Friday, 18 October 2013

Music. Information. Learning.

I think that Information is the most important phenomenon that urgently requires a coherent scientific understanding. Currently we only have fragments of 'information theory' and the fragments don't fit together: information as communication between machines (Shannon's theory) which has been so important in technology; information in meaningful human communication processes (i.e. not machines); information in biology - particularly information in DNA (but enzymes? or proteins?); information as experience (the experience of becoming informed); information in learning; information as qualia; information 'flows'; information overload... and so on.

Information is, before we make any kind of distinction about it, fundamentally an aspect of experience. My eyes pass over the spreadsheet in the way that they might pass over a painting or my ear might latch onto a piece of music. At some point, things draw my attention. But at what point? What has happened for one particular number (a patch of black on the white screen) to draw my attention?

This is why I think, as an experience, information is 'musical'. It is hard to study the movements of my eye over a painting, but the sensation of my ear during music can be inspected at some depth. There are moments which 'strike' me - moments at which I have a sensation of revelation or discovery. There are also moments when the tedium of it all causes it to wash over my attention without me taking notice. I think if we can understand this in musical experience, our understanding of information as experience will be increased.

What I am interested in, which underpins information as experience, are human expectations. These shift when we witness an 'information flow', and they change when we listen to music. They also change during learning processes: indeed, our expectations are always shifting. I think that our emotional responses are closely aligned to shifts in expectation. We anticipate with eagerness when we are certain about something that is about to happen: the result of a calculation, or the resolution of a cadence. We feel satisfaction when the resolution occurs or the equation is solved. We become anxious and disorientated when we don't know what to expect.

I think expectations are formed within constraints. An expectation is the 'thinkable' part within a context which is largely unthinkable. What we conventionally think of as 'information' is bounded by what we cannot think. There is much more to any 'information' but it is not thinkable. This is certainly the case with music: the absences are bigger than the presences.

What is 'unthinkable' is effectively redundant. Yet whilst it is redundant, it is also causal as a constraint on what we can think. Redundancies may be analysable. Music is full of redundancies: repetitions of motifs, accompanimental patterns, etc. With information (say on the internet) there is also huge amounts of redundancy. There is a job  to do in analysing this redundancy and understanding how it is causal as a constraint on what is thinkable.

The 'topic' of any piece of information is the thinkable part that is sustained in a sea of redundancy that maintains it. The topic of any piece of information is a kind of expectation. The topic of a piece of music is a deep level structure within which successive events can be situated (like, for example, a deep Schenkerian structure).

In learning, expectations of both teachers and learners change. In their conversations there are huge amounts of redundancy (this is why Pask's conversational model is mistaken, because it only looks at the thinking part of utterances). The redundancies constrain the expectations of each. By having knowledge, the teacher is able to generate more redundancies which can further constrain the learner's expectations. With this constraint, the learner can be led to feel safe in first making utterances that they feel secure in anticipating the outcome of. This is basically 'play'.

Which then raises the question about the role of redundancy in play. Most games operate with simple rules which are applicable in a variety of ways. Is this also redundancy? Cyberneticians talk of 'reducing variety' with things like rules. But I'm beginning to think that this is better understood as 'increasing redundancy' - effectively it amounts to the same thing: variety is reduced if the constraints are amplified. Then the difference between play fighting and real fighting becomes one where in play fighting the redundancies are always maximised, whereas in actual fighting there is absolutely no redundancy in a real punch!!

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