Sunday 2 June 2019

Two kinds of information in music and media

My recent music has been exploring the idea that there are two kinds of information in the world. I am following the theory of my colleague Peter Rowlands, who had this to say (in the video below) on the subject of how nature is a kind of information system, but very different from the information systems of our digital computers. Peter summarises the difference by saying that digital information is made from 1s and 0s, but the significant thing is the 1. Nature, he contends, operates with multiple levels of zero. His reasons for thinking this are a thoroughly worked-through mathematical account of quantum mechanics, and particularly the Dirac equation (the only equation in Westminster Abbey!). Nature is all "Much ado about nothing".

I've been fascinated by "nothing" for a long time. Nothing is "absence" as opposed to "presence", and absence is (according to philosophers like Roy Bhaskar, cyberneticians like Gregory Bateson, and biologists like Terry Deacon) constraint. Constraint is important in digital information because it is represented by Shannon's concept of "redundancy". So there is a connection between nothing and redundancy. This resonates with me with something like music, because it is so full of redundancy, and music does appear to be "much ado about nothing".

There is something we do when we make music which somehow makes sense. The patterns we create create the conditions for richer patterns which eventually define a structure. Musicians create redundancy in the form of repetition which brings coherence to the music. There are different kinds of redundancy: pitch, rhythm, timbre, intervals, etc. Much of this patterning occurs in the context of an external nature which is always shifting the context in which the music is made. It might be the sound of the wind, or water, or traffic, computer sounds, or elevator music - our sonic environment is moving around us all the time. The musical sense may be the natural pattern-making response to this which seeks to produce coherence. If this is the case, then birdsong and the noises of all animals, and maybe even language itself, can be seen as a process of maintaining coherence of perception within an environment. This is a radical view when applied to language - it means that we don't communicate. We don't transfer "information" between us. As Niklas Luhmann says in his most famous quote,
"Humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate."
He could be right. It's also quoted in Erich Hörl's new book "Sacred Channels: The archaic illusion of communication". Hörl follows a line of inquiry from Friedrich Kittler (who is also new to me) who argued that "media studies" needs to reject Marshall McLuhan's view that media extend the human; media makes the human. Gilbert Simondon said the same thing in connecting technology with human individuation. If there is a new theoretical way forwards for our thinking about technology, media and education, it rests with these people. Cybernetics is at the heart of it.

My music works with this idea where the electronic component of this piece represents the unstable shifting lifeworld of nature. Because this is "digital", we might think about it being not only the noise of the wind, but the noise of computers - digital information. The piano represents the musician's attempt to create pattern and maintain coherence in the whole. It is engaged in much ado about nothing.

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