Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Information (3): information and its near relations

One of my favorite passages in The Information comes when Gleick describes a series of conferences held, starting in the late 1940s, at the Beekman Hotel in New York. “A host of sciences were coming of age all at once — so-called social sciences, like anthropology and psychology, looking for new mathematical footing; medical offshoots with hybrid names, like neurophysiology; not-quite-sciences like psychoanalysis — and [neurophysiologist Warren] McCullough invited experts in all these fields, as well as mathematics and electrical engineering.” In addition to Claude Shannon, participants included Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and others.

There's an interesting moment (p. 248) when Shannon is speaking and just can't get people to focus on information as such — they keep wanting to get into semantics, meaning. (As I read this I found myself thinking of the way Neal Stephenson distinguishes between semantic and syntactic Faculties of philosophy in his novel Anathem.)

The Information is to some degree about this resistance, this inability that non-Shannon human beings have to see communication solely in terms of information transfer. But Gleick doesn't address this point as directly as I think he should: he tends instead to allow the confusions and elisions to be present in his narrative. Which is to some degree defensible, since that’s what real life has been like.

But let’s make some distinctions:

  • information: defined (in multiple ways) here
  • data: information recognized by humans as information
  • knowledge: information sorted by humans and translated into human terms
  • wisdom: the proper discerning of the human uses of knowledge
  • counsel: wisdom transmitted to others
That last point I decided to add after reflecting on Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Storyteller” (PDF here.)


  • Are these categories (data, knowledge, wisdom, etc.) your own, or are they from somewhere else?

  • Those are mine. To be developed more fully at some point.

  • Curiously enough, I didn't truly, deeply or intuitively appreciate the distinction between information and meaning until I put aside my Electrical Engineering and Computer Science degrees, and became an artist.

    An artist friend used the word "information" to characterize the visual elements of a painting. (Which seems to correspond most closely to the "As sensory input" section in the Wikipedia article you linked). It really knocked me for a loop, and clarified immediately the difference between the "information" of paint spots, and the "meaning" we take from those spots (corresponding to what you call "knowledge" in your nicely-assembled taxonomy above).

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