Sunday, January 17, 2016

OOO, Information!

In his comment on my last post, Scott Johnson suggested I consider Herbert Blumer's symbolic interactionism for clarification of my interactions in the public space of Crescent Lake park, and he linked me to a web page hosted by the Communication Studies department at the University of Twente, which notes that symbolic interactionism is "the process of interaction in the formation of meanings for individuals. The inspiration for this theory came from Dewey (1981), which believed that human beings are best understood in a practical, interactive relation to their environment." According to UT, symbolic interactionism has three core principles (meaning, language and thought) which "lead to conclusions about the creation of a person’s self and socialization into a larger community (Griffin, 1997)":
Meaning states that humans act toward people and things according to the meanings that give to those people or things. Symbolic Interactionism holds the principal of meaning to be the central aspect of human behavior. 
Language gives humans a means by which to negotiate meaning through symbols. Humans identify meaning in speech acts with others. 
Thought modifies each individual’s interpretation of symbols. Thought is a mental conversation that requires different points of view. 
With these three elements the concept of the self can be framed. People use ‘the looking-glass self’: they take the role of the other, imagining how we look to another person. The self is a function of language, without talk there would be no self concept. People are part of a community, where our generalized other is the sum total of responses and expectations that we pick up from the people around us. We naturally give more weight to the views of significant others.
The good scholars at Twente then provide an example of how these three principles unfold in human interactions:
A boy (Jeremy) and a girl (Kim) broke up last year. When Jeremy received an email from Kim to go out he agreed and they went to a bar. Jeremy had a different kind of meaning though in comparison with Kim. Jeremy went out as friends, where Kim went out as with the meaning of ‘potential boyfriend’. Also in the communication the language was misunderstood. Kim wanted to have a romantic night, while Jeremy wanted to have a talk in a bar. This is also caused by the nonverbal element of emails. The third miscommunication is under thought. When Jeremy replied so fast Kim thought that they were going out to a romantic place. Jeremy went out just as ‘friends’. They both used an internal dialogue to interpret the situation and to make a perception of the evening.
Though I claim no expertise with symbolic interactionism, I want to use this concrete example to explore how at least one object oriented ontologist, Levi R. Bryant, approaches information. I will use Blumer and Bryant to represent differing concepts of communications. In his book The Democracy of Objects (2011), Levi R. Bryant says of information:
[I]nformation is an event that makes a difference by selecting a system-state. … [I]nformation is non-linear and system-specific, existing only for the system in question and as a function of the organization or endo-structure of the object. In saying that information is non-linear, my point is that it is an effect of the endo-structure of the object as it relates to its environment and how this endo-structure resonates within the field of differential relations that define that structure. Information is not in the environment, but is a product of the system perturbed by its environment. (166)
A number of issues are at work here. First, Blumer is speaking of communication as a behavior of humans only. In the romantic story, the communication is between Kim and Jeremy, and Blumer understands the interactions between them through careful analysis of their meanings, language, and thoughts. Bryant, on the other hand, speaks of communication in terms of all objects—humans as well as rocks, flowers, computers, galaxies, and tardigrades. For object oriented ontologists, all objects have equal ontological status in the sense that, while they do not all have equal powers, they all exist in their own right. Each object works to make its way through its own environment using the resources available to it. Thus, Bryant would include the communication behavior of not only Kim and Jeremy but their email programs and devices, the bar where they meet, their shared and unshared histories, the concepts of friends and lovers, and the host of other real and virtual objects implicit in this scene but not supplied.

And this "not supplied" points to big issue for object oriented ontologists: the privileging of the human object as a subject over all other objects. For the writers of the Kim and Jeremy scene, Kim and Jeremy are the subjects, the main actors, and everything else in the story—indeed, in the universe—is an inert prop, an object, defined by and existing solely for the use of Kim and Jeremy. Odds are, most of us read the scene this way. Afterall, we are humans—we are subjects. For us, all objects are background, and no object foregrounds except by proximity to and interaction with a human subject. This view, of course, devalues the ontological status of all non-human objects. It devalues even humans if, for instance, they are part of the great unwashed crowd, just an object in the background. As near as I can tell, one of the primary aims of both object oriented ontology and actor network theory is to recognize and honor the equal ontological status of all objects: Kim and Jeremy, of course, but also the bar and its other patrons, the email application and attending devices and networks, the concepts of friends and lovers, and so forth. All are objects that demand attention. While we can focus on any object or set of objects, we inevitably misunderstand Kim and Jeremy's situation if we reduce any object, say the email app, merely to its set of interactions with Kim and Jeremy. The email app exists in its own right and behaves in accordance to its own internal structures and demands. So does the bar. If we miss this point, then we will not understand the interactions of Kim and Jeremy as well as we might.

Of course, this makes understanding of even a simple romantic scene very difficult, but—hey!—if understanding was easy then everyone would do it. Reducing everything else except Kim and Jeremy to inert props, to mere objects, provides clarity and understanding. It provides meaning. We intuitively believe that we can ignore the email and the bar as background objects to get at the heart of what is happening with Kim and Jeremy, the subjects of our story.

Bryant and Bruno Latour, however, say we cannot. For instance, we think we can ignore the cloud of 106 biological particles Kim and Jeremy are emitting per hour. Their bodies are likely aware of those respective clouds of pathogens and effluvia, but their minds are not aware of them. So we can ignore the micro-biological clouds if we are not conscious of them, right? Okay, let's add two new objects, both of which Kim and Jeremy are also unaware: Jeremy has recently contracted syphilis and Kim is two weeks pregnant. Two new objects: a small but rowdy gang of bacteria and a silent embryo. I want to suggest that their bodies already know about both of these objects, even though their minds are not yet aware, and that these objects are communicating with their bodies and affecting their respective behaviors. The bacteria and the embryo are communicating with Jeremy and Kim, but the conscious Jeremy and Kim don't yet know it. Rather, Jeremy just doesn't feel it for Kim, and Kim just suddenly realizes that Jeremy is her soulmate.

Or some such. The range of responses is much wider than this, but the scene is supposed to be romantic. The point is that communication is happening quite aside from the human, conscious communication that we usually talk about and that Blumer seems to talk about. Kim and Jeremy are busy communicating with new objects, but they haven't gotten the meaning yet.

So for Bryant, communication is a behavior of all objects, and as such, Bryant drops the concept of meaning from his concept of communication. Obviously for Blumer, meaning is at the core of communication among humans. Meaning is that thing worked out among humans and transferred among humans, like a virus or a gene. Not so for Bryant.

Bryant insists that communication does not imply any kind of meaning transferred between Kim and Jeremy. No piece of information exists in the environment like pebbles and gets passed from Kim to Jeremey and back. Here, Bryant draws on Niklas Luhmann's work in Social Systems (1995). Bryant writes, quoting Luhmann:
systems or substances cannot communicate with their environments. If this is the case, then it is because systems only relate to themselves and “[i]nformation is [...] a purely system-internal quality. There is no transference of information from the environment into the system”. Put a bit differently, systems or substances communicate only with themselves.
If information is purely internal and not something transferred from Kim to Jeremy, then how do we communicate among ourselves? Bryant explains it this way:
While substances are closed to one another, they can nonetheless perturb or irritate one another. And in perturbing or irritating one another, information is produced by the system that is perturbed or irritated. However, here we must proceed with caution, for information is not something that exists out there in the environment waiting to be received or detected. Moreover, information is not something that is exchanged between systems. Often we think of information as something that is transmitted from a sender to a receiver. The question here becomes that of how it is possible for the receiver to decode the information received as identical to the information transmitted. However, insofar as substances are closed in the sense discussed in the last section, it follows that there can be no question of information as exchange. Rather, information is purely system-specific, exists only within a particular system or substance, and exists only for that system or substance. In short, there is no pre-existent information. Instead, information is constructed by systems. As Luhmann remarks, “above all what is usually called 'information' are purely internal achievements.There is no information that moves from without to within a system”. Elsewhere, Luhmann remarks that “[i]nformation is an internal change of state, a self-produced aspect of communicative events and not something that exists in the environment of the system”. Consequently, information is a transformation of perturbations of an object into information within a system.
What does this mean for Kim and Jeremy? Actually, the scene as written rather captures Bryant's and Luhmann's point (I have not read enough of Blumer and symbolic interactionism to know if this is intentional or not): Kim and Jeremy's emails are external events that perturb or irritate the other, but no information is transferred by the email. Rather, both Kim and Jeremy translate the perturbations they perceive into information within themselves, according to the potentials of their respective internal states. The meaning exists within each of them, and as such, their respective meanings can match or not. In this scene, they don't match. In some ways, that meanings in different minds ever match is a minor miracle.

This mismatch in meaning is, of course, a good thing for literature. Without the possibility of mismatch in communication, we would have no comedies, no tragedies, no resonance in poetry. As I understand both views of communication (and remember, I am just newly aware of symbolic interactionism), the Luhmann/Bryant view explains better what happens between Kim and Jeremy. The emails are external perturbations which Kim and Jeremy translate into an internal state according to their own resources and internal structures. Kim translates the emails into a romantic evening, and Jeremy translates them into a friendly chat.

In Bryant's view, a gap exists between signal (or perturbation) sent by an object and signal received by another object, and the gap demands a bridge, a translation, by both objects. That translation is always an internal process by the enclosing system. Thus, Kim translates her email message into one meaning, and Jeremy translates the very same perturbation into another meaning.

Bryant's view also explains better the communication of no signal. As we all know, no signal travels faster than any signal, faster than light itself. If my wife walks into the room and does not speak to me, her no signal has communicated. Nothing is transferred—no spoken signal at all—but I get the message, usually the wrong message. For instance, I may fear that she is angry with me, when she is just distracted by something else. The point is: if we drop the notion of some kind of transfer of an external chunk of information, then we can better explain the meanings of no signal, or the meanings of some signal. This post, then, may perturb you and me, but it is unlikely that you and I are getting the same meaning from it. You are almost certainly creating ideas different from the ones I create.

According to Bryant, all objects create information in this manner. They translate the range of external perturbations that they can perceive into internal changes in state according to their internal resources. We humans have a most malleable and enriched mind that can assume many states, and we have a relatively rich toolbox of senses that can perceive a wide range of perturbations. Stones, on the other hand, can perceive relatively few perturbations and can assume very few internal states. They can perceive heat and they can melt, but they seem to have few options beyond that. Information and communication for stones is a very simple, restricted affair. We humans can perceive more perturbations and assume more states in more ways, but the process of communication is similar for stones and humans. They both translate a limited set of external perturbations into a limited set of internal states. We humans seem to have more options than stones have, but we are not supreme in all ways. For instance, we cannot hear or smell perturbations that dogs can, and we cannot select from the range of internal states available to flowers in the sun. Neither we humans nor the dogs or stones perceive the neutrinos that flow constantly through us, but as things go, we humans are reasonably gifted. These gifts, however, do not privilege us ontologically. We are all objects—mineral, vegetable, and human—trying to make the best of a given situation. This need not diminish us; rather, it elevates us all. Our world is rich—we just don't own it as we think we do.

If OOO is correct, then, information is not a thing in the environment that someone can transfer to us. Rather, information is an internal process whereby objects perceive what external perturbations they can and translate those perturbations into an available internal state according to their internal needs, structures, and options. This explains much to me, but it also disturbs me, for it closes all of us in upon ourselves. I can be no more revealed to you, for instance, than the heart of a stone is. Like all objects, I basically communicate with myself. OOO leaves me with the sense that I am alone, to the core. Yet, my experience contradicts this. I believe, for instance, that I connect with others—for instance, through this blog. I believe that I can make and have made the private of me shareable, public.

Well, I have more learning to do. That's nice.


  1. Stones don't "need" to communicate. I'm tempted to say they are indifferent to whatever comes along but who knows, they may have evolved from something maddeningly breakable and are on the path to becoming bounce'able but prefer to go unnoticed:-)
    It makes that humans need to signal each other to reproduce and fend off lions by group action, but maybe the development is incomplete. Like the explanation for the development of eyes. Organisms started with light sensitive patches, then perception of movement and on to identification of threat. Each stage had "meanings" for different qualities of light, possibly shared this perception (by all having it) but didn't (beyond the genome) pass this around. Could it be that a sophisticated system of signaling allows individuality to survive? That the social is nice but unnecessary? Yuck.

    1. But, Scott, all things do communicate, even if they don't need to. They must. Along with energy, mass, and organization, information is one of the basic elements of the universe, or so Edgar Morin says, and I think he's right. I'm intrigued just now with how the object oriented ontologists understand this communication. I may even accept it. I'm not sure.

  2. You always mess with my mind (in a good way) when I try to make sense of what you are trying to make sense of. My response is literary.

    1. Barry, the literary is the only sensible reply to OOO, I think. Thanks for reading, and thanks more for writing.