Shannon’s foundational information theory (MTC) is simply not bothered with the meaning of the content, and doesn’t need to. Since meaning is not a property of the signal but an event, the entire information transmission process including the signal, system and processing together constitute the meaning of the message, media or artifact as we understand it. This is why we know that a hand-written note means something different from a text message. “Hartley had to admit that some symbols might convey more information, as the word was commonly understood, than others. For example, the single word ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ when coming at the end of a protracted discussion, may have an extraordinarily great significance.” (Floridi) Therefore, if meaning relies on the popularity of symbols in a meaning-making community, could probability theory be applied to explore the transmission of meaning? Although, Shannon’s theory cheerfully neglected the meaning of information, he concluded “that apples and oranges are after all equivalent, or if not equivalent, then fungible.” Isn’t this the entire point of semiotics or human symbolic cognition?
If data + meaning = information, where is the meaning? Is it implied in the data until it is transmitted and interpreted as information that is valuable? Or is the presence of meaning in the transmitted data prompt an interpretation of it as information that can be used? “How data can come to have an assigned meaning and function in a semiotic system like a natural language is one of the hardest questions in semantics, known as the symbol grounding problem.” (Floridi) In a quantum state, information is transmitted through the entanglement phenomenon. Therefore, information is coded only in the correlation, not in the entangled states, eliminating the binary constraint present in the classical state. Is this a relevant step ahead for a semiotic model of information?
From a strictly symbolic perspective, the text (sign vehicle) gets interpreted by the transistor into electric signals which correspond to other signs, by way of “electromagnetic actions” at the logic unit (ALU) in the computer, that further render a manifestation (by way of computation) of the original sign vehicle (the text). An image is converted into pixels, areas of lightness and darkness, a sound pressure is converted into electrical current (charged free electrons (particles) in the semiconductor), numbers are converted into binary states by method of base-two notation and letters are converted into numbers in the ASCII (developed in 1963) code. Shannon soon realized that the more discrete the signals, the more efficient is the transmission of a message. This is primarily why binary won over quaternary (4 states) and even quinary (5 states). However, a quantum transmission involves superposition, where data can be coded in multiple different states as a result of the nature of the quantum particles. Would this involve a trade-off between efficiency and communication?
How do we know what a text message means? Firstly, a digital message today usually arrives tagged with a specific sender, which generally implies it is human-motivated. Secondly the message carries a degree of syntactical familiarity. “According to Shannon, a message can behave like a dynamical system, its future course conditioned by its past history.” The design of the electronic/digital system as such carries electromagnetic current that drives the signals to be transmitted back to its original form, according to the code used to encode the message at the first instance. The system is designed based on the amount of information that can be transmitted. I think that all communication acts can be understood by merely supplying on the signal level, provided the signals are commonly known by the communicators. The symbolic cognition occurs with the supply of these signals and the presence of “more developed” ones to draw inference (through the interpretant).
Can the conduit metaphor be rendered obsolete by quantum information theory? Can quantum information theory provide better metaphors than even “network”? Moreover, in a quantum state, there also lies the potential for technology to shift its mode of communication from a transmission view to a higher dimensional one. These are questions I’m beginning to grow a lot of interest in.
- Luciano Floridi, Information, Chapters 1-4.
- James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.
- Ronald E. Day, “The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and the Nature and Politics of Information Studies.”
- Crash Course Computer Science, YouTube, http://bit.ly/2xB9N9y
- John Preskill, Making Weirdness Work: Quantum Information and Computation.