SCOPE1: Boundary Bath
Ten months ago, at a crowded conference in Amsterdam, I suggested to Claudia Cavallar that they should change the title of the conference from “information vs. knowledge” to “information vs. meaning”. But these two are in no way related, so their conjunction is a kind of haiku, an abstract mapping of two incomparables.
As the time of this talk grew closer and Claudia asked for some pages to be printed in the program, I wrote the following words:
To imagine the term “information vs. meaning” is to take something whole and pronounce a divide within it, to cross a line between the measurable and the measurer. What we can know and what we can feel, these do not precisely add up; the path between them breaks, a non-linearity. One does not map onto the other.
This is the mistake often made with language, translate you onto Sie and thou onto me, which, as Wittgenstein noticed, causes no end of pain. We don’t even know what we’re saying, though we know what we mean. So we speak from meaning but hear only information, and therein are we are split in two, with two minds and two selves.
These two exist at all because something comes between them; but this something is the stuff of us, this carbon in chains which channels and therefore separates the without from the within. If this wall vanishes, if equilibrium? then nothing, less than nothing, naught at all, for caught up between them, real being, being’s extension into the real, flesh and blood holds itself against, against, against the assault of every entropic second of existence. Everything else is but shadows.
Brevity led me into poetic turns of phrase; today I will be more methodical in expressing these same ideas.
In this century the meaning of the word information – there’s that incomparable mix once again – has been narrowed down, mathematically, to Gregory Bateson’s quintessential definition, “the difference that makes a difference”. Information has become quantifiable, measurable, a scientific characteristic of systems in the world; Shannon and Weaver developed formulae which seem to give it nearly thermodynamic properties, equating it, in some deliriously indirect way, with the inverse of entropy.
Meanwhile, meaning approaches meaninglessness, relegated to the irrational world of quality, tactility, and the humanistic realms of thought felt. Meaning can not be counted, even as it can be counted upon, so meaning has become marginalized in an informational culture, even though this implies that a judgment – that is, an assignment of meaning – has been laid upon it. Meaning lives in the same modern jail which houses the soul, the self, the ego, that entire range of things which assert their existence continually but unreasonably. To the cognitive scientist, meaning lies far down a slippery slope of aesthetic values which have no place in the scientific domain.
I would agree with this statement, and yet, I would craft another one, to put against it: Meaning is all we ever really know, all we have direct experience of. We can hypothesize as we will on the universe of information, but the world of meaning expresses all of the relationships we know instinctually. We are not part of the world of information; our being can grasp only the intangibility of meaning.
Somehow these two come to map onto each other, but this is always imprecise, always leads to the “misplaced concreteness” that Alfred North Whitehead warned of; to take information as meaning or meaning as information is to dangerously blur the boundary between the subjective world we know intimately and the real world we know nothing about.
If communication is ever to occur, if there is to be an exchange of information – or is that meaning? – between two individuals, then these two must meet somewhere. The passage is always the same, from the world of meaning, out into the universe of information, and finally back into the world of meaning. During these passages – which are equally translations – so much is lost and gained that ambiguity has become a feature of human communication, contrasting with the bugs in bit errors which our networks strive to eradicate.
Meaning gets in the way of information; information gets in the way of meaning. Yet each is the vehicle for the other, even as they lie on opposing sides of a great gulf, divided – forever – by the flesh. As little else as can be known about either information or meaning, it is possible to locate them with great precision: Information is only located outside the skin, and meaning only inside the emergent space which I will identify – imprecisely – as Mind.
Thus in the story of the war between information and meaning – what else can be implied by the “versus”? – the battleground must be the body, the ground of human being.
The paths which information and meaning walk as they pass through the body are known as interfaces. Interface has, like cyberspace, become nearly a throw-away term, applied to anything and everything that presents itself as a representation of information. In fact, interface implies a specific meeting point in the body between information and meaning, the zone of translation, the non-linear, imaginative remapping between bits and concepts. But the body is not entirely fixed; it evolves and learns and changes its structures to meet the demands of the environment, hence the zone of the interface can be either innate and hard-wired, or as mutable as being itself.
Diving into the body, we come first to the innate nature of the body as an object, saddled with a specific physical description of the world; even if at variance with reality, the body can not depart from its innate perceptual realities. Consider, for example, the remote control, which has become the most visible interface in our era. It translates the language of the body – the motion of a finger – into a command interpretable by some device, such as a television or Palm Pilot or garage door.
Yet turn this device around, and we first note that the remote can not be used to control us; we have no sense of the device as an informational translator between meaning and action, its infrared flashes bounce off of us, unabsorbed by the retina, unseen by the visual cortex, capable of generating no meaning. There is information presented by the remote control – but we possess no innate path to it.
If, however, we are presented with information that we can - because of the particular structure of our senses - apprehend, at least as stimulus, we encounter another area of interfaces, also innate, but now nearly entirely mutable. For example, were I to say, “Watashi wa chisai no midori no hito desu,” only a very few people in this room would understand me. You’d hear it; the phonons would make their way into your ears, from there the triggering of hairs in your semicircular canals would send signals to the portions of your brain which processes sound, parsing it for the edges that might betray some form of inner meaning, working the magic translation from information into insight, but – unless you understand Japanese, it would all be noise, discarded as meaningless.
However, if I tried a different approach – searching for an interface you might possess, and said, “Ich bin eine kleine grün Mench”, then those phonons might magically translate themselves into meaning, then you might understand that I am a little green man.
We use a figure of speech, we say that we “train our ear” when we learn to listen to music or acquire a new language; in reality we build an interface, a path between our bodies and our minds, so that the outside world of information can be translated into meaning. We mutate – literally redesigning ourselves – to communicate.
But all of this describes only half the path: the way in. There are edges to the body, but there are also edges of being, places where we can bring the inside out, meanings uninformed. We can feel things, imagine things – if we can call them things – that we can not express, inchoate even against our innate gifts of language and understanding. Our species, since it came into consciousness, has expressed a constant drive toward an expressive fidelity of interiority; we build the bridges to bring the inside out, and call this art.
We revere the artist, we have always revered the artist because they build the bridge between our being and each other, a world mediated by the physical realities of information. The communion of souls remained a mystical ideal until Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, because he built a musical interface – tympani, trumpets, violins and chorale – which somehow expresses the great Romantic ideal of the Noosphere, the layer of being which surrounds all of us. No longer just doctrine, we can point to his work as the moment when an inexpressible idea became manifest, emotion concretized as information, and thereafter transmissible to all humanity. That is the genius of art, for it creates within us an awareness of the depths of our own being.
The body itself, with no language to share, bears its pains and joys in silence, so we create dance and poetry and sculpture as the tactile reflections of the sensations of the body, each a momentary spark crossing the gap between body, being and expression, a flickering light of connection between the self and the world beyond the skin.
The body, as it divides without from within, and information from meaning, protects and preserves us. The difference between information and meaning creates who we are. The line we hold between within and without defines us; our flesh does more than support our being, it forms the boundary of unique identity, and although every philosopher since Descartes has tried to locate Mind somewhere outside the body – the better to download it – we realize only now that the body is the Mind, or rather, these two meet at too many points to be seen as anything other than one thing.
We know this, whether or not we choose to admit it, because we work within a culture that has coded this knowledge in its grand project. We are, as I will explain, a culture of bomb-builders, from myth-makers to meme-speakers, hoping to splice just a little of ourselves into the trans-human code of culture, and achieve a certain immortality. Of course, we have different words for this activity, such as “getting the word out”, or “getting the message across”, or even “giving a talk”, but these are just the pretty faces on an act of semantic infection that William S. Burroughs recognized in the statement, “Language is a virus.”
I propose as my thesis today that the principle function of culture in the Information Age is nothing other than a continuous improvement in informational fidelity, a consequent clarification of meaning, a disambiguation which seeks to render the entire world transparent. PET scanners to see the soul; the sudden, synergetic telepathy of creative collaboration; the ever-increasing encroachment of unavoidable mediation – MTV as the carrier wave of another type of democracy, which governs thought instead of laws.
All of this seeming intent to
create a hive mind of sorts, different from those which define the bees and
ants, a comfortable zone of commonality, a seductive release of self. And yet this is the extinguishing of the
individual, for we are determined by
what we can not share; that which stays within us – our True Name – that
defines us. The common truth holds
nothing for us as ourselves.
Helpful though it has been in improving our selection fitness, providing
us the opportunity to pass our genes along to another generation of genes,
communication proceeds pathology by pathology, a continuous removal of the
innate and its replacement with an alien meaning.
If language is a virus, then we are not ourselves.
We wage war against this, refusing to suffer our own loss, seeding ourselves in a ripe explosion of spores, sharp fragments of information designed to pierce the soft walls of the self, or caustics which dissolve the boundaries, making another permeable to our own meaning; verily I tell you; it has ever been thus, and every other turn of phrase which has an internal logic of surrender; do this in memory of me and soon there’ll be no you left to speak of.
Society, as the fractal sum of individual will, fills every niche with these transgressions, so that now, at the Third Millennium, it has become nearly impossible to hear or see or feel anything without becoming so overloaded in meaning that the stimulus disappears, unrecognized in its a priori immanence. We approach a Singularity where everything comes to mean anything; we have shared ourselves and our viruses so thoroughly that soon no difference will remain to distinguish us.
Where is the value in such a wholesale translation of being into disambiguated unity? Alas, value is a function of meaning, and meaning will not survive its translation into a common human tongue.
For some years, I have believed that the virtualization of the world would lead to an era when the completely colonized human mind would become synonymous with the cyborg, no longer a locus of individual will, but merely a control interface for another, intact being. But this pessimism presumes that we lie in wait for the inevitable onslaught, that we remain content behind the Maginot lines of our own being, sleeping soundly whilst the nature of war changes all around us.
Or we could choose to evolve our own defenses.
Nature and culture have equipped us with a certain innate degree of resistance to any informational attacks; as prey our nervous systems have learned how to avoid the attentions of the predator, but every relationship between predator and prey becomes a study in selection pressures and adaptation; in the artificial life of ideas, some have evolved to become the passive carriers of meaning, slipping in nearly unnoticed, while others have grown teeth, the better to eat their way into our souls.
Recently, ideas have concretized, information made solid as mediation, accelerated themselves to the speed of light, and inject themselves beneath the skin of reason, into our deepest parts. This is the great project of civilization; once one understands the physical structures of culture as the artifacts of communication, the entire world becomes a battle of words. We can be the foot soldiers in this war, or strive to be the generals, or strike an orthogonal stance, cling to the Romantic ideal of the individual in the hope that something of him – of us – will remain in the face of the collective pressure of human effort.
Which brings us to the question of ethics.
If my arguments, as given, can be accepted as true, if it is possible and needful to carve out a space for the individual, then this truth must be matched with a series of actions, an ethic for an era of virtuality. I have not heard that idea voiced at this conference, even though the meeting of information and meaning is inevitably an ethical issue. To manipulate the world of meaning you must shape the universe of perception, and to shape the universe of perception requires a willful surrender of being. So we surrender to our mediations, and they shape us entirely, to someone’s ends.
Thus cyberspace – composed entirely of information yet possessing only meaning – seems poised to lure us into the mind-emptying silence of the hive. Where it seemed to promise infinite freedom, we can now recognize that as the Sirens’ song, calling us to dash the craft of ourselves on the rocks of another, alien being.
Odysseus knew to protect his crew against that Song, that information which would translate into the ultimate seductive meaning, worked beeswax into their ear canals and saved them from the sound which would have broken their hearts with longing, but sought the infection for himself, and went mad. Never again the same man, having encountered that presence, those bits changed his heart forever.
What we mean and who we are are the same thing. Ethics in the Third Millennium must include a cultivation of meaning, of the personal universe, in order to protect personality, a Balkanization of culture which can only ensure its continuity, even as it might grace us with endless civil wars. But consider the alternative: a monolithic field of uniform Mind.
This is of more than intellectual concern to me; I must translate it into action. Just a month ago, my own university signed its own pact mit die Teufel, a grant from the US Army to design VR systems which improve the efficacy of soldiers on the ground. This could be a good thing – acculturating them to situations unfamiliar – but it will make them more cunning fighters, and better killers. It will empty them of themselves, and insert an Army mind in its place.
Marshall McLuhan argued that only in the efforts of artists would we ever be able to comprehend the scope of the damage done to our selves in an electronically mediated environment. Only they can build the bridges – and the ramparts – that might protect the self. But art is an attitude, not a place, an inquiry into meaning, not an expression of information. Which means it is within our grasp, as individuals, practically the only thing that remains of ourselves.
It would be good if we could greet the Third Millennium with an explosion of creation, an artistic assault on every front of the War of Words; but more than this, it’s the only way we have to keep hold of what we are.
9 Muluc – 10 Oc (30 September – 1 October 1999)