Signifier and Signified

With a few days of enforced rest, and no new unread books left, I’ve been dipping into an odd mix of earlier attempts – Dante’s Inferno, Hitchhiker Trilogy, Heisenberg, Cluetrain Manifesto to name a few. Spurred by the latter no doubt, I checked out what Dave Weinberger is blogging these days :

As we come out of the Age of Information, it’s a good time to ask what information was and what it did to us. In fact, if you ask most people, they can’t actually give you a definition of information. That’s not because they’re stupid in a “ Jay Walk” sort of way. We’ve named an Age after it, and we can’t even say what it means. We as a culture glommed onto  Claude Shannon’s precise, mathematical take-over of the word “information” and applied it non-mathematical ways to everything from music to minds to the cosmos. What was so damn appealing about that word? What did we see in it?

I’m going to “argue” — more accurately: suggest, hint, gesticulate, wave my hands and hope I distract people — that we embraced information because it reinforced and extended some old metaphysical ideas — representationalism, mainly, i.e., the idea that we experience the world via inner mental representations of it. As of tonight, I plan on taking as an example the informationalization of the idea of communication — seeing communication as the transmitting of encoded messages that are decoded by the listener — and will argue (see above qualifiers) that it hides most of what’s important about communication.

The misguided “conduit” metaphor of communication – as if content, meaning, representation and communication were all separate and distinct. And most recently a summary of Larry Lessig’s “Against Transparency” with Dave’s Objections

Transparency is not necessarily good. Especially bad is “naked transparency” … To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.” Tansparency leads to untruth. Mere correlations … do not tell us … anything.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.
Yes it does! Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.
No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere.

The memetic argument. Ideas with mimetic qualities – “easy” communication and fit with received (prejudiced / stereotypical) wisdom – necessarily dominate higher quality ideas that don’t. The more transparant and immediate the communication, the worse the effect.

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