ID Basics – Information – Part II – When Does Information Arise?
|March 21, 2014||Posted by Eric Anderson under Informatics, Design inference, ID Foundations, Complex Specified Information|
In my first post I discussed the concept of information, in particular whether information is contained in a physical object by its mere existence. In this post I would like to consider an additional issue relating to information, namely, the point at which information arises or comes into existence.
Information is often closely associated with meaning – meaning that is transmitted from a sender to a receiver. As a result, some have suggested that information only exists when there is both a sender and a receiver who have a prior agreement about the protocols to encode the information and after there is a successful transmission, receipt and understanding of the information.
However, viewing information as existing only after it has been transmitted by the sender and received and understood by the receiver is a problematic. Specifically, I will argue that (i) information can exist independent of a receiver and (ii) requiring successful reception and comprehension in order for information to exist results in a breakdown of definitions, absurd results, and is contrary to our real-world experience.
A Simple Example
Let’s take a simple example of information creation, transmittal and reception. Consider a individual planning and party for Friday night. Invitations have been sent and everyone is looking forward to a wonderful party starting at 7:30 p.m.
However, during the week the planner decides to change the party to 7:30 p.m. On Wednesday she sends the following email to all of the invitees:
“Hey everybody, change of plans. The party will start at 7:00 p.m. Let me know if you can still make it.”
Thankfully, all of the attendees receive the email, RSVP as requested, adjust their schedules accordingly, and arrive on time at 7:00 p.m.
If we map the process flow, we can start to get a better handle on what occurred with the information.
conception -> encoding -> transmission -> reception -> recognition -> action
First, the party planner conceived of the information she desired to convey. Then she encoded that information in a medium, in this case in the English language by means of an electronic tool. Then she transmitted the information. The attendees received the information. The attendees understood or recognized the information. And, finally, the attendees acted on the information to produce the desired result.
It is important to note that this is a process. As a result, it occurs, by definition, across a period of time. The conception occurs before the encoding; the transmission occurs before the reception and so on. The steps do not occur simultaneously, but in sequence.
As a result, we can now ask: At what point did the information arise? In other words, at which step in the process did the information come into existence?
This Is No Party
Let’s now tweak our example and assume that instead of the happy outcome above, our party planner still hasn’t had any RSVP’s by Thursday night. So she calls one of her friends and says, “Can you make it to my party at the new time?” He replies, “What new time? I’m planning on 7:30.” “Didn’t you see my email?” the planner asks, puzzled. “No,” he replies.
What has occurred? It could be any number of things, but let’s run though them in order.
1. Encoded but not transmitted. Let’s suppose our planner in fact composed the email (encoded the message), but forgot to press send and it is still in her drafts folder. What is she going to say to her friend? Something along the lines of “Oh, rats, it is still in my drafts folder. I’ll send it to you right now.” (She could of course choose a new medium in that instant and convey the information orally, but stick with me on the email example for a bit.) Notice that, notwithstanding the passage of a fair amount of time, the planner does not need to re-encode the information. It already exists. She doesn’t have to write a new email, and she certainly doesn’t have to conceive of the again information from scratch.
This is an important point. The information process consists of steps, and if a step has been completed, we don’t have to start over, but can pick up at the next step, much like a computer thread which has been put on hold by the processor can pick up again once the competing processes are finished using the resources.
The information already exists. Objectively so. It does not need to be recreated.
2. Failed transmission. Alternatively, let’s suppose that our party planner confirms the email is in her sent folder and in fact was sent. But let’s say in this case she also notices a bounceback message in her inbox and realizes she had the recipient’s email wrong. What does she do? She forwards the message from the sent folder to the proper address with a statement something along the lines of “Sorry you didn’t get the email earlier. I’m resending. It looks like I had the wrong email address.”
Again, note that the planner does not have to recreate the original message. She does not have to create the information again. It doesn’t have to be conceived again or encoded again. It already exists. All she has to do is retransmit it.
3. Failed receipt. Let’s now assume the problem is on the receiving end. Perhaps the attendee has an aggressive spam filter and never got the message. Does this mean, as some have argued, that the information does not exist? After all, it was not received and understood by a recipient. Of course not. And, indeed, upon checking his spam folder the recipient sees the email and reads the information – information that already existed there in his folder, he just needed to read it.
4. Failed recognition. Let’s finally assume that the recipient does not speak English. Or perhaps he saw the email and read it, but thought it was spam. Or perhaps he thought it was relating to a different party the following week. Does that mean the information about the parting starting at 7:00 doesn’t exist? Again, of course not. The recipient’s failure to properly recognize or interpret the information doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Focus On the Creator, Not the Recipient
When we closely examine the information flow process, we realize that the creation of information – the point at which it comes into existence – originates with the creator. And it virtually always occurs before the information is transmitted, received, recognized or acted upon. And it makes no difference whether the gap between each step is a fraction of a second or a thousand years.
Again, we can see this if we look at alternate flows that could result from a failed communication. For example, the following is a common flow:
conception -> encoding -> transmission -> failed transmission -> retransmission -> etc.
We know this happens regularly. And we also recognize that a failed transmission does not require (at least in the case of a written encoding like our example) that the information either be conceived anew or encoded again. Those steps are already done. So in the case of a failed transmission, what is it that is retransmitted? Information, of course. Information which, by definition, must already exist before it can be retransmitted.
Consider another common flow:
conception -> encoding -> translation and re-encoding -> transmission -> etc.
In this case, what is it that is translated and re-encoded in a different language or different medium? The information of course. So, by definition, the information must exist prior to the transmission and, therefore, prior to its receipt or recognition by the recipient.
Problems With the Alternative
Occasionally someone will claim that information only exists only if there is a recipient who actually receives and recognizes the information. This view is problematic for at least the following three reasons:
First, it logically collapses and destroys the definitions of plainly understood steps in the flow process. Specifically, if we say that information only exists once it is understood, then we are collapsing two steps into one: the receipt of information and the recognition of information. One of the two terms is now meaningless. In fact, it would be the case that the entire process collapses, because the information cannot be transmitted until it exists, it can’t be transmitted until it is encoded, it can’t be encoded until it is conceived. So the idea that information exists only once it is understood by the recipient is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process flow. It is also a conflation of the concept of communication with the concept of the information itself. The former may require interaction of a sender and a receiver; the latter does not.
Second, it would result in a strange and absurd concept of information. For example, even though I wrote this entire post and saved it on my hard drive prior to posting, that view would claim that none of the information existed until read by someone else, at which point presumably, all the information popped instantly into existence. Further, a suicide note would not actually contain any information until the investigator walked in the room and read the note, at which point the information would pop into existence. Finally, back to our party email example, if the friend were to ask over the phone, “What information are you talking about?” it would be an absurdity for our party planner to respond, “Well, since you apparently didn’t get the email, the information doesn’t exist, so there is nothing to talk about.”
Third, it contradicts our everyday real-world experience. We all experience information creation on a regular basis. Every time we write an email or a blog post or send a text. We understand that it is the creative act, the mental activity of the creator, that gives rise to the information. Whether or not some particular later step happens with that information, like re-encoding, transmission, reception, recognition and so on, it does not take away from the creative experience that produced the information in the first place.
It has been occasionally argued that information only exists when there is a sender, a receiver, a successful transmission, and a successful reception and recognition of the information by the recipient. We sometimes see a failed communication (at whatever step of the process) and are tempted to jump to the conclusion that because of the failed communication the underlying information does not really exist. However, such an approach leads to a breakdown of basic definitions, absurd situations, and contradicts our real-world experience.
Information, based on everything we know and on our own real-world experience, arises as the result of a creative act or mental activity of the creator. Once that information exists, many things can happen with it, including additional encoding, transmission, reception and recognition by a recipient. This entire process can perhaps be appropriately termed “communication”. The entire process, however, must not be confused with the creation and existence of the underlying information itself.
Astute readers will note that I have not spent much time in the above essay distinguishing between the first two steps of the process: conception and initial encoding. It is quite clear that following the initial encoding the information exists and at that point we can do anything with it that we can normally do with information: re-code, transmit, receive, and so on. This latter point is the focus of the above essay, as I am intending to combat the idea that information only exists after a successful communication event has occurred between parties.
What is less clear is whether we should define information as coming into existence at the moment of conception or at the moment of initial encoding. I think there are some interesting arguments on either side, and perhaps that can be explored in a future post.