Sunday 15 March 2015

Information and Aboutness

Susan Oyama argues: “When something marvellous happens, whether it be the precise choreography of an instinctive behaviour or the formation of an embryonic structure, the question is always where did the information come from?’” Oyama’s focus is on the relationship between information and development. Processes of learning are processes of development, where – in response to Oyama’s question it is easy (in the first instance) to point to course notes, web pages, text books, and so on. Yet this is clearly not the whole story: there is work that goes on in learning – work of learners, work of teachers, of institutional managers, of parents and so on. Whilst it might appear that course notes, web pages and text books are each ‘about’ something, and the learner’s account of their knowledge will eventually conform to the same points of reference, the interpretation of the aboutness of a thing is itself the product of work – not just the work of perception, but the prior work of personal knowledge and growth. The work of teaching and learning operates as the efficient cause for the production of those accounts of knowledge but more importantly the relationship between this work and the information it acts on lies at the heart of what it's all about: Deacon argues that “the capacity to reflect the effect of work is the basis of reference.”

What is the work that teachers do? Put most simply, teaching involves balancing interventions which at one moment concentrate a learner on an object or artefact, a task or a concept, and at another moment working to disrupt a learner from misconceptions or encouraging them to ask more questions: one aspect of education work involves creating order, the other in creating disorder. In dynamic systems more generally, Deacon identifies these two opposing forces as ‘orthograde’, where disorder arises (and entropy increases), and ‘contragrade’ where order increases and entropy decreases. Using the example of the sun’s energy which continuously bombards the planet as an orthograde force, the contragrade processes of life oppose the continual tendency for things to fall apart: physical processes lead to both to an increase in entropy – Deacon calls these “homeodynamic processes”, whilst dissipative processes also contribute to the production of order where entropy is reduced, and where constraints are amplified and ultrastable situations arise (he calls this a “morphodynamic process”). In living things entropy is reduced, and self-organised constraint production ensues through growth and development (he calls these “teleodynamic processes”). The business of making sense out of something is characterised by Deacon as a teleodynamic process, coordinated around a fixed constraint (say, a book). But this teleodynamic process sits upon morphodynamic and homeodynamic foundations. This is because a medium is a physical system, and as such is characterised by the homeodynamics of the laws of thermodynamics. Information entails work on a physical medium: the medium's consequent change in entropy tells us something. However, the work of interpretation means that even the lack of work on the medium will also convey information. It might the cause of fascination or curiosity. Deacon states:
“Despite their abstract character, information transmission and interpretation are physical processes involving material or energetic substrates that constitute the transmission channel, storage medium, sign vehicles, and so on. But physical processes are subject to the laws of thermodynamics. So, in the case of Shannon entropy, no information is provided if there is no reduction in the uncertainty of a signal. But reduction of the Shannon entropy of a given physical medium is necessarily also a reduction of its Boltzmann entropy. This can only occur due to the imposition of outside constraints on the sign/signal medium because a reduction of Boltzmann entropy does not tend to occur spontaneously. When it does occur, it is evidence of an external influence.”

The physical processes of the medium are subject to the laws of thermodynamics. The biological processes are subject to what Deacon terms "autogenesis". There remain problems of characterising the knowledge and understanding involved in communication, which is not only the work of selecting and interpreting messages, but also the work of coming to knowledge of the "medium" - the substrate of communication which is physical, biological and social. Whilst even this complexity does poor justice to the nature of communication, it is enough to note how Shannon's mathematical information based around 'surprise' cannot account for this richness of information; it is a mathematical abstraction of embodied processes whose success is attributable to its mathematical character and the fiduciary qualities ascribed by other scientists to it. Surprises arise in bodies, and whilst those bodies exhibit the thermodynamic properties of physical systems, these appear to be inseparable from those bio-psychosocial responses which transcend even the processes of Deacon's 'teleodynamics'. What then can we say of information except to say that its fundamental property is one of environmental constraint? Information is the background to being: it is an absence which is nevertheless causal on the forming of communications.

The way that the biological usage of the term ‘information’ refers to the role of DNA in processes of epigenesis provides a useful example of this. Whilst conventionally people talk as if there is information in DNA, there is little to explain the causal efficacy of this information in the interplay between DNA, RNA, proteins and enzymes in the processes of biological growth. Whilst there might be information in DNA, biological growth is characterised as an interaction with proteins and enzymes with processes being turned on and off according to a kind of computer program. We might ask, does the protein or the enzyme have information too? Do they not make a "difference that makes a difference" to the DNA? Information, wherever it resides, somehow sits in the background to the emerging form. Bateson argued that it wasn't so much the provision of information which caused growth, but rather its absence. The absence of information is instrumental in forming. Not just in biology is this situation seen: in artistic creations - particularly works of music - information might be said to exist which shapes behaviour, just as the art of rhetoric - that practice of swaying opinion and emotion - also entails a forming function. 

Forming has a relation to information's 'aboutness': clever rhetoric achieves its goal when the audience understands that the underlying key message as being "about" the central point that the speaker is trying to convey. From a cybernetic perspective, a system in a stable homeostatic state, negative feedback (or negentropy, or information) is the forming agent. Such a state of forming may however have some very complex dynamics. The art of rhetoric, for example, has many cases where crowds have been convinced of the "aboutness" of the speaker's message when deeper reflection of their words and intentions would lead to critical challenge which is somehow avoided. Whilst homeostasis contributes to the aboutness of information, it is clear that there is something more that transcends it, and which some forms of rhetoric attempt to prevent. The classic case of stable complex feedback is contained in Bateson's idea of the 'double-bind': the interplay of contradictory messages at different levels where the capacity to transcend the complexity of the contradiction is prohibited, thus trapping individuals in a confusing state that renders them easily manipulated. Double binds are both homeostatic and pathological. They underline the problem that homeostasis alone cannot nurture growth, an may suppress it.

Bateson's double bind is a cybernetic mechanism which highlights a deeper problem in the functionalism of cybernetics. Even in Piaget's cybernetically-oriented learning theory, the emphasis is on emergent co-evolution with the continual seeking of homeostasis between different developing organisms. A similar epistemology is contained in Maturana and Varela's idea of 'autopoiesis', which characterises the processes whereby organisms adapt to a changing environment, coordinating their own self-maintenance and reproducing their components as organisationally-closed systems. However, to return to Oyama's concern for the 'marvellous', or indeed the surprising, both Maturana and Varela's model and Piaget's learning theory account poorly for the unpredictable and surprising twists and turns that are experienced in learning as much as they are in biology. The adaptation processes that leads to the humming bird having a sticky beak (facilitating pollination), or the extraordinary life-cycle of the toxoplasma cannot simply be down to a homeostatic mechanism: the model can only address those aspects of adaptation which are reactive. 

This suggests that living things do more than simply maintain their stability. The suggestion by Deacon, Kauffman, Ulanowicz and others is that organisms in the process of maintaining stability also catalyse not only their own developmental processes, but also the development processes of other organisms in the environment. Behind Deacon's idea of autogenesis (which he contrasts with autopoiesis), there is both adaptation as well as autocatalysis. Ulanowicz characterises these processes as 'redundancies' whose interaction contributes to a top-down causal mechanism running alongside the bottom-up causal mechanism of co-evolution. In this way, the hummingbird gets its beak as a result of the interaction between the autocatalytic aspects of both the hummingbird and the flower.

Where do we locate information in this dual mechanism of homeostasis and autocatalysis? Whilst we might locate the aboutness of a homeostatic process, the form and flow of events and sense-making is driven by the interaction between this and the dissipative dynamics of redundancy and autocatalysis. The absence of any signals which might be said to be about something (for example, the absence of a student's homework) is at the same time the production of redundancies which can catalyse new processes of interpretation and stimulate new action. In this way, the homework that isn’t submitted, the student who is absent, the email that is unanswered are each informative and powerfully causal.

Deacon's approach to this situation is to consider the different levels of interaction in turn. First, the physical energy of information is something that can be articulated through Boltzmann’s statistical thermodynamics. If some physical work has been done to the medium to create some kind of change of state in it, then it means that some agent must have acted upon it, and the news of the agent’s acting is informative (although this is dependent on the capability of the individual to determine that something has changed in the medium). Secondly, Shannon’s information takes the physical differences of the medium and translate them to messages which produces patterns of surprises. Thirdly, the selections of messages sent and transmitted transform themselves over time through a process that is essentially evolutionary. Deacon articulates that information may have entropies and structures, but it also has a continuous form which emerges over time. The agents for the transmission of that form are not simply the information connections between the individuals concerned, but also the things which are absent: the context for the selections that go to making up the message.

The different levels of structure are deeply connected. For example, Shannon's information theory, in being closely related to Ashby's concept of homestatasis is little more than the coordination of senders and receivers. In Ashby's terms, it makes little sense to talk about the thing that happens between the different elements in the homeostat as 'information' except to say that each element adjusts its operations to absorb the variety produced by its neighbours, whilst at the same time producing variety for those neighbours in turn to absorb. In other words, Shannon communication is co-evolving coordination of operationally-closed systems. Indeed, the very topic of 'information' refers to the particular state of homeostasis that exists in the ongoing discourse about the ways in which organisms (human) coordinate their affairs with one another: "information" is the aboutness of human coordination. 

This, however, raises a more fundamental concern about human affairs and the relation of information to them. Information might be the "aboutness of human coordination", but not all processes of human coordination are considered to be related to information, and fewer still are considered to carry the kind of semantic information that might be considered to be useful. The different perspectives on information are effectively different ways of framing agency. Both the approaches of Deacon and Floridi raise awareness to the fact that the discourse about information is of many types (Shannon, semantics, biological, etc) but each of these in turn present different aspects on agency. However, if we are to talk about being human, being a concrete person and not an agent for the promulgation of information (of whatever type), then it is not the aboutness of things which appears to be operative, but rather the fact that some things really matter. There is a relationship between information, events, social order and agency where people act in the clear knowledge of what they must or must not do: some things really matter.

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