Friday 20 March 2015

Information and "What Matters?"

Some things matter to people. We may be able to determine the meaning of things and the meaning of information, but information like “your visa has expired”, or “your academic department has been closed” or “your daughter has been seriously burnt in an accident” is information which really matters. The question is, how is this information more significant than information like “Barack Obama is the president of the United States” or “it is 12 o’clock”? What is it about our apprehension of information which means that some things we discover make us panic, feel sick, bring relief, or make us excited? Even information about the time might do this if (say) we have a deadline to meet. Is it a property of information that it can have this effect? Can the informing properties be separated from the context of the individual interpreting it?

How is mattering different from reference? The problem settles on the extent to which the determining of aboutness is embodied. Mattering involves the churning of stomach muscles, cramps and other physical agonies. It causes violence, passion, exuberance. It’s in the guts – the matter of the body. Meaning, by contrast is largely in the head. The aboutness of information is selected in brains and stated in conversation. However, meaning and mattering are related. It is sometimes a surprise to discover that something really matters to somebody. Their emotional responses will reveal it. In doing so, they reveal information about the constraints operating on a person: constraints which are understood because other people have bodies too and ‘know how it feels’. Mattering is shared – it is the cognition of mutual constraints.

Meaning creates a dichotomy: what means x also means that there are things that don’t mean x. Feelings, on the other hand, are not scarce but abundant: everybody experiences grief, heartbreak, anxiety, fear. The scarcity that informing creates can result in the emotional response of things that matter. Daughters, visas, jobs and deadlines are scarce and so informing of a terrible threat to them is devastating. More broadly, what Marx describes as ‘alienation’ is precisely the interface between information and mattering. The rationalisation of capitalist economy creates scarcity which matters to people: implicit threats to safety, well-being, housing, security, as well as the creation of new scarce things which people might covet, are all conveyed by the information of capitalism. The expression of what matters is suppressed, with a rational alternative offered whereby mattering is short-circuited by the rationalistic meaning of financial calculation.

This process of short-circuiting mattering with rationalistic meaning is also a feature of modern education. The rationalisation of education has increasingly led to technocracy, where as Horkheimer argues:
“the individual's self-preservation presupposes his adjustment to the requirements for the preservation of the system. He no longer has room to evade the system. And just as the process of rationalization is no longer the result of the anonymous forces of the market, but is decided in the consciousness of a planning minority, so the mass of subjects must deliberately adjust themselves: the subject must, so to speak, devote all his energies to being 'in and of the movement of things' in the terms of the pragmatistic definition.”
The process in education is well-described by Andrew Sayer:
“In universities, research and teaching, as well as a host of other activities, are increasingly audited, rated and ranked. Teaching comes to be modelled as a rational process of setting 'learning objectives', deciding how these are to be 'delivered', designing assessment procedures that test how far students have achieved the specified 'learning outcomes', as if courses consisted of separable bits of knowledge or skill that could simply be 'uploaded' by students. The whole technology is intended to allow the process to be analysed and evaluated. Teaching is therefore treated much as a production engineer might treat an industrial process - as capable of being broken down into rationally ordered, standardized, measurable units, so that wastage and inefficiency can be identified and eliminated, and quality improved. A general, abstract technology is thus applied to every course, from aesthetics to zoology. Just what the learning objectives are apparently does not matter, as long as a rational, means-ends analysis is used to make sure that they are met. Instead of seemingly inscrutable processes controlled by unaccountable producers, we have supposedly rigorous methods for opening the business of education to public view and comparison.”

The mechanism whereby rationalism supplants authentic human response towards what matters are poorly understood. Deacon complains that
“Perhaps the most tragic feature of our age is that just when we have developed a truly universal perspective from which to appreciate the vastness of the cosmos, the causal complexity of material process, and the chemical machinery of life, we hjave at the same time conceived the realm of value as radically alientated from this seemingly complete understanding of the fabric of existence. In the natural sciences there appears to be no place for right/wrong, meaningful/meaningless, beauty/ugliness, good/evil, love/hate, and so forth. The success of contemporary science seems to have dethroned the gods and left no foundation upon which unimpeachable values can rest.”

Deacon’s quest has been to situate value and concern within more fundamental mechanisms of information. In his philosophy, it sits as the most evolved aspect of sentience, sitting upon more basic thermodynamic mechanisms. However, it might be that this hierarchical model of information is upside-down: that the embodied processes of mattering are where things start, and that rationalistic information grows from this. For most teachers, who walk into a classroom and look into the eyes of their students and read their body language before embarking on quadratic equations, this order of things may make more sense.

Inverting Deacon’s information means getting to grips with mattering before getting to grips with reference. Understanding communications which are effectively without reference is a good starting point. This is why Alfred Schutz was particularly interested in the way that music communicates, since, music expresses things which don’t appear to be about anything (Steven Pinker calls music “cheesecake for the mind” for the reason), and yet it communicates something which is felt in bodies. Schutz argues that the musical communication process, whether between composer and performer, between performers or between audience and performers is one of mutual appreciation of the flow of inner time and inner life:

 “We have therefore the following situation: two series of events in inner time, one belonging to the stream of consciousness of the composer, the other to the stream of consciousness of the beholder, are lived through in simultaneity, which simultaneity is created by the ongoing flux of the musical process. […] this sharing of the other's flux of experiences in inner time, this living through a vivid present in common, constitutes […] the mutual tuning-in relationship, the experience of the "We," which is at the foundation of all possible communication. The peculiarity of the musical process of communication consists in the essentially polythetic character of the communicated content, that is to say, in the fact that both the flux of the musical events and the activities by which they are communicated, belong to the dimension of inner time.”

Teaching and learning involves a similar ‘polythetic’ process. Schutz’s description of making music together could equally apply to the face-to-face environment of the classroom:
“making music together occurs in a true face-to-face relationship - inasmuch as the participants are sharing not only a section of time but also a sector of space. The other's facial expressions, his gestures in handling his instrument, in short all the activities of performing, gear into the outer world and can be grasped by the partner in immediacy. Even if performed without communicative intent, these activities are interpreted by him as indications of what the other is going to do and therefore as suggestions or even commands for his own behaviour.”

Musicians (classical at least) must be coordinated by the codification of the score and rational agreement as to what is to be done at particular moments. In education, the rational meaning of the curriculum serves as the framework for the polythetic experiences of the classroom. Effectively, rational information articulates scarcity: the scarcity of ‘getting it right’, or being accepted by peers and teachers and so on. The scarcity matters: it is felt in the body – either through the excitement or elation of being able to perform the requisite skills or knowledge, or in becoming despondent at the inability to perform. Teachers notice the body signs. Building the confidence of a student usually involves using information to declare scarcity which is “less scarce”. Indeed, it may invoke some kind of shared constraint – something which binds learners and teachers together; something which is universal or abundant. Conviviality is a special case of the relationship between meaning and mattering where the meaning of things is deeply embedded in the shared understanding of the constraints that bear upon all.


Scott said...

Interesting, I read this post just after reading this:

And re-reading:

So much of the modern economy seems to be about hiding information that matters and obscuring activity that has meaning.

Mark Johnson said...

Thanks Scott - love the bullshit jobs thing. Graeber's got a lot going on at the moment. His thing on debt on radio 4 is good -