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A Brief History of Information

From Shannon to Dar Interweb

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Part 2 In the centuries of use before its modern redefinition, as we've seen in Part 1, "information" had already toted up a formidable list of ambiguities. For example, it's an action in some usages and a thing in others, it's both singular and plural, and it's both an informal assertion of fact as well as a procedure for making a formal statement.

These slippery qualities made "information" a very amenable candidate as cybernetics pioneer Claude Shannon (and others) sought to name their developing, doubly negative idea of the reduction of uncertainty. They also seem to have made the word resistant to efforts to fix it with a precise or stable new meaning. So, in addition to its long-standing contradictory substance, Shannon's efforts added still more paradoxical attributes: information became something abstract yet measurable, significant but not meaningful, and, last but not least, present wherever communication occurs but is nowhere to be found.

In another context, Shannon's research across such maddeningly disparate fields might have been the mark of a polymath or a dilettante; but in the decades surrounding the war, his erratic trajectory (along with those of many others) was both a sign of, and a key to, the development of a new field, cybernetics.

Cybernetics examined the level, or levels of abstraction "above" disciplinary differences. Norbert Wiener, widely credited as the father of cybernetics, called it a "science of control and communication is the animal in the machine"; for Louis Couffignal, an early French pioneer in the field, it was "art of ensuring the efficacy of action". For our purposes, the study of how feedback systems work was best summed up by its dandyish British practitioner, Gordon Pask:

"Its interdisciplinary character emerges when it considers economy not as an economist, biology not as a biologist, and engineering not as an engineer," he wrote. The common coin of this field was information, in this sense, description extracted from the obvious or immediate contexts that gave rise to it.

Stretching a point

Early on, in 1953, Shannon acknowledged that -

[t]he word 'information' has been given different meanings by various writers in the general field of information theory. It is likely that at least a number of these will prove sufficiently useful in certain applications to deserve further study and permanent recognition. It is hardly to be expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field.

In this light, Shannon's suspicion about speculative efforts to generalize his work outside of his specific application in communications seems amazingly parochial. Shannon described the fundamental problem of communication as "'reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point". In the context of telegraphy, we can assume that the message, whether meaningful or not, is a "text" of sorts, and that the points are geographically and maybe temporally separate.

However, if we follow Pask's cue and look at Shannon's work not as a communications engineer, the nature of the message and the points become open-ended in the extreme.

The "message" could potentially be whatever feedback a "system" produces: for example, the complexity of the oxygen level of a bloodstream, or the walk of a dog, or the economy of a stone-age tribe, or the profitability a financial system needs to continually steer its oscillations toward a sustainable equilibrium. The "points" might be separated by seconds or centuries and by microns or miles - to say nothing of the various "media" through which this feedback is produced and reproduced. And, perhaps most important, the information potentially becomes useful to non-economists, non-biologists, non-engineers - in other words, to actors and forces outside of the circuits of the immediate setting.

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