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Week Five (Mon, 2/14): Information, Meaning and Noise: What's the Difference?


Sharon Burgmayer, "Interface"
For an exhibit of Sharon's paintings see Transformation

"Information lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear 'understandable in itself'...because of this it proves incompatible with the spirit of is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it...thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks." (Walter Benjamin,"The Storyteller)

"Meaning is information that has been discarded: information that is no longer present and no longer needs to be. Information and meaning are rather like money and wealth. Real value, real weath, is a matter of...the money you have spent, money you used to have: utility values you have obtained by paying for them....Likewise information: It is only when you have got enough of the stuff that you realize it has no value in itself." (Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size)

I. (Anne) Coursekeeping
sign in
tangerines, spreston

reading for Wed: first of two chapters by Katherine Hayles, "How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine" (an essay from a book forthcoming; available
in our password-protected file)--an exploration of a very particular contemporary shift in how "information" (?) is conveyed

also put on our calendars: an upcoming showing of Top Secret ‘Rosies’:
The Female ‘Computers’ of WWII
@ the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 7:30 on Wed, Mar. 2 (co-sponsored by Bryn Mawr's Computer Science Department)

experience of writing/posting papers?

we got (most of!) them: check this page to be sure that yours went where it needs to be (if it didn't, you probably didn't tag it "GIST Web Paper 1," and you need to go back and do that now)

you are warmly invited to read your classmates' papers, and to
comment on them (as we will be doing, too, over the next few weeks...)

vgaffney already garnered a posting from Elizabeth Reis, a historian who
just published Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex

also start signing up for writing conferences NOW
: you can't leave for break w/out one, and we can NOT do them all the day before (a caution, generally, against last minute requests: give us a little space/time/respect!)

from the forum:
a few more diverse avatars
(with thanks to smile, rubikscube and J.Yoo)

m.aghazarian's report on Katie Baratz Dalke's (TMI!?) talk about intersex

merlin: youngest-ever-sex-change-patient (concludes w/ "the uncertainty within the field regarding the true roots of gender identity")

cf. spreston: I do not necessarily personally dislike a lot of society’s conventions... I actually find these comforting....because they limit the number of decisions I have to make.

yet cf. also Franklin20: gender is a performed identity..."the social order constructs and holds individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations" of the most influential technologies on gender is probably the television because of its ability to broadcast images to vast audiences.

II. All good lead-ins to today's first task:
finishing up the first section of our course, on

Last Wed, when Kim came and confused the categories some more...
we didn't get a chance to discuss our reactions to the readings.
So let's spend a little time on that now...

Parens on Surgically Shaping children:

we have disordered social practices, not disordered bodies!
debates about self-shaping technologies:
a worry that--in using technologies to transform identities--
individuals are becoming "inauthentic"
how to balance parental obligations to let children "be," and to "shape" them?
what are the costs to the child of surgeries to "make others feel better"?
on the fuzzy distinction between physiological and psychosocial functioning
is technology "morally neutral," or does it (as per
Heidegger) offer a "particular way of revealing things"?
in which things are "set upon" and "challenged forth," their particularity erased, as they are made "anonymous and interchangeable"?
do we treat the child's body as raw material, made
to be shaped to the "natural," "normal," "orderly"?
cf. "consumer-protection bioethics" w/ the "Socratic" form,
which attends to the connections between practices and people
(or: no decisions are individual)
since desire for normalcy=desirability=recognition,
it is our responsibility to establish new norms (=atypical anatomies)
(and so resolve the) tension between the master narrative of
the "scientific fix" and the need to affirm human variation 

Hausman on Transsexualism and Technology
emergence of transsexualism dependent on technological
developments in endocrinology and plastic surgery
transsexualism as a "disorder of gender identity"
is a cover-up for the more threatening idea that
transsexuals are subjects who choose to engineer themselves
(an engineering that is dependent on medical intervention)
critique of cultural feminists:
this is buying into cultural, "essentialist" norms of "woman";
cf. Teresa de Lauretis' argument that gender
is the product of various social technologies:
gender is a technology, a cultural construction (techne= an "art")
consider also transgenders who choose partial sex change/performance:
an implicit repudiation of binary gender system, disobedient to bipolar heterosexual framework, "transgressively gendered"
paradox of transsexuality: technological intervention is necessary to realize the being of the transsexual subject, not an intervention but the rectification of an unnatural situation

Turkle on Tinysex and Gender Trouble
on-line gender-swapping, virtual cross-dressing
Jamesian/Shakespearean "art of imagining alternatives":
an action-based philosophical practice/
a form of consciousness-raising about gender issues/
anthropological depaysement ("decountrifying" oneself
in fieldwork/ returning home to find it strange)
boundary status of cyberfantasies? accountability?
cultural criticism of these practices cover a range of
utopian, utilitarian, and apocalyptic responses

Let's put these folks into conversation w/ one another, w/ our earlier writers, w/ ourselves, w/ the data we've generated about our willingness to put ourselves "under the knife," to pay for others to go under.
What do you think about their ideas?

* Parens: "Grace is the virtue of living with what cannot be fixed; resisting fantasies of repair or restitution, and accepting the limits of one's own effectiveness....We need to beware of thinking of our bodies as mere stuff, which we can put to whatever purposes we see fit."

* Hausman: "One cannot escape gender by switching roles or performances
.... because the binary logic defines the possibility of switching in the first place .... Is voluntaristic gender play ... an effective way to reconfigure 'gender' as a system of disciplinary regulation?"

*  Turkle: "Who and what am I? What is the connection between my physical and virtual bodies? What is the nature of our social ties? What kind of accountability do we have for our actions in real life and in cyberspace?"


III. (Liz) As we conclude this first section of the course, which has highlighted the ways technology "re-makes gender", we want to take some time to process where we have been, in the spirit of our practice of dialogue, by asking each of you to share a comment about where you are. SAY YOUR NAME, AND WHERE YOU ARE NOW...

IV. Turning now to the second section of the course: THE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY OF INFORMATION--

We have started to build a bridge to this new idea, in talking about all the different ways that we convey the "information" that is gender.

We have chose to devote a 1/4 of this course to information,
because of its particularly ubiquitous presence now: i
n this decade, technology is all about managing information;
as today's "exemplary" technology, information should
give us an interesting angle on some important questions.

(Anne: the background)
In Summer '04, we participated in a faculty working group called
Information: An Inquiry, which got together to develop an intuition that related problems, arising in diverse arenas, were pointing to the need for a new and more general way of understanding "information."

That group grew out of an earlier series of 13 "brown bag" lunch conversations, held in Spring '04: "Information, Meaning and Noise:
What's the Difference?"
You might be interested in the archive for
some of the other talks, by staff and faculty members from many
different departments.

For today, we asked you to read accounts of the opening and concluding sessions in that series, by Katherine Rowe (English) on comparing our conceptual maps and investments, and by Paul Grobstein (Biology), on searching for a "third law."

So: now we enter.
A month ago, we re-defined gender (as a "kind," a category of "kins") and technology (as "art," an intervention in the natural world). We want to start this section of the course with the same activity: defining information: what is it?

Since this material may seem very abstract to you, let's try
answering that question by starting w/ several shared experiences.
We are going to listen to a little music, then read and write a little a bit.

* the first 30 seconds of The Inalienable Dreamless (Remix),
by a Japanese noise band, Merzbow

* the first few minutes of Beethoven's Third Symphony,
performed by the New York Philharmonic

* write down your first association to




Take a few minutes now to write about what you learned from
these experiences.
What information was conveyed by each of these
pieces of music? By these these letters? How was it conveyed?

What is information? What does the word refer to?
When someone says "information" what does it mean to you?

Review of the readings for today:
Katherine spoke about the linguistic concept of the "basic economy
of response"
needed for a conversation to be socially functional 

* Information involves distinguishing a pattern,
vs. noise, which has no innate structure;

*however, there has to be some unpredictability, some
surprise, something learned, in the communication

(per Walter Benjamin: some unintelligibility is necessary to produce meaning--> the ground of conversation: room for the other to respond)

*is "meaning" the fulcrum identifying the shift from "noise" to "information"?

*filtering can involve either deliberately
discarding noise or pigeonholing what is familiar

*is noise observant-dependent?
does information depend on context?

*what meaning does information have for non-humans?

Paul started in a very different place (we're modeling interdisciplinary conversation here!) with a property common to developing embryos and nerve cells: when a part is removed, the remaining part self-organizes to do its job

* claiming that the definition of information as "faithful communication
across transmission channels" is not useful for working on this problem,

* he redefined it as "the organization of matter and energy" 
(the more organized, the higher the information content)

* since information an only exist in the presence of a decoder, it might actually be re-defined as "that which is transformed" (by the decoder)
from one form of organized matter and energy to another (from potential
to actual information)

* so: information is not "essential," but relational

* what motivates the decoder??

* what do we trust as information?

Consider kgould's report that researchers hope to build sympathetic "listening" robots that ... may provide a less-judging ear than that of a human....My question for you, the students and audience of GIST, is whether or not what [we] have to say needs to be heard by someone understands what [we]'re saying?

In this new terminology: is any information being
transmitted, if no ear hears/no mind receives it?

And what does all of this have to do with gender and technology?