C-33. Information

The term “information” is all too familiar—as observational product and orientational need, as a valuable minding resource (X: to provide direction), as a potentially choking surplus (O: Ps), and as a characterization of the times in which we live (VI: the Information Society). A lot of consequentiality there….

Too much for this or any other theory-deficient concept (C-22; C-28). Too much to grasp and involve with anything less than an explanatory understanding (C-32). Somewhat ironically, there has been a theory of information offered (Shannon’s “Information Theory”), ironically because it covers only some of our acquaintance with information, and that in a specialized way rather than affording the general understanding we might hope for from a theory. (At its publication there was considerable enthusiasm for its potential as a theory of and for communication.)

Let’s get closer to what is being talked about. We can see then why Shannon’s theory is limited – for all its spectacular technological contributions to efficiency (perhaps more than to effectiveness [XI]), to communication’s and behavior’s Save, Share and Stretch (if not so much to their other “8S” needs [C-30]).

It seems telling that “information” as a term is familiar as need and product but not so as process. For that we say “inform.” It seems clear from previous discussion that we are talking about aspects of needed capability and of their development – i.e., the Behavioral Manifold (V) — with the Nature of Things’ incomplete instruction condition for behavior entities underlying it all (III). But in that case, need and process loom large in calling for attention. Information qua product seems more a matter of particulars than of generality.

Is there some leverage that we can use to make it clearer what the concept is getting at, such that we can see what it and Information Theory are hitting and what they are missing?

Let’s try talking about something else first. Two things: uninformative and pointing. Uninformative, the adjectival form, because the noun form, non-information, is not in use (as my spell-checker reminds me). Then: pointing because that is what the incomplete instruction and communication and cognition are all about. And then we see that pointless and uninformative are saying the same thing. Behaviorally then, to speak most productively, more completely and accurately about information, we need to begin with pointing as a still-developing minding capability.

Point/pointing qua direction is something we need; point/pointing qua process is something we do; point/pointing qua product (aka picture) is something we construct — then save and maybe share. “Point” has the linguistic virtue (at least in English) of readily accepting the role of subject for a preposition (C-38). Hence: point AT; point ABOUT; point FOR; point OF; point TO; point UP; point OUT; etc. In each case elaborating on the nature of need and suggesting the nature of the capability to be developed – with regard for the situational problem as well as the behavioral problem (I).

Whereas the term “information” (ambiguously as either particular instance or category) gives meaning to communication as the content transferred from sender to receiver – needed and/or wanted — or not, pointing and points give meaning to communication in more detail and depth. “What’s the point?” and “Get the point?” say as much – a point pertaining to consequentiality which Les Kendrick calls to our attention. In the sender-receiver encounter, both parties may be, and sometimes are, very much aware of the pointing relevancies, especially those of FOR, OF, AT and ABOUT.

How informative is information? “Truth” calls our attention to this question. So does “relevance.” The pointing products being expressed and shared communicatively vary in those respects. Inter-observer agreement and falsification tests can help. Professional observers (e.g., scientists, historians, philosophers and journalists) as point providers bear some responsibility here. How well does their pointing capability relate to their responsibility (XI)? How good are their pointed questions (X; C-34)?

How is information informative? Information guides our steps as a minding resource (VII; X). But what if the points are not clear? (As in the case of concepts.) The source of that information can be, often needs to be, ourselves rather than other observers, professional or not. How good, how helpful are our pointed questions when we make points ourselves (see C-35)? Do we imagine well (C-34)? Producing points ABOUT, even points AT, is not all that easy without a formal system of pointed questions, a technology for implementing cognition and communication capabilities (App. III). Language needs more work and investment.

(The needed investment probably does not extend to coining the word “pointful” so that “informative” could have a more anchored mate – though there is more than a hint of value to be noted therein.)

When we turn to the matter of an Information Society (App. X), the emphasis we now place on information as content, as a product, gives us an inadequate basis for developing an optimally productive society. Process consequentiality (C-16), the differences we must make to make a difference, needs more attention. And for that we need a behavioral theory of and about information – comprehending all of need, process and product (V), including self-informing by individual and community.

Information as process is pointing in action, from the smallest step by an individual (e.g.. toward an identified object) to the largest step by a community (e.g., establishing a policy). In developing our pointing capability, imagination as process (C-34) and strengthened questioning capability (C-35) become integral parts of the minding infrastructure required for a truly productive Information Society.

So, now back to why Shannon’s “information Theory” is a limited theory. Why is that so? Because it deals only with points AT. That which seems paradoxical — in Shannon’s theory information equals uncertainty but in our common discourse information reduces uncertainty, — dissolves in this light.

For any finite set of alternative foci of attention (potential point AT’s), the available information is that set of alternatives. With it comes uncertainty until one is chosen – an uncertainty (aka information) said to be equal in degree to the number of alternatives. (Think decision making.) For most of us, much of the time, we typically want information to deal with ignorance. Preferably, we would not like too much information – lest we be drawn into uncertainty. We want just enough to have a singular (VIII) way forward. (Think: problem solving.)

Information theory’s emphasis on the point AT has its undeniable uses. For an extremely common kind of problem, that of having to repeat a solution –an important contributor to quality of life (0; Sp), there is obvious efficiency to a technology of tool and tool-using procedure, to having something like an I-pad with which a point AT (its inventor said on introducing it) sufficed to get what you wanted. It is the case that we can reconstruct some repetitive situational problems (after the fact of their solution) as decisions, minimizing the behavioral problem. But there remain far too many problems, many harder problems to be solved. And for those, we shall have to develop our capabilities, especially our minding capabilities, to better handle the behavioral problem. (Contrast procedural tool with tool-using procedure: App. VII.)

Pointing is very much a behavioral need in this world of incomplete instruction – and possibility. And so too is it thus a communication need (C-30), a need for both communicative act (pts. OF and FOR) and content (pts. AT and ABOUT). A theory of information, like those of and for behavior and communication, needs to respect all there is of consequence with respect to pointing.

Which brings us to the matter of technological developments in pointing and where we need societal investments in our minding infrastructure. Natural languages seem unbalanced in the development of points ABOUT relative to points AT, especially in regard to consequentiality. Points ABOUT are often used just to make a point AT (e.g., to give location or identity). When they are intended to assist cognition and communication (App. III), especially to address consequentiality, they do not do all that well. (Sapir and Whorf saw sins of commission; the sins of omission are far greater.) “Connotation,” for example, hardly does justice to all that it should when serving in partnership with denotation.

(c) 2011 R. F. Carter