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January 29, 2004

Katherine Rowe (English)
What Is Information?:
Comparing Our Conceptual Maps and Investments

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

In this first meeting of the spring semester, Katherine attempted to clarify the variety of ways in which we, as professional academics, conceive of and profess "information" and "noise." Her hope was that, by doing so, we would be better able to hear the cross-currents and cross-purposes ("positive and negative interference") in our upcoming semester-long conversations. Prior to our session, Katherine had invited participants to mail her our working definitions of "information" or "noise"--whichever was the more important term in our professional idiom (and warmly welcomed antonyms as well).

Katherine opened consideration of the terms "noise" and "information" by calling attention to a concept in linguistics regarding the "basic economy of response" needed for a conversation to be socially functional. Language is intelligible if speaker and listener "connect," if what one says is "not heard as a non sequitur" by the other. Sometimes, we are using common words that have different histories and meanings for each of us. In the interest of our "not filtering each other out" over the course of this semester-long conversation, Katherine suggested we begin by "testing the limits of overlap" and listening carefully to our different languages. To the ways we are already using "Information" and noise" Katherine added other valences from the OED: archiac meanings that we have excised historically or by disciplines. She called particular attention to a call for a conference sponsored by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (upcoming in London in March), which describes noise as "an unpredented harbinger of aesthtetic radicality." She also played an "inalienable dreamless remix" by a Japanese noise band, Merzbow, demonstrating what it meant to "try to press" precisely what we were trying to identify: this music is "right on the edge"--sometimes actually slips off--what we can make sense of, but is useful to us exactly because it reactivates our (rather stressful!) attempts to turn it into patterned sound.

Comparisons were made, during discussion, to recordings of ocean sounds ("whale songs"), to the compositions of John Cage (who deliberately made sounds with no pattern), and to the work of those with the SETI Institute who are listening for signals from space, trying to hear in them the identifying marks of another civilization. Is "lots of structure" the index to intelligence? Does listening to noise actually make it ('turn it into") non-noise? There was discussion of the use of "white noise" to drown out more patterned noises (running a vacuum cleaner, for instance, to block out structured--and thus "more meaningful"--sound). Some time was spent on the distinction between "white noise" (in which all frequencies are represented in equal amplitude) and "colored noise" (in which all frequencies are also present, but some with greater amplitude). A "hard" definition of "real" white noise was also offered: it is generated by a random process (in which "what happens is uncorrelated with any prior action") and has no observable pattern.

Our ears are constantly generating signals that the brain has to "do something with"; those who hear noises in their ears have not been able to filter out those signals. We observed that this process operates with regard to all our senses (we are also constantly filtering out smells, for instance); "noise" is actually much too narrow a category if we think of it as "only aural." We seemed to be using the term figuratively, to describe a huge range of input phenomena. Noise, as we came to define it, innately has no structure; it is noise only until we see--learn to distinguish--a pattern in it. We found ourselves taking care in theorizing noise as "originary sound"; much of noise is composed, and we have a sense, in listening to it, of belatedly re-making patterns out of something someone else has already made sense of, that which is already pre-scripted and processed.

If the initiator of the conversation has a particular thought in mind, a response may sound like noise, if it doesn't follow the original speaker's train of thought. We may dismiss as "noise" a response (we may do this particularly with our students or children?) that could be information. We seemed to be thinking of noise and information on a continuum, with some sort of fulcrum ("meaning"?) dividing them from one another. When John Conway designed the "The Game of Life", he very deliberately fiddled the rules to be sure he got neither randomness nor perfect order, but "something satisfyingly inbetween." Meaningful transmission, we decided, needs to have enough-but not too much-similarity. What we are looking for as receivers is something that we can make sense of, but which can also surprise us, in a mix we can not predict perfectly ahead of time. (NPR "programs in" stutters, to keep us engaged, inserts "expectable hesitations" so the conversations sound "normally noisy.")

We began thinking about "re-directing the filters we use towards a particular goal," as we try to sort noise from information; perhaps the concepts we select on our "goal-oriented maps" need to be reconsidered in light of both our own established set of values and the utility of information. We seemed to be operating in terms of a clear hierarchy, with the third category being "transfer of meaning" and its value being the result of the transfer: we DO something that arrives at meaning-and its end result can actually be to destabilize the hierarchy.

As infants, we are assaulted by all the "blooming buzz of confusion" that is the world; although the information doesn't shift, as a matter of survival we learn to make patterns of it. As we discussed this process, we found ourselves using "filtering" in two senses: physicists and radio engineers engage in deliberate discarding of noise; others notice and recognize what is familiar, but hold on to it, "pigeonhole" it. These are two different orders: in the first, that which it is assumed will "never be meaningful" drops out; in the second, we use the category "this doesn't fit" in order to identify and then extract something from what we recognize as unfamiliar.

Is noise an existential category that never changes? Is it observer independent? We thought not: for instance, the identification of the gigantic depletion of the ozone layer was delayed because the computer sensors were throwing out all low measurements as outliers; it wasn't until the definition of "reasonable range" was changed that this "noise" was understood as highly significant signals; until then, the data points didn't make sense. Those who manage electrical equipment classify high frequency signals as noise; when Bell Labs was trying to improve microwave transmission, they filtered out cosmic background information. But in chaos theory those signals are necessary; the analysis of non-linear systems includes them. The sampling of random data plays a role in the causal dynamics of nonlinear system; noise is understood not as information-less, but as having consequences.

Walter Benjamin said that the "superior story" requires filling in by the listener; stories, by his definition, are only partly filled structures. Unintelligibility in the signal is actually necessary for meaning to be produced. Does such a definition work for scientists? Does understandability depend on context? Noise, for scientists, is information with a verifiable claim to truth, with a claim to be believable and re-interpretable by all. When a scientist reports her findings, the scientific community has to respond : the work is valuable if it is both understandable and creates openings (that is, invites the production of more information) for others.

But what meaning does information have for non-humans? When a plant decides to flower, for instance, it may be wrong (regarding an upcoming frost or drought). Is there any intrinsic meaning in noise for non-humans? How entangled is the concept?

What is the point of conversation? Giving intermediate ground, room for the other to respond? Is it possible to transmit something to alien intelligence that they will be able to translate? Do they have to "have a player" that that play our recordings? Is there any thing can be transmitted in only one way, has only a single translation? (See Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid on this.) We closed with reference to the plans of the new editor of the New York Times Book Review to publish more reviews of non-fiction, where he says the "most compelling ideas" are to be found. The value of fiction-in Benjamin's terms, as structures needing completion by the reader--is thereby surely diminished.

This conversation will pick up again in person next Thursday, Feb. 5, when Scott Silverman of Information Services will ask "What is so Informative About Information?" The discussion is also invited to continue online.

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