Weekly Response – Week 7

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Huazhi Qin

In everyday life, we take it for granted that we use computers to directly communicate with others. Computer (actually text software or other chatting apps) can transmit the message we send to other people. Then when people receive that message, they will naturally get what we want to say.

Thus, it is really interesting for me to think about the paradox proposed in The Information Paradox that “how can a system process information without regard to its meaning and simultaneously generate meaning in the experience of its users”. (Denning and Bell, 2012) What commonly thought is that meanings are inherently incorporated in the message or information we sent. But actually, there are not.

Shannon demonstrates in his information theory that information can be transmitted and received accurately by processes that do not depend on the information’s meaning. (Denning and Bell, 2012) Just like, a message can be sent to and displayed in another screen whatever the meaning is. So can the social media post and digital images. Whatever the meaning is, the transmission process can be achieved technologically.

So where is the meaning in this process? According to Denning and Bell, Information always has two parts, sign, and referent. Meaning is the association between the two. In other words, when people attach signs to referents, a message (or a post, an image) has a particular meaning. As what professor Irvine says, the meaning is not “in” the sign system, it is the system. (Irvine)

In addition, how receivers interpret the message he or she receives determines whether an information is successfully transmitted, not only technologically. Thus, senders and receivers are required to own shared knowledge and understanding of the connection between human sign and symbol structures with physical forms. For instance, in online chatting among Chinese young generation, a smiling face always does not mean a “smile”, happy, or other positive emotions. It is usually used to express one’s impatience or ironic thoughts. However, elder people always tend to think it as a real “smile”. At this time, the information is not successfully transmitted, despite the simile face can be seen by senders and receivers.

Nowadays, we experience computer-mediated communication every day. In computer-based context, a communication system can be considered to be accomplished by encoders, channels, and decoders. Also, the metaphors of “encoding” and “decoding” imply that a coding process puts something “in” signal units which are then taken “out”. (Irvine) Two levels of encoding and decoding exist in this process. From the technological level, the text is encoded and transmitted in form of bytes (or data) and decoded or interpreted by software to display on the screen. From meaning transmission level, senders connect their sign and symbolic structure to the texts and generate the meaning. Receivers interpret the texts to get the meaning.

Thus, only a combination of information theory and semiotics can be considered to truly “deliver a message”.



Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information

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