Message, Shared Knowledge and Meaning Making

This week’s reading covers Shannon’s information theory. Information theory, combined with semiotics make the meaning-making process possible in this digital environment. As shown by Shannon’s original diagram of information transmission model, the information goes from the sender through a more complicating than thought procedure of encoding and decoding to reach the receiver.

Transmission of Message

Messages work after being transmitted because both the sender and receiver share the knowledge base of what the transmitted signal represents. For instance, in a text message, it is assumed that both the sender and receiver share the knowledge of the grammar, vocabulary, formal/informal usage of whatever language they are being transmitted in.

Language itself, no matter spoken or written, is a code for understanding and communicating the world as we perceive it to someone else. Thus beyond being able to receive the text, the receiver must understand the language or the communication rules for the signal to be able to correctly gather what the sender was trying to say. If the sender and receiver does not share the same language, they must try to find another channel to translate the information to a language that they understand. This gives the chance to introduce non-digital “noise” into the message. Mistranslation could happen when a word or phrase cannot be directly translated to another. Misunderstandings of words or phrases due to the language difference could lead to wrong decoding of the original message.


Meaning-making based on Shared Knowledge

In terms of images, the idea remains the same. A shared pool of previous knowledge is required to provide meaning. For example, people will recognize all these pictures as Mona Lisa, as they are familiar with the elements (such as the face, the gesture, or the tone of the color) in the original painting, and have already known them as symbols.

Another example goes in modern usage of images may be the Internet meme and jokes. What makes sense to one person may make no sense at all to another, because they’re not familiar with the background knowledge. They have no context with which to interpret the image given to them to understand what the sender is trying to say. For instance this picture would not make much sense to someone who is not familiar with the culture. Zhuge Liang, whose courtesy name is Zhuge Kongming, is a famous chancellor during the Three Kingdoms Period. This picture only make sense to people who speaks Chinese and knows the person. “Liang (亮)”, the person’s name, means light or brightness in Chinese, while “Kongming”, the courtesy name, means lights in holes or eyes. People normally see the name of a person as an entity and do not look into its actual meaning, thus this picture is funny for Chinese speakers as the image of the person changes according to the literal meaning of his name. However people from other cultures would not understand without the background knowledge or context.

(Literal Translation of his name:

Zhuge Brightness, Zhuge Darkness; Zhuge Light-in-the-Holes)



Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information

Peter Denning and Tim Bell, “The Information Paradox.” From American Scientist, 100, Nov-Dec. 2012.

Ronald E. Day, “The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and the Nature and Politics of Information Studies.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51, no. 9 (2000): 805-811.