions. On top of the emphasis upon changing form, there is a linear/temporal ingredient to some of the connotations: "directions for action," "a particular course of action," "train or discipline." There is a quality of changing the direction or orientation over time. There is at least the hint here of intentionality involved in the process of informing; that is, changes involving a reorganization of the intentional properties of mind around the object of information.
THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF INFORMATION
As Husserl always taught, we must return to the "things as they are" in order to ground ourselves in the experiences that give rise to our concepts in the first place. And what then about the phenomenology of information? What is it like to be informed? Well, in the most obvious sense, I am always informed about something. I have either experienced something in a new way, or something new has been communicated about something. The TV news broadcast has informed me about developments in Bosnia. Something new has happened, say, in the Bosnian peace process. I now know something that I didn't know before. I have tuned in to the news broadcast to find out what has happened. I am to some extent in a state of uncertainty about events happening in Bosnia over the last day or so.
Before the dentist does something to my mouth, he tells me what is wrong with my tooth and what he is going to do about it. He is removing my uncertainty about why my jaw hurts. I say "O.K." and thus have given "informed consent" to what he is about to do to me. Or I am interested in buying an air conditioner and I don't feel competent to make the right decision. I am uncertain about which model to buy. I seek a copy of Consumer's Report and find out what the experts have to say about the different models on the market right now. I am then in a position to make an "informed decision."
Let's bear down on this a bit. If I am being informed about something, or I undertake to inform myself about something, my conscious faculties are oriented toward the object of the informing. I am often in a state of desire for knowledge because I am uncertain about how I stand relative to something. I am viewing the TV screen and am hearing words and seeing pictures which are at the center of my consciousness. The words are telling me about what I am seeing, or perhaps I am seeing people interacting and talking to each other. In any event, my consciousness is organizing all these parts of my experience at the moment in a unitary and an informative way. I am learning about events in Bosnia (or whatever) and I come away from the experience perhaps knowing more than I knew before. And to some extent my state of desire for knowledge and my uncertainty have been assuaged. After reading the articles in Consumer's Report , I then go out to shop for an air conditioner and I recognize the different models and bring knowledge I have gleaned from my reading to the process of my selection.
In either case, be it conditions in Bosnia, or the qualities of different brands of air conditioners, the object of my interest means something different to me than prior to being informed. And this knowledge has to some extent lessened my previous uncertainty. The knowledge I associate with the object is at least part of the meaning of the object I construct (after being instructed -- get it?) in my consciousness. Thus, in a phenomenological sense, if I am informed about something, the meaning of that something has changed. Or, in some cases, the information I have received about the something is redundant relative to my knowledge of the something, and results in no change in meaning at all. I really have not been informed because I knew it already. The "information" being directed at me is in fact "uninformative" for my state of consciousness at the moment. I may have no interest in Bosnia, or may have already bought an air conditioner, and so the "information" about these things doesn't register on my consciousness, and is thus rendered redundant and produces no change in meaning.
The point to take away from this is that in most cases if I am informed, the intentional processes of my consciousness must be engaged to at least some extent. Of course there are ways that my unconscious mind can be changed without engaging my consciousness -- Eriksonian hypnosis for example. But what we normally mean by the word "inform" implies some degree of conscious processing, hence intentionality and a change of meaning are involved.
NEUROPHYSIOLOGY OF INFORMATION
Any system can be "informed." Certainly any living system can be informed. But we are concerned in this tutorial with human consciousness, so I will stick to discussing information in that context. It should come as no surprise to you when I suggest that the "informing" I am concerned about is the transformation of neurocognitive and neuroperceptual structures mediating our cognized environment.
It is one thing to think of messages (or information) as travelling from one place to another place in space through wires or microwaves -- although this thinking is more metaphorical than real even when discussing electronic media. It is another thing when we want to understand how living tissues become informed. Here we are talking about symbolic penetration -- that is, the influence one living system of neurons has upon the next living system of neurons in a chain, or " entrained " series of networks mediating experience. Nothing really passes from one network to the next except in the abstract sense of, say, a topographical pattern of excitation and inhibition of individual neurons. A pattern is discerned at point X and more or less the same pattern pops up at point Y in a train of neurological activity. One neural network has been "informed" by the previous network in the series.
Francisco Varela, a very clever neuropsychologist, makes much the same point in his writings about the brain: ...I would like to use the word information, but in its more original etymological sense of in-formare , to form within..., which corresponds well to the ideas presented here. We can define in-formation as the admissible symbolic descriptions of the cognitive domains of an autonomous system . We shall always write it with the hyphen to convey the differences of this view from that of information in the computer gestalt. (Varela 1979:266)
I personally would rather we return to the pre-Shannon meaning of information. That is certainly how I use the concept in these sessions. So when I speak of information relative to human consciousness, I am using the term in the sense Varela implies by his hyphenated "in-forming."
To become conscious of something in the external operational environment means that the network mediating consciousness has either been penetrated by a chain of networks beginning with those at the peripheral senses, or directly via the quantum sea. Remember always that the cells mediating the cognized environment and consciousness are themselves part of the operational environment -- they are part of our operational being. A neural cell may be informed by way of electrochemical changes at its membrane, or from within, as it were, via biophysical mechanisms (such as biophoton communication between each cell's DNA).
INFORMING IS A TROPHIC PROCESS
Information then is a physical change of state at whatever level of physiology being informed. When we are speaking about conscious events, then information generally involves a change of structure among hundreds of thousands, even millions of neural cells and support structures like glial cells and cells making up the circulatory system. Informing consciousness is a trophic process -- remember, cells have to eat and get rid of waste products or they will die. Thus there is really no such thing as information that does not depend upon energy. In consciousness, information is not independent of energy as Shannon would have us believe.
Energy is required for cells to process information -- or more accurately, for cells to operate in an "informing" way. And when processing leads to learning, a great deal more energy is required, because growth of cellular structures is involved (growth of axons, additional synapses, increase and decrease in size of synapse, myelination of axons by glial cells, growth of new capillary nets, etc.). Have you ever wondered how come you could get so tired when all you did was sit on your bum studying all day? Well, your brain weighs roughly one fiftieth of your body weight (assuming a 3 lb. brain in a 150 lb. body) and consumes a fifth or more of the energy you consume eating and breathing.
INFORMATION AS MEANING
An "informing," or change in the structure of the neural models mediating the knowledge incorporated in the organization of experience obviously changes "meaning." thus, at the level of neurocognitive functions, and when addressing consciousness, information is not independent of meaning in the Shannon's sense. Most of the activity of conscious models is the production of redundancy in experience. Look around you. There is very little in the way of "informative" novelty around you. Part of the novelty you "let in" (so to speak) is a product of the intentional organization of your consciousness at the moment. With sufficient impact, novel "information" may result in a structural change in your consciousness -- you may be able to remember what you let in and perhaps your attribution of meaning has shifted, however slightly or profoundly.
Transpersonal experiences tend to be informative in a very global way. Such experiences are by definition novel, and tend to be remembered and eventually result in a transformation of consciousness. This is information in the most profound subjective sense -- the quintessence of ineffable, self-transforming information. Theravadin Buddhist psychology recognizes the difference between the realization of a transpersonal experience and the resultant "fruit" (as Buddhists put it in Sanskrit) of the experience in enduring understanding. Mind you, it is possible to experience something novel and not have one's meaning changed. Transpersonal experience is not always sufficient, but it may be necessary for certain changes in meaning and view.
FROM OBJECTIVE BACK TO SUBJECTIVE INFORMATION
In order for us to understand the subjective dimension of "information" requires little more than a return to the original connotation of the term. In the original sense, information is inseparable from consideration of:
We thus see that information can only be defined as objective in Shannon's sense at the expense of alienating the concept from the context of consciousness -- from its phenomenologically real, organic and hermeneutic context. Shannon's formulation is really just another manifestation of mind-body dualism, the kind of dualism that produced the hyper-rationalism of neopositivism, and that treats rational decision-making as synonymous with consciousness. Shannon wanted to separate "information" from organic processes, the very processes that in fact produce "informing" in the human sense. As we have seen, information in its original and phenomenologically real sense is at least partially a subjective phenomenon and refers to trophically active transformations in the structure of meaning.
Once again, we have reached the end of a Tangent. There are a few references you may wish to note down below. You may now wish to return to our Day Five discussion of the symbolic function. Or you may return to the tutorial index .
Shannon, Claude E. and Warren Weaver (1963) The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Tribus, Myron and Edward C. McIrvine (1971) "Energy and Information." Scientific American 225(3):179-188, September issue.
Varela, Francisco J. (1979) Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York: North Holland.