thomas_a_bass's picture
Professor of English and Journalism, State University of New York, Albany; Author of The Eudaemonic Pie and The Spy Who Loved US
Information Pathology

Our modern world of digitized bits moving with ever-increasing density and speed through a skein of channels resembling an electronic nervous system is built on information. The theory of information was borne full-blown from the head of Claude Shannon in a seminal paper published in 1948. Shannon provided the means—but not the meaning—for this remarkable feat of engineering. Now, as we are coming to realize with increasing urgency, we have to put the meaning back in the message.

Information theory has given us big electronic pipes, data compression, and wonderful applications for distinguishing signal from noise. Internet traffic is ballooning into the realm of zettabytes—250 billion DVDs-worth of data—but the theory underlying these advances provides no way to get from information to knowledge. Awash in propaganda, conspiracy theories, and other signs of information sickness, we are giving way to the urge to exit from modernity itself. What is it about information that is making us sick? Its saturation and virulence? Its vertiginous speed? Its inability to distinguish fact from fiction? Its embrace of novelty, celebrity, distraction?

Information theory, as defined by Shannon in his paper on “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (which was republished in book form the following year as “The Mathematical Theory of Communication), deals with getting signals transmitted from information sources to receivers. “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point,” wrote Shannon in the second paragraph of his paper. “Frequently the messages have meaning, that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.”

Shannon’s theory has proved remarkably fruitful for signal processing and other aspects of a modern world bathed in bits (Shannon was the first to use this word in print), but he had nothing to say about messages that “frequently ... have meaning.” As Marshall McLuhan said of Shannon, “Without an understanding of causality, there can be no theory of communication. What passes as information theory today is not communication at all, but merely transportation.”

Take, for example, the comedian George Carlin’s Hippy Dippy Weatherman who announces, “Tonight’s forecast, dark. Continued dark tonight. Turning to partly light in the morning.” Since this message conveys information already known to us in advance, the amount of information it carries, according to Shannon, is zero. But according to McLuhan—and anyone who has watched George Carlin pace the stage as he delivered Al Sleet’s weather report—the message contains a raft of information. The audience guffaws at mediated pomposity, the unreliability of prediction, and the dark future, which, if we survive it, might possibly turn partly light by morning.

Information theory has not budged since Shannon conceived it in 1948, but the pathologies surrounding information have begun to metastasize. We are overwhelmed by increasing flows of information, while our capacity for understanding this information remains as primitive as ever. Instead of interpreting this information, teasing knowledge from data, we are shrugging our shoulders and saying, “I dunno. It’s a wash. You have a lot of information on your side. I have a lot on my side. (Whether it’s verified information or disinformation or lies—who cares? There’s a lot it.) So let’s raise our arms into a big cosmic shrug.”

Addressing the “common angst” of our age, Jared Bilby, co-chair of the International Center for Information Ethics, describes “the fallout of information pathologies following information saturation, dissolution, and overload.” The theory for understanding the causes of information sickness is being put together by people like Luciano Floridi, a professor in the philosophy and ethics of information at Oxford. According to Floridi, we are in the process of transforming ourselves into “informational organisms (inforgs), who share with other kinds of agents a global environment, ultimately made of information, the infosphere….” In this global environment of information—which is related, of course, to the other environment made of stuff—the task is to find the meaning in the message. Tonight’s forecast is dark, to be sure, but we are hoping for signs of light by morning.