Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Experience of Information and Symbol Grounding

In the theory of information, the symbol grounding problem refers to the inability to account for the emergence of signs and tokens (words) with referents from basic principles (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbol_grounding) without recourse to apriori distinctions. The description of abstract mechanisms which show how structures of data can emerge and form the basis of proto-languages has been elusive, although there have been some interesting attempts by Holland (see his "echo" model) and Floridi. The symbol grounding problem is fundamentally a problem within the broader topic of morphogenesis, and indeed, the emergence of discrete symbols from basic principles is not dissimilar from the emergence of discrete forms from basic principles. They might well be one and the same!

There is, I think, a problem beneath the symbol grounding problem, and that is the problem of data itself. We tend to see data as essentially a synchronically structured facet of experience: it is never perceived to be diachronic. Yet, when I see '1.2345' there is a process of perception which is both synchronic and diachronic. "1.2345" must remain in my consciousness long enough for me to recognise it as data. Indeed, "1.2345"  may well appear as meaningful to me before I recognise it as data.

The matters that need to be considered include:

  1. Whether I expect to see "1.2345"
  2. How my expectation of seeing "1.2345" relates to my expectation of what might come next

There is a suggestion in 1. that if I didn't expect to see "1.2345" then I might not perceive it at all: it would be a difference that didn't make a difference because there was no anticipatory mechanism to pick it up and be changed by it. But this isn't so simple. I may not have expected to see "1.2345", but "1.2345" might be a possible well-formed statement within the realm of my expectations, and so it would make a difference to me.

I think there may be a problem with Bateson's idea of information as "a difference that makes a difference".
A diachronic view of information would instead look at the expectations of an observer and the prolongation of those expectations through 'differences'. Information as difference serves to prolong the expectations that it makes a difference to.

There are clearly some pieces of information which are completely outside current expectations and yet have an enormous impact: a shocking piece of news, for example. To consider these means we have to consider a gradation in transformation of expectation. Some differences are small, others are big, others don't register at all.

What is important is the understanding of the medium through which information is gained. My information expectation is a combination of an expectation of possible differences (i.e. utterances) in the light of the possibilities of the medium. This means that expectation is partly ontological speculation: our concern is partly the nature of what is possible within what we believe to be reality.

There are always messages that are possible which transform the way we think about the medium, that change the way we think about reality. These messages have a transformative effect. The old expectations of the medium are overturned. There is a radical restructuring of expectation which we feel quite viscerally. Artists and terrorists have this capacity to "transform the medium" in common! What shocks us also compels us to engage with it. It is this basic fact that makes art and terrorism possible.

Expectations ebb and flow as the properties of the medium and its messages are discovered. Information is more like the substrate within which this happens rather than the main show: it is more ground than figure. The figure is expectation.

But the central question of the symbol grounding problem is how it is that increasingly sophisticated symbols are developed and form the basis of proto-languages.

If expectations are considered as structures which are maintained through being immersed in the substrate of information, then we should consider what happens when those structures are radically reorganised. In a brain, reorganisation effectively means that a particular network of neurons which fired in anticipation of a set of events now (in the light of a new transformative event) is either discarded or radically reorganised to fire in a different way. The question is, what happened to the old set of events? Because our experience of phenomena like music is that whilst transformation takes us somewhere new, at some point the thing that was discarded comes back ("we will not cease from exploration...")

So the structure must persist in some form. Yet I am uncomfortable in following Floridi in suggesting a 'memory' because I do not think that it is the 'informational content' which is preserved (as bits), but rather it is the discarded structure of decision-making which is somehow preserved. Is it possible that one branch of tree may wither, whilst another flourishes, but at the same time the ermergent conditions of the flourishing of the second branch create the conditions for the resurrection of the first? Modelling this kind of oscillation ought to be possible. Each branch produces the information as the substrate for the growth and development of the other.

What is distinct about a particular structure of decision-making and a person's anticipations? If a particular structure reflects the choosing of the appropriate next act, the structure will determine the implications of different acts according to their likely effects, and the effects of those effects, etc. The agency for particular effects need not be memorised as 'code', but need only be 'wired' into reflex actions (like singing for example). If such a structure loses its privilege to another structure (through radical reorganisation of expectations), then the wiring will be maintained but the capacity to fire not called upon until some new point of development whereby the old structure of anticipation might be reintegrated within the network for active decision-making.  This moment might occur if an older structure becomes a shortcut for restructuring a newer structure. In this way, it is not surprising that 'eternal recurrence' is a feature of most art.

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