Communication through Information

By Linda Bardha

There is so much information around us. As Floridi puts it, Information is notorius for coming in many forms and having many meanings. Over the past decades , it has been common to adopt a General Definiton of Information (GDI), in terms of data and meaning. That means that we can manipulate it, encode it, decode it as long as the data must comply with the meanings (semantics) of a chosen system, code or language. There has been a transition from analogue data to digital data. The most obvious difference is that analog data can only record information (think of vinyl records) and digital data can encode information, rather than just recording it.

But how is the information measured?

Claude Shannon, in his publication “A mathematical theory of communication”, used the word bit, to measure information, and as he said, a bit is the smallest measuring unit of information. A bit has a single binary value, either 0 or 1.

When I think of information, I almost never associate it with data, but rather with meaning. In a way, information to me serves the function of communicating a message.

As Irvine explains, Information (in the electrical engineering context) is what can be measured and engineered for structuring physical, material signals or substrates (e.g., radio waves, binary digital electronic states in a physical medium like memory cells or Internet packets), which are then said to be the medium or “carrier” of data representations at the physical level.

In today’s society we share and receive information through different mediums. We live in a world where new technologies and devices are changing the way we communicate and interact with each-other. But, how did we get here? What were the main principles and technologies that lead to the invention of the internet and other technologies that we use to communicate today and share messages?

For my 506 project, I did research on the telegraph, and I was fascinated by how this groundbreaking device changed the way people communicated with each-other. Developed in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse (1791-1872) and other inventors, the telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication. The telegraph eliminated dependence on time and distance by connecting people through electricity and code. Although the telegraph had fallen out of widespread use by the start of the 21st century, replaced by the telephone, fax machine and internet, it laid the groundwork for the communications revolution that led to those later innovations.

Now we rely on the internet’s architecture to share and receive messages. The message that we want to send via email or any other application relies on the data packet switching principle across a network. First, the TCP protocol breaks data into packets or blocks. Then, the packets travel from router to router over the Internet using different paths, according to the IP protocol. Lastly, the TCP protocol reassembles the packets into the original whole, and that’s how the message is delivered.

In this video, Spotify engineer, Lynn Root and Vint Cerf, an Internet pioneer, explain what keeps the internet running, how information is broken down into packets and how messages are transmitted from one point to another.

The internet’s architecture and the design principles make the exchange of messages possible and keep us connected to each other. The information theory gives a different perspective on what information is and how it is measured.

As Gleick suggests, Shanon’s theory made a bridge between information and uncertainty; between information and entropy; and between information and chaos. It led to compact discs and fax machines, computers and cyberspace.

References:

Floridi, Luciano. Information: A very short introduction. (Oxford University Press,2010)

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. (New York, NY: Pantheon, 2011)

Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information” (Information Theory + Semiotics)

Shannon, E. Claude and Weaver, Warren.  The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois, 1949).

Root, Lynn and Cerf, Vint. Sep 9, 2015. The Internet: Packets, Routing & Reliability. Retrieved from URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYdF7b3nMto