Claude Shannon, father of information theory, separated information from meaning. His central dogma, “meaning is irrelevant” declared that information could be handled as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness…It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.
Freeman Dyson, in his review of James Gleick’s book on information, in NYRB
10 thoughts on “Create Islands of Meaning in the Sea of Information”
I first heard Freeman Dyson speak on this at EG this spring & was so moved by it. Glad to see him expanding on this idea.
Seek meaninglessness and you will see that things are not as meaningless as they seem
Shannon wasn’t dissing meaning. His goal was to allow information to be quaticized so that the channels that carry it could be measured for planning purposes, say, for the telephone system. For that reason, meaning had um, no meaning.
If you send a 1 through a channel, it is irrelavent whether or not that means anything to the receiver. Should a telephone switch (or a router nowadays) care if 1 is meant to poison Schrodinger’s cat or that a 0 is meant to not poison it? (That’s silly and inconceivable now, but someday it may not be. Someday, as you press Send, you may get the message, “Ken, I’m sorry, but I can’t send that message. Catrina will be so upset by it. Would like some suggestions about a rewrite that will let her down easy? You are such a cad, Ken.”
According to his theory, if the receiver was expecting, say, the word pregnant and that word was indeed sent, then the amount of information in the message is zero. So meaning is entirely different from information. However, if totally random data is sent, then the amount of information is at a maximum, because the receiver has no idea of what the message will be. The meaning of it, of course, would be zero? Or whatever you make of it.
Now let’s talk about the mathematics involved. No, wait… let’s not. (See, I am stopping transmission (zero information) and already you are relieved) (maximum happiness.)
Hey! Where’s the edit button? You can’t edit here? What a travesty! I have parenthesis enclosing parenthesis and that can’t stand.
Why are blog operators so afraid of editing? Do they think that authors will come back like a naughty time traveler and “pollute the time line;” that they will somehow pee on Lincoln’s head, making him turn around just before Booth pulls the trigger. (“President assaulted by two guns, survives wet, but unhurt.”) Balderdash! Those who have switched from WP to DISQUS, which has an unlimited edit window, have found that authors don’t go back and change the meaning of their posts. They rarely return to make even needed corrections, but in that case, having the option to edit exposes them for the (insert despicable phrase here) that they are.
Sorry for the rant. I just realized that a password wasn’t required to post, so of course there wouldn’t be an edit feature. How about establishing a password requirement?
Thanks for sharing this–I’ll have to pick this up.
This may be too much information (!) but for those interested, TS Eliot and Thomas Pynchon have both explored this marvelously in the literary domain.
Eliot’s philosophy is primarily grounded in Christian and Eastern mysticism, and Dyson may well be referring to The Waste Land which speaks to fragments “shored against my ruins.” For Eliot, meaning is derived through redemption in the ascetic tradition of the still point, and later works touch on the requirement for not knowing as the path to knowing, divesting all human baggage to open the self to the whole of the divine “not self” we are already a part of, yet persistently unaware.
Pynchon takes a slightly less redemptive tack, focusing on entropy and states of decay in a closed system, and the cacophonous deluge of data we are exposed to at any given moment requires a forced approach to gathering meaning together, lest the insanity of it all completely overwhelm. He too finds hope (or at least relief) in the still point. For him, it is the apex of the arc of gravity’s rainbow or the eventual motionless heat death of entropic decay in a thermodynamic system, where all forces are equal. From the perspective of physics, for one instantaneous moment, we have a chance to understand, but any attempt to measure the conditions of that moment alter the stasis irrevocably, so instead it is the experience of the moment, rather than the knowing, that must suffice.
Hey @campkohler, thanks, first, for the great comment, and then your rant, which I think I fixed. Yes, I probably should install some better commenting system, but gosh, the list of things to improve on this blog are many, and time is short…
@Trevor, yes! awesome remarks & great observations (and two writers I love).
It is our task as [system designers] to bring [the opportunity for humans and machines to acquire] meaning back into this wasteland.
Start with the stated goals of the Semantic Web but use a Shannon entropy-based, rather than a formal logic, approach. Because, if done right, the former may possess emergent properties whilst Knowledge Management is necessarily a top-down engineered solution that will certainly not scale to approach infinite information. The larger and more heterogeneous our information systems grow, the more powerfully this argument will be heard.
I have an open system specification and an unreleased web application of my own design to back this comment.
Ultimately Google is in the business of selling you and your interests to advertisers. The business of You is much more compelling when Google knows exactly who You are.
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