Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, October 28, 2010

nature as information

Via Clay Shirky, some really important thoughts from Mike at The Aporetic:

A woman in a farm kitchen had a LOT to consider – just making a cooking fire took constant attention, and information about the kind and quality of the wood, the specific characteristics of the cook stove, the nature of the thing being cooked.

The modern cook flips on the burner, and his or her attention, freed up, diverts to other things. She or he has much less information to deal with.

So what appears to us as “too much information” could just be the freedom from necessity. I don’t have to worry about finding and cutting and storing fire wood: I don’t even have to man age a coal furnace. That attention has been freed up for other things. What we see as “too much information” is probably some thing more like “a surplus of free attention.”

Read the whole thing: it’s an excellent reminder of the value, density, and richness of what Albert Borgmann calls “natural signs,” a form of “information about reality.”

4 comments:

  • I think nature comes at us much slower than data, and household tasks don't require the mental processing that dealing with data does. FWIW, when I'm camping I feel a lot less stressed than when I'm teaching, even though many things about being a prof have become automatic for me while many things about camping I have to think about as I'm doing them.

    In related news, "Information Rage Coming Soon to an Office Near You":

    "A survey released this week revealed the latest affliction to hit white-collar workers. It's called 'information rage,' and almost one in two employees is affected by it. Overwhelmed by the torrent of data flooding corporate workplaces, many are near the breaking point. The aftermath of all this is the deterioration in quality that occurs when flustered employees — unable to sort through a pile of information fast enough — end up submitting work that's substandard. Almost three quarters of the survey's respondents declared their work has suffered as a result."

    -- Leroy

  • This is true. A difference is that old information was so integral to its context. Everything was connected. I lived in the bush for two years, and that was a great life in many ways, partly for that reason.
    Also, everyone in the small "community," was forced to share so much more of their perceptions of reality than we do "out here."
    * * * * *
    Children with special needs do better with new words presented in "word webs" to give context. They are us.

  • I'm with Julana. Maybe there was just as much "information," but we naturally knew what that information meant and how to juggle it.

    Maybe the trouble isn't *volume* of information, but rather that we have to spend so much effort figuring out what our information means, how it fits together, and whether it matters.

  • "Information" is one of those strange, amorphous amoeba words that means many things and yet, as a result, means precious little. It is terribly slippery, this word. It is surrounded by a scientific aura - and we all love to use it precisely so that its scientific sheen will rub off on us and make us appear to be saying something more important than we actually are. "Information" is a plastic word, as German linguist Uwe Poerksen calls it, residing comfortably in the same list as development, life, crisis, strategy, and problem. Each is a sort of Lego block, a modular building block that can be plugged together with the others this way and that, never bringing precision, always blurring meaning.
    As Nabokov said of "reality," information may be one of those words that always needs to be surrounded by quotation marks.
    There wasn't more or less "information" in the world 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, than there is today. Only by referring to Claude Shannon's theory, a highly technical, entirely mathematical definition that the vast majority of people (including me) do not (and cannot) understand, can "information" be understood in any way as a measurable quantity. But most of us sling the word around as if we know what we're talking about, as if information were some kind of stuff that gets created, stored, consumed, destroyed, and wasted.
    Perhaps only when daily life has become largely a matter of consuming standardized commodities - including standardized blobs of language, foisted on us by teachers, managers, and other professionals - that are designed to satisfy our "needs" is there any reason to consider how much information we must deal with. When everyday speech has been reduced to a code that's understood as composed from a set of signs that supposedly convey "bits" of information - and the brain as simply an "information processor" - then it becomes easier to think in terms of information as yet another stuff to be consumed.

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