Sunday, 14 April 2013

Information and Emancipation

Is a theory of information futile? There's something of a Zeno's paradox about it all: we can pursue Shannon, or Deacon, or Floridi, or whoever else braves this territory. But there's always an unexplored aspect. Is it the physics, or the biology, or the sociology, or the pedagogy? Exploring information is rather like exploring education - it is torn apart by the various disciplines that have a stake in it - which is all of them.

I think there is a central conflation in all attempts at information theory. That is a conflation between describing the mechanism of emergence, and the mechanism of experience. Cybernetic theories tend towards conflating emergence with experience in a causal circularity. But what of the experience of engaging with the theory? That inevitably is outside the circularity.

Experience is personal. There is no reduction possible beyond our living as people, persons in a social world, with parents and families and loves and beliefs. However, to believe that there are possible reductions is part of our personhood. Yet such a belief is subject to the forces which shape our personhood.

Emergence is a way of explaining how things comes to be. As persons, explanations are important to us. They help us act in the world. Explaining how things come to be is how we understand the nature of things. Acting in the knowledge of the nature of things is likely to be more effective than acting in ignorance of the nature of things. (all sorts of silly examples can be used to illustrate that point!)

Information is produced by an act. We might explain how that act may have occurred - what its emergent causes were. Only the person committing the act can know the experience - and even  their retrospective analysis of the act is not the same as the act itself.

But an act is the result of a decision. Decisions, as I argued yesterday (and have been arguing for some time) result from absences. A decision (and therefore by extension, information) emerges from a mechanism involving absence, but a decision is also irreducible.

Is information irreducible? Surely, that's nonsense. After all, the chief value of information is that it can be 'gathered', 'compared', 'collated', 'organised', etc! At the same time, however, we also know about the deficiencies of our gathering and comparing and organising. It creates great analytical problems for us as we seek to find new sophisticated algorithms to unpick the 'meaning' of the information. In the  process, we move further away from the everyday world of the senses into an abstract world of data.

Information may well be irreducible. It may be that when we correlate data, we actually coordinate around absences. Both apples and pears may be negatively defined: the characteristic features whose absence determines that x can be nothing but an apple or a pear. Yet at the same time, there are the characteristic features whose absence determines that x can be nothing other than an apple-pear. (c.f. Wittgenstein's 'family resemblances') But the point is that the absence processing goes on in us. It is not in the data.

What bears upon the processes of absence determination in the correlation of data? Well, there are the cumulative absences that each of us carry from our lives. No-one can quite know what they are. But there are certain to be some common themes: death, attachment, love, sex, religion, and so on. They are almost always there at some level in the negative ground of our being. There is an aspect of data correlation which is a determination of a part of absence which in turn is a recognition of our shared biology.

But those things about togetherness, attachment, identification with the species are so fundamental - even in processes of data correlation. The most impressive thing I find in Grounded Theory (which otherwise I find quite troubling) is the emphasis that is made on 'living with the data'. That is the process of attuning absences to acts which caused data to be produced.

But personal and social ontology, personal history and behaviour all count. Absences point towards emancipation; towards the critique of prohibition. Information is the result of absences: data is produced by acts determined by what isn't there. Analysis is an act too. It too produces information. Personal absences matter at all levels. That means that at all levels, it is an acknowledgement and inspection of absence, not information, which is continually required.

Deep information theory is not a theory of information; it is a theory of absence. Absence is real, whereas information is merely an epiphenomenon of the effect of absence on decisions. If we privilege information, we risk enslaving ourselves to a false ontology. We risk denying fundamental parts of our personhood whose denial contributes to poor decisions (particularly poor analytical decisions).

By privileging absence, an account of the emergence of information can be created. This would relate information to decision and action. It would see information as irreducible yet account for the mechanisms whereby information can be correlated. But most importantly, in drawing attention to the root cause of stratified information and the emergent pathologies resulting from it, it can make the connection between ontological security and our treatment of information in the world around us. In this way, by privileging absence, an approach to information can be created which is explicitly infused with the emancipatory drive which unites the spreadsheet and the new technologies with the policy and its effects.

That, I think, is a path worth taking. For not only does it give us an approach to information that is hopeful rather than dismal, it also gives us a way of thinking about technology (which is also a determination of absence) and social change. Absence, I believe, may be important in re-engaging the political sphere in the business of information and technology.

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