What is Information?: What’s Missing in Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Information – A Talk by Robert Logan based on his most Recent Book

03Mar15

Marshall McLuhan was interested in the nature of information, especially later in his career, as new electronic media had been altering established conceptions about the nature of information. In a letter to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dated February 1, 1979, he wrote: You are probably familiar with the Shannon-Weaver model of communication theory … Shannon and Weaver were mathematicians who considered the side-effects as noise. They assumed that these could be eliminated by simply stepping up the charge of energy in the circuit. (Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 542). Elsewhere, he explained that such a transportation theory of communication was inadequate in that what is needed is a transformation explanation. No doubt Bob Logan, all of whose recent books have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan in one way or another, will explain this and more in his scheduled talk, based on his recent book:

What is Information book cover

 Date & Location: Friday March 6 at 10 am at the Fields Institute, University of Toronto, 222 College Street. The event is organized by Professor Marcel Danesi. 

Robert K. Logan – Physics and St. Michael’s College – U of T
Abstract: Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Information made an important contribution to our general understanding of information and found many applications in addition to his original engineering  objective of determining the accuracy of transmitting a set of signals from a sender to a receiver. I suggest that Shannon created a theory of signals rather than a theory of information because of its lack of a concern with meaning and interpretation. Shannon readily admitted his theory was not concerned with the meaning of transmitted signals when he wrote: “Frequently the messages have meaning… These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.” This talk will explore the complex nature of information and the many ways in which this term is used.  A distinction is made between the Shannon’s notion of information and biotic information, based on the Kauffman, Logan et al paper entitled The Propagation of Organization: An Enquiry.  We suggested that the constraints that allow an organism to convert energy from its environment into the work required to maintain its metabolism represents  biotic or instructional information, which differs from Shannon information. Terrence Deacon’s use of information as constraints in his book Incomplete Nature is described. The talk will also include other results from What is Information? – Propagating Organization in the Biosphere, the Symbolosphere, the Technosphere and the Econosphere (Logan 2014). Attendees at the talk will be offered a free copy of the digital version of this book.
About the book:

What is Information?: Propagating Organization in the Biosphere, Symbolosphere, Technosphere and Econosphere

So, what is information? And why is it such an enormously difficult question to answer with any clarity and thoroughness? It is an ambitious book that sets out to answer this question, much less present an elaborate theory of how it has morphed into a seemingly independent universe of meanings, rituals, art-forms, values, and technologies since our ancestors first learned to talk. Who would attempt such a challenge? —from the Foreword by Terrence Deacon

What is Information? is a unique title within information studies. It is strongly interdisciplinary, crossing information theory, systems theory, new media and cognitive linguistics. Therefore, it may carry provocative themes and insights that require of the reader a broader frame of reference than the known, narrow path. Among these themes is Bob’s notion of different forms and frames of information in ecological contexts. With help from Stuart Kauffman, he shows that biotic information – the instructions of life and reproduction – requires a different theory of information entirely from bit-oriented signal processing (Shannon-Weaver hypothesis).

The book takes on the complex issue of defining information as a carrier of meaning vs signals processed by meaning-makers. Recovering the importance of MacKay’s original contribution of the “distinction that makes a difference,” Logan bridges information and media theory. If meaning is the coherence of organization, then information as meaning remains consistent with the notion of negative entropy. While media may shape the expression and meaning of meaning, it is information that signals the meaning of the medium. The power of language in developing symbols generates a constant source of meanings through information.

To better distinguish these functions of “information” Dr. Logan relates information as a functional power of organization within four ecosystems: Biosphere, Symbolosphere, Technosphere, and Econosphere. The Biosphere gives rise to human cultures through information, and culture gives rise to the other three spheres. Information is the media-tor of these spheres. (Source: http://slab.ocadu.ca/publication/what-is-information-by-robert-k-logan )

Portrait of Robert K. Logan

Robert K. Logan is Chief Scientist and a co-founder of Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at OCAD University. Dr. Logan’s work at sLab follows a luminous career as Professor of Physics at University of Toronto. Bob’s academic research bridges complexity science, information theory, biology, environmental studies, linguistics, design and media studies. Dr. Logan is the author of a dozen books, and twice-recipient of awards from the Media Ecology Association (MEA).

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