Why would anyone want to understand information theory?

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To be thought a geek? To actually be a geek?

To understand new media better? How about because information, not matter, may be the basic substance of reality. Sound implausible? Read on. Consider the following questions, asked by Baylor University computer science prof Robert Marks II: 

• When a paper document is shredded, is information being destroyed? Does it matter whether the shredded document is a copy of an un-shredded document and can be replaced?
• Likewise, when a digital picture is taken, is digital information being created or merely captured?
• The information on a DVD can be measured in bits. Does the amount of information differ if the DVD contains the movie Braveheart or a collection of randomly generated digital noise?
• When a human dies, is experiential information lost? If so, can birth and experience create information?
• If you are shown a document written in Japanese, does the document contain information whether or not you know Japanese? What if, instead, the document is written in an alien language unknowable to man?

The purpose of such questions is to help us see that information is real even though it is immaterial. One consequence of information being immaterial is that it is not measured in any way commensurate with material nature.

Matter can be measured in grams and energy in joules, but information is measured in bits and bytes, which bear no relation to grams or joules. One consequence is that we often ignore information when we consider life in our universe, even though the primary way that life forms differ from non-living forces or materials is the huge amount of information they embody.

Information differs from matter in a number of ways; Here are three, to set us thinking:

1. Information is fundamentally a relational notion, that is, it exists as a relationship between realized and unrealized possibilities. As information theorist William Dembski explains, information is created by ruling out possibilities. A remembered numerical code is the one possibility among thousands that turns off an alarm system. Everything about the system is material except the series of numbers that controls it.

2. Generally, information increases when we increase its resolution, and decreases when we decrease it (see David, above). A person may be said to live in Canada, in the province of Saskatchewan, in the city of Saskatoon, on Fifth Avenue, at No. 438, Unit 1314. In the increasing resolution, nothing has changed about where the person lives; what changed is the amount you know about where to find that person. We can observe from this that information is relational, not causal. Knowing the address does not cause you to contact the person, it only makes it possible.

3. Information can be stripped of all matter and transmitted immaterially from one medium to another but cannot be reduced to matter. As great physicist John Wheeler put it, we get the “it” from the “bit,” not the other way around. Or, as quantum theorist Max Planck put it,

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter. – Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944) (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797); Max Planck (1858–1947), the originator of quantum theory, The Observer, London, January 25, 1931

This isn’t mysticism or woolly-headedness; it is just a fact. New media help us see this fact more clearly because of the way they seem to dispense with time and space. I’ll come back to this now and again in future posts, because new media are easier to adapt to and manage if we think in terms of information flow in media, rather than the materials through which it is flowing.

See also: Data Basic III, and III for more information




Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. Follow me at Twitter!

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | information, new media

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