Sunday, October 06, 2013

Luciano Floridi and a Short Introduction to Information : Part 1

I have in at least two past instances found titles in the Very Short Introductions series most useful guides. Information Technology being a familiar subject to me I was curious how Luciano Floridi, one of the foremost thinkers in the Philosophy of Information, would introduce it to the reader. 

As it turns out the introduction is very clear, on the one hand with regards to information as a field of study, and on the other hand in relation to its claims as a philosophical field of study. It is at the same time evident that the Philosophy of Information is still a young field, which makes it an exciting time to get on board.
In this blog post and those that follow I will survey the topics discussed in the title called "Information : A Very Short Introduction" by Luciano Floridi.


As I write this in October 2013 information technology has come to pervade our lives to such an extent that many of us find it hard to imagine a life without it. In just a few decades it has reprogrammed the way we relate to others and how we see the world. Luciano Floridi calls this transformation the Fourth Revolution.

Floridi suggests that three prior revolutions have changed the way we look at ourselves: the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian revolutions. Whether we agree with the significance of these three milestones in Western thinking (the last in particular is perhaps questionable), we cannot but agree with the thrust of his suggestion. In each case, what it means to be human was radically problematised. Indeed, each revolution irreversibly altered our self-perception and identity.

That humanity is greatly influenced by technological advances in the Information Age is hardly news. Anyone born before the 1990s remembers how different the analog age was. What Floridi proposes is more radical. Technology does not merely affect us externally, via our bodies and senses, but effects "a radical transformation of our understanding of reality and ourselves" (p. 10). 

To guide our understanding he references two well-known films, The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell. The matrix of The Matrix has a material basis in the "real" world. In other words, the correct way of looking at the world is from the material and biological view represented by Zion. In Ghost in the Shell, on the other hand, information is primary. Information becomes the lense through which the world is perceived. Floridi suggests that it is information in the latter sense that will come to be the default, rather than The Matrix's version of information, which is ultimately based on an analog view. 

"the infosphere will not be a virtual environment supported by a genuinely 'material' world behind; rather, it will be the world itself that will be increasingly interpreted and understood informationally, as part of the infosphere" (p. 17).

This turns out to be one of the most interesting of the early ideas explored in the book. The guide then detours through territory that will sound all too familiar to students of Computer Science: data vs. information, analog vs digital data, binary data, types of data.

But what is information? It is common to distinguish between data and information, and the data-based General Definition of Information (GDI) that information, or semantic content:
  1. consists of data (one, or more than one datum); 
  2. which is well formed;
  3. and is meaningful.
This definition helps us to understand the distinction between the quantitative and semantic view of information. The implications of this distinction is clear once we understand that for Floridi, semantic content is but one step away from the crowning glory of information theory. By adding truth or falsity to it, it turns into semantic information.

"When semantic content is also true, it qualifies as semantic information. This is the queen of all concepts discussed in this book." (p. 47)

But before we reach this premium destination we must grapple with the quantitative view of information. Although there are several models that attempt to define such a quantitative view, Claude Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication (MTC) is the stalwart horse in the stable. Shannon is often referred to as the "father of information theory”. Whereas his influence is indisputable, reference to MTC as information theory has created much misunderstanding and Shannon himself regretted it. The reason is that MTC is indifferent to meaning, and deals mainly with data communication, including encoding and transmission. Floridi suggests that mathematical theory of data communication would have been a more meaningful title.

To begin with we need to understand the concept of data deficit (Shannon used the more psyhologistic term “uncertainty”). If we have a coin with two sides, heads and tails, and we are about to throw it, we are in a state of data deficit about the outcome. The deficit is two units, because there are two possible outcomes: heads, or tails: {h} {t}. A coin is therefore a binary device, producing one bit of information. If we had two coins to throw, the size of the data deficit is four (i.e. there are four possible outcomes: {h , t} {t , h} {h , h} {t , t}).

For those who study or practise computing the notion of a binary digit, or bit, will be more than familiar. However there is another sense in which MTC is highly amenable to computing. As it deals with uninterpreted symbols MTC can be described as “a study of information at the syntactic level” (p. 45).

John von Neumann, one of the colossuses of 20th century mathematics, also had an influence on MTC. He suggested that Shannon call information (in the MTC sense) entropy. This was already a well-known concept (albeit less widely understood) concept in the natural sciences. Information entropy is a measure, as it is in the natural sciences. In particular it measures any of three equivalent quantities:
  1. the quantity of data on the side of the informer;
  2. the quantity of data deficit (prior to inspection) on the side of the informee;
  3. the informational potentiality of the source.
It is easy to see how 1 and 2 are two sides of the same coin (so to speak). If I have one bit of data and send it to you, your data deficit is one bit (prior to you receiving the data). The third point is a little more complicated to understand. The best way is to think of it as the amount of randomness in a message. For instance a phrase such as “The dog is black” has very little entropy because it is highly structured and organised. On the other hand, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land has high entropy because it is open to various and indeterminate interpretations, and can be said to contain much greater data deficit.
The phrase “the dog is black” can also be viewed as semantic content, because it is meaningful. If we change it into a query, eg. “Is the dog black?” and provide the answer: “yes”, then we have semantic information.

This important part of Floridi's discussion of information will be dealt with in part 2.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Through the Maelstrom: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Why is it counterintuitive to point out the differences between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, for instance, Naked Lunch, while trying to understand the latter? Avid consumers of literature on the far side of consciousness will know that both purport to navigate us through a junky's rugged mountain high. Fear and Loathing sells itself on the strength of an experience its audience can only obtain at the cost of a disposable party brain.

For instance, when the narrator states:

How long can we maintain? I wondered. How long before one of us starts raving and jabbering at this boy? What will he think then? This same lonely desert was the last aknown home of the Manson family. Will he make that rim connection when my attorney starts screaming about bats and huge manta rays coming down on the car? If so-well, we'll just have to cut his head off and bury him somewhere. Because it goes without saying that we can't turn him loose. He'll report us at once to some kind of outback nazi law enforcement agency, and they'll run us down like dogs.

it's all about context. We know that the two car buddies, Hunter Thumpson (aka Raoul Duke) and his attorney, have loaded their trunk with mescaline, acid, cocaine, and just about any drug their manically covetous claws could clutch, and they are themselves already in the grip of a wicked road-sampled chemical mash-up of the Periodic Table of Drugs: almost everything except the ether, which we are told is particularly treacherous and could push them right off that mountain top and tumbling down a ravine. 

Of course, this kind of fearful melodrama is precisely what makes Fear and Loathing
 work so well and keeps you, dear reader, turning the pages even when the paranoia and disgust run as thick as a sticky tumbler-full of cola syrup. The disco and the lights change even if the tune doesn't, and once you know how to dance you're in for one hell of a high. What's more, you didn't have to fork out a year's salary to get your kicks, nor did you have to draw on shady contacts that'd make a drug cartel chief envious in order to acquire them. 

If our narrator is to be believed - and with every corner taken madly at accelerating speeds his bizarre inclinations become more credible - this is all for a deadly serious trip into the dark heart of the American Dream. What fearful monster lies there in wait, and why would we want to meet him at our own expense? We suppress a shudder and are only too happy that our brave narrator has offered to do it on our behalf, even though we know who we are rooting for, if only because we have been suspecting the American Dream to be mixed with a hatful of hogwash anyway, and all that rejected karma from the lower dominions is bound to be some seriously vile shit. 

What we get is both a descent into the maelstrom, and a simulation of what it would be like to get dragged through the funnel. This phased distinction is crucial. When things rocket completely out of control and potentially incoherent, we are given a transcript of Raoul Duke's conversations ("Breakdown on Paradise Blvd"), rather than an attempt to restructure the medium of writing itself through the grainy sieve of a fragmented consciousness. The high is infused in the writing, and Hunter S. Thompson's hyperbolic juxtapositions of incongruous matter remind us that it requires a certain sanity to write so exhiliratingly well: 

I was slumped on my bed in the Flamingo, feeling dangerously out of phase with my surroundings. Something ugly was about to happen. I was sure of it. The room looked like the site of some disastrous zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas. The ten-foot mirror was shattered, but still hanging together - bad evidence of that afternoon when my attorney ran amok with the coconut hammer, smashing the mirror and all the lightbulbs. (p. 180) 

Compared to William Burroughs' sordid ramblings so pregnant with mental dissolution and an impenetrable thin white light beaming with the dripping regularity of water torture and which - surely - would get snuffed out instantly if only, if only we could find the light switch; Fear and Loathing is a work of dark romantic fiction whose rhetoric is powerful enough to turn its grimy capsule-lined subject matter into a thrill ride, a road trip on a desire-fuelled freeway of fear and loathing - but within the secure comfines of an understandable narrative. Burroughs' strength, on the other hand, lies in his unconventional adherence to a true punk ethic. He doesn't care if the reader is a little alienated and disoriented, because he knows that after shocking him into a vulnerable state he will be ready to get mashed up properly, via the medium itself, and then the reader will never be quite the same again. It is, ultimately, a rather more hardcore binge, and one that offers altogether a different set of rewards, somewhat removed from the glamour and Poe-esque grandeur that Thompson continuously invokes with his rhetoric full of here-comes-trouble-but-fuck-it attitude and seat-of-the-pants confidence. Instead, Burroughs' narrators have long since handed over their self-assurance and control for a dreamy submission and childlike acceptance of bizarre humanoids inhabiting suspended realities that would persuade even David Lynch that sci-fi is the new surrealism.
So here I am in the Land of the Dead with Mikey Portman....
No use. Death hasn't changed him a bit; the same selfish, self-centred, spoiled, petulant, weak Mikey Portman.
For years I wondered why dreams are so often dull when related, and this morning I find the answer, which is very simple - like most answers, you have always known it.              
- Burroughs, My Education: A Book of Dreams

Speaking of Poe, it is interesting to note how Thompson reinvents him for the 20th century. Thompson's dramatic adjectives swing in and out of sentences like a criminal in a high speed chase on a busy highway,  while Poe's more archaic style is a horse carriage with the Grim Reaper at the reins of gothic stallions foaming fire and blood at the mouths. But Poe loves doubling, tripling and quadrupling for effect, much like Thompson does. Poe's hyperbole is a baroque obfuscation that, through his disciplined focus on the trajectory of each story, leaves the reader in no doubt about the  mystery and the horror. The central theme is always enhanced, rather than diminished, through this method. It is like a magician's use of smoke that renders the magic object's materialisation more effective. 

In The Masque of the Red Death
, the very first paragraph offers plenty of examples. "No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous", it starts, before ramping up. "Blood was its Avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood." And as if that isn't enough, "there were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution." In this example it is not necessary for there to be any scientific correlation to the progressive phases - because in effect they are all one and the same, the Red Death - but rather it is the cadence, and the continuous embroidery on the central theme, that carry the descriptions forward. The Red Death is nothing other than the emotional storm created by this continuous dramatic rhetoric, a swirl of imagery enveloping a hazy crescending horror of blood, trauma, and melancholy.

With Poe we fall as if by gravity to the natural end of the arc, namely death. It is almost merciful compared to the hangover Raoul Duke wakes up with when the party is finally over.