The interaction between the computer and its user/victim takes place on many levels. In modern society even morality has become computerized, your parking ticket, bank statement or the result of an HIV test reaches us as a computer printout. The question I am interested in is whether we overlook or dismiss some of the interactions, specifically the psychological interplay between the silicon and carbon entities. I will ask more questions here than I answer; this is mostly uncharted territory.
Claude Shannon of Bell Labs has defined a mathematical framework for communications and information theory. His approach is extremely important, but has also obscured the practical and psychological issues of information. His definition and use of the word information was rather technical and quantitative, taking it away from its common usage as related to data and statements. Highly praised by the scientific and computer community, I feel that it has also obscured the issue. Bits, noise, entropy, channel, his ideas centered around technical transmission but had little to do with meaning or people as the ultimate communicators. Message, data and information got all mixed up, making the word information into an all-purpose stopgap, a godword.
We value our systems, our programs and our data, beyond reason. Did you ever lose a text to the electronic erase devil and feel like having been robbed of something very precious? Of course most of the time we mistakenly take data for information, and information for knowledge, and that for intelligence and then even equate that to wisdom. These things are magnititudes apart.
`Information to the power of information is consciousness' (R.Rucker)
The computerworld now realises that between hardware-software-data-information
there are tenfold steps in costs, but how compares the cost(!) of
wisdom to the cost of a megabyte chip? I like Jaron Lanier's "Information
is alienated experience" koan in this respect. That brings information
back to the human aspects, and points at the philosophical interpretation,
but in line with Shannon's ideas. If information is the stuff we store
because we can't cope with it, because we don't experience the isness
of the situation, could we then say?: `The information content of
a human is the number of questions we have to ask in order to bring
him to self-realization". For the esoteric among us, is this a way
to express Karma as information content? I personally think that leaving
out the inner experiences as information is too limiting, I like to
say : `Information is censored experience', playing with the
words censor and sensor, indicating the sensitized and activated experience
as the source and then see (human) life as the quest for resensitizing
ourselves, opening us up for the real information.
Information is mediated, sensitized and activated experience, it is thus `coded' experience and this differs slightly from Jaron Lanier's `Information is alienated experience' mentioned above. Although it is an interesting and far-reaching idea to look at what experience does to us, I think it goes too far to write off the non-alienated (and what about the inner) experience as not changing us and thus as non-information. Otherwise we could equate information with karma only in its negative, alienating meaning.
The concept of non-information borders more on the socratic questions of `true courage'. He who ventures into the really unknown, into the non-information void, displays true courage. That is the letting go that can bring us true freedom. But what to think of "Information is being told, knowledge can be acquired by thinking. New knowledge can be acquired without new information being received." (Fritz Machlup). Again knowledge, information and experience mixed up?
Experience in the `empiricist' (Bacon) tradition looks like information, the data that tell us about the world out-there. We know now, that the `objective' experimenter is as much part of his subject as the thing itself. Another way to describe experience is as "the stream of life and consciousness. The raw material from which moral, metaphysical, and religious ideas are fashioned by the mind in search of meaning." (Roszak). Even then information is not yet intelligence, as "the mind thinks with ideas, not with information," as Roszak stated, "and the relationship between the two is generalization, while ideas (and knowledge) are integrating patterns. They order the wild flux of experience as it streams through us in the course of life. There is the interplay between experience, memory, and ideas, which is the basis of all thought.
The shape of memory is quite simply the shape of our lives; it is
the self-portrait we paint from all we have experienced."
The relationship between archetypes or `master ideas' and information is that they are not based on information whatever, according to Roszak.
One of the main distinctions we thus could and should make in discussing information is the one between data and information, even within the human system. Somewehere between our sensory input and the storage as information the data become information. There are intermediate stages, maybe we could use the word `Token' there, as thoughts, ideas and memes are already fairly complex.
One model to look at this is to assume, that data enters our sensory
system, is filtered by active and adaptive processes that even influence
the data we allow to enter via our senses. In the brain it then passes
through interpretative systems, where some kind of representation
of the outside reality is necessary to decode and further encode the
data for further storage. Once it is stored it is information, as
it then changed something in our system. When and how exactly this
happens is not easy to define, but according to this also much data
is stored as information that we will normally never use again, but
can be retrieved given special exercises or drugs.
With the idea of the left and right brain hemispheres is mind, we can see the data coming in at the left, magical side, turn into information somewhere down in the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere doesn't use much new data, but mostly internally reprocesses existing information, the mystical side of the brain. Bergson already divided knowledge in the speculative `intuitive' and the generalising `intelligent' parts.
The problem is that the tool is more powerful and active in other areas than we think. I expect that in the next century we will look back at these days and wonder why people would use computers only for administrative and technical data. We will be looked upon as the `Stone-age' of informatics, and I have a hunch that the psycho-active applications of the computers are the way to go.
The irony about the computer industry is now that one accepts that Artificial Intelligence is kind of too far out. According to the experts we should now be concerned with `Artificial Life' in the wake of Cellular Automata and Fractals.
If the computer is to counteract this, it has to become less `digital'
and about `non-digital' applications like music, art, psychology,
even magic and religion. We have to move away from this filtering
influence of the computer on our perception, allow more flexibility,
less connection with the hard numbers and letters of the `paper' culture.
Of course we know that in the `new physics' the Newtonian certainty is somewhat tarnished. Uncertainty and chaos are the new buzz words of the mathematicians and physicists.
In this respect, the rather new concept of "virtual reality" is a good example. In virtual reality, with the help of stereoscopic screens before our eyes and a VPL DataGlove (TM) or DataSuit (tm)for interfacing, we can enter spaces that only exist in the memory of the computer and in the eye of the beholder.
The computer is - or rather will be - very versatile, flexible and
not limited to either text, images, speech, linearity or even logic
but can be the controlling entity to mix and match these, with optimizing
feedback and even productive `irritation'.
If one accepts, with Bergson and Huxley, that our senses are limiting and shielding us off from outside data and stimuli, and the various `paths' are but resensitizing its follower, what a great tool to explore this resensitizing across all media and senses.
If the software is made with strong hierarchy and procedures in mind, this will reflect in the program organisation and thus in the way people will work with the program. A good or bad example of this is the spreadsheet which has actually led to a whole rigid culture of business analysis in the US. Instead of instinctive analysis one relies upon the numbers and statistical projections and sometimes loses track of the reality behind the numbers. Two speculative numbers always lead to real numbers, as John P. Barlow likes to say.
Now this is accepted as part of the `normal' influence that the computer has on the user by way of the software. We can say that the software is made by some programmer and that the computer is just a medium to transfer the ideas and hidden or even unintended meanings of the maker of the software to the user. So there are no bad computers or bad programs, but just bad programmers. But if the human mind is behind it all, what about the programmer himself, didn't he pick up some hints from the `conscious' silicon? (Strangely enough, there are no reports of `automatic' software mediums, someone should really tune in to Lady Ada Lovelace.)
We can briefly touch here the subject of the user influencing the computer. Of course, someone who programs a computer or works with any program, will have an influence on what comes out of the machine, but this is rather obvious, and enough has been said about it.
Is there a way that the carbon mind already interacts with the silicon chips? The fascination of some hackers with their other ego in front of them makes one wonder and many of them confess that at times mysterious things happened, programs would suddenly run or not run without any conscious changes. The ultimate computervirus would be mind-induced. Now, even if we don't believe in mind-over-matter, one could say that if there is such a thing, then it would not be unlikely that it will happen on the quantum-level. And the tender balance in semi-conductor devices is very close to that. Isn't that a paradox, relating to the otherworld by computer. But then, Mother Earth's outer skin is mostly silicon!
The practical application of this, a so called quantum-coprocessor subsystem, has yet to surface. At present we can do no better than to exploit synchronicity with I-Ching remakes on the PC.
My personal fascination with information is because it is so close to control. Knowledge is Power, but information is knowledge made active. Looking for the fabric of reality, one cannot escape the link with information, consciousness and the role of spirit and mind. In my extrovert personality structure, oscillating between intuitive and mind obsessed states, control and power, with gut-anger as the fuel, play an important role. Exploring its impact on the world is then some kind of justification, trying to recognize its role in creation. I am defending my deepest urges, throughout my life a source of confusion for myself and others, trying to position my gut feelings and reactions on a continuum with some good/bad polarity.
Norbert Wiener said: "To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus communication and control belong to the essence of man's inner life, even as they belong to his life in society."
Literature: Theodore Roszak The Cult of Information '86 Random House/Pantheon NY In this book Roszak tries to unravel our new `Information' religion and its philosophical roots and warnes against overestimating the computer and our hi-tech society. It is a critique of the computers in our lives, a warning not to forget our humanity, without dimissing the computer as worthless. He feels that the emphasis on the Information Age, especially its (hidden) influence on the educational system, could distort the meaning of thought itself, turning us into the robots and mindless computers we work with. He fights the notion that the brain operates like a computer and that the mind itself thus can or should be modelled after the machine. Procedural thinking like in Papert's `LOGO' is clever or smart, but limiting. He writes about the alienation caused by computers and information processing and is rather critical of `The information age' and its prophets like Toffler and Marvin Minsky. Rudy Rucker Ilya Prigogine Herbert Simon Michael Talbot Mysticism and the new Physics, '81 RKP London. Norbert Wiener Cybernetics '48 Houghton Mifflin Boston Fritz Machlup Study of Information '83 Wiley NY.