Communication theory and its social consequences

I could find two different perspectives on what “information meaning” means in this week readings. In Floridi (2010),  “’[m]eaningful’ [information] means that the data must comply with the meanings (semantics) of the chosen system, code, or language in question (p. 23). In this sense, inside of a system, machines interpret meanings previous programmed and set up. Such meanings only make sense in the context of communication among nonhuman actors – data and machine – and is what enacts the systems operability.

Another use for the word “meaning” appears in the explanation of Shannon’s theory of information given by Denning and Bell (2012). Here, an emitter sends a message, which is encoded according to a codebook and converted into signals. These signals follow their way until reaching the decoder on the receiver side, where they are decoded based on the same codebook, acquiring its original format as a readable message. In this model, the medium used to transport the message does not understand the “meaning” of the information that has been carried out. The meaning is given by connecting the signals to their referents. These referents are collectively shared, thus people assign meaning to it.

From the point of view of the Internet-based communication system that we have today, this is a powerful principle: the machines don’t need to know the information that is transported. Vint Cerf, one of the TCP/IP protocol designers, in the Foreword section of the book Great Principles of Computing (Denning and Martell, 2015) explains the wide diffusion of TCP/IP, the main Internet communication protocol, based on that principle. For him, the fact that application designers on the web do not have to understand as IP packets are transported, and at the same time, the protocol does not depend on the type of information in transit, have contributed to what the Internet is today, and for its impressive stability, despite of the fact that the network receives a plurality of new applications every day, not initially foreseen.

Despite of all these characteristics of the theory of communication and its consequences for our current way to communicate online, the fact that data have become valuable for the stakeholders who run the Internet require us to reflect on a new set of questions. Nowadays, Vint Cerf works for Google, which has developed software to read our Gmail messages and offer products and services through its ads. Are these machines interpreting meaning or not? Internet service providers using the discourse of network optimization demand the right to prioritize content when transporting data on the Internet, what has generated the necessity of new regulations, such as net neutrality provisions. Are they requiring the right to distinguish packets meaning or not?

The political aspects and the social consequences of this discussion are truly interesting.