From Information to Information

As is written in Shannon’s famous paper, “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.”[1]

Traditionally, at least as for me, when trying to deliver a piece of information to another as accurate as possible, what I would try to do is do add as more description and post scrips as possible. However what Shannon had done is somehow totally the opposite.

It seems that he deals with the information by abandoning the pragmatics elements, here from my perspective not only pragmatics but also semantics. The technical design in Shannon’s theory is focusing on how to deal with the interpretable part of the whole information, the”type” or to say the “pattern”,  so that it can be put into the “semiotic envelope”[2] and together being delivered to the destination as accurately as possible. It seems that Shannon considered little about the “envelope” but payed full attention on how to encode and represent the “letter”. So what happens to the semiotic functions when the part of the whole information that is able to be represented by 0 and 1 are going through the physical architecture?

This reminds me of a really interesting conversation last week. The conversation happens in Wechat, a Chinese SNS application which allows free chat between friends.

This is how the dialogue goes in text.

Friend: “Which do you prefer, Sumsung or Apple?”

Me: “Apple.”

Friend: “Why?”

ME: “IOS works better than Android.”

Friend: “But Sumsung has better appearance.”

Me: “It is even forbidden in the airplane.” (P.S Because of too much exploding reports, a specific series of Sumsung smart phone, NOTE 7,is forbidden to take into the plane in several Asian countries including China and Japan)

Friend: “Apple is a bit more expensive.”

Me: “It may work longer.”

Friend: “But I love Jing Boran.” (P.S Jing Boran is an actor who is the new spokesman of SumSung  )

Me: “Well it seems that you have already made your mind.”

This is a really normal daily dialogue but after learning the information theory, it becomes a bit different to me. All the Chinese characters, punctuations and even the blanks in the sentences are the representable and translatable part of the information that can be encoded into bits and delivered through the movement of electricity.

Firstly, the most important question, what does the conversation talk about? Actually, the background story is that my friend wanted to buy a new smart phone and was struggling between the latest iPhone and the lastest Sumsung product. This background story is not the information that my friend hoped to deliver to me through the electricity this time but unconsciously becomes part of the “semiotic envelope” without which I will not get what she is asking. The same with the background story, who is Jing Boran and why he is relevant to our conversation here are all the collective knowledge, at least the collective knowledge between the two of us.

However, even with these pre-existing knowledge, when purely watching these words shown on the screen, what can we get? There are still a lot more semiotic logics goes without which the whole information will still not be gotten exactly. Here I would like to talk about Sumsung and Apple. They are actually the name of two brands but clearly my friend is not thinking of purchasing the whole company (this is also part of the collective mind). From my perspective, there is actually an unprcisely employment here in our conversation which is led by a really “semiotic” thing—brand. Neither of the two company only sells the cellphone that my friend is struggling with. Each of them are sells different series of smartphones and other electronic devices, such as pads and laptops, simultaneously. In our conversation, these two words are actually working as different tokens even when they are shown in the same way on the screen. Sometimes, they separately represent the specific series of smartphone that my friend is interested in, sometimes they represent all the smartphones that are being sold in that brand and sometimes they are the brand, the company, themselves.

There are still a lot to dig into when considering how complex it is for my friend and I to go through the conversation smoothly.  However the more this process is complex, the more amazing the idea of Shannon is to me. It is not only about how the idea enables the information to be delivered in human society, but more fundamentally, how talented Shannon is to come up with the idea that somehow separate the symbolic system from the whole information and use mathematical model to represent the specific part of that information.

I do not think that I have perfectly understand the information theory idea but the manipulation in mind that translate the information in general context  to the information in technical system really stroke me and somehow influenced how I think of the media.

[1] Shannon, C. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” ACM SIGMOBILE Mobile Computing and Communications Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 2001, pp. 3-55.

[2] Irvine, M. “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information”