Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Misunderstanding Media: the medium is not the message*

In his famous essay "The Medium Is The Message" (1964) media guru, Marshall McLuhan uses the analogy of electric light to illustrate his view of the relation between a medium and what he sees as its wider message. He writes: "The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message."

McLuhan makes no attempt to clarify what he sees as the difference — if any —between this notion of "pure information" and say, pure form, pure matter or pure energy. Nor does he provide any guidance regarding the question of what quantity or kind of information might be left over once a message has been stripped of its content. If electric light is all information and no message then, according to McLuhan's logic, it is possible to rid a medium of its message whilst retaining pure information. If information exists independently of content then it follows that information must inhere or adhere to its medium in some form — presumably a detectable form. But if this information is detectable then what extra ingredients does electric light possess beyond its raw properties?

Further questions are begged. Does only electric light qualify as pure information or might gaslight also make the grade? And what of candlelight or sunlight? What is information after all? Are flowers informed by the light that falls upon them? Does the light of Springtime inform trees that it is now the moment to blossom?

If light transmits information and this information informs things, then what is the difference between information thus regarded and messages conventionally regarded? And what are we actually left with once we remove all messages from information? What information could there possibly be in an uncrackable code? Is it not the case that an unreadable message is devoid of content precisely by being devoid of information? What information is to be had from a language that cannot be understood?

Or are we to say that an unintelligible message is pure information to the extent that we recognise it as a message; as a communicative tool? That seems fair, but it still fails to explain how ordinary electric light constitutes pure information.

A further puzzle emerges. If electric light is pure information, then it follows that the electric light in a fibre optic cable is pure information also, even when it carries no encoded information. Likewise, when information is encoded and sent along a fibre optic cable it must be encoded information further comprised of pure information: an informational wheel within a wheel.

Something has evidently gone badly awry in McLuhan's thinking. Electric light is no more "pure information" than gaslight, candlelight, paint in a jar, or a stick. Almost anything can be used as a medium so long as we can control it sufficiently to produce representations of one kind or another. A medium without representation is a material without a function. In other words it is just a potentially manipulable resource. 

Media are not things that we attach messages to like clothes on a washing line. Strictly speaking, a medium doesn't actually exist as a medium unless it is used to represent something. Media are techniques in the use of objects and materials for the purposes of communication. There is nothing intrinsic to objects and materials that confers anything other upon them than the properties they already possess. Information is not an inherent property of matter    it is a culturally negotiated attribution. To interpret something as information is to be an informed member of a culture and to be an informed member of a culture is to be possessed of skills in the use of materials and resources for the purposes of communication.

A resource is no more a medium than a stick is intrinsically a tool.

* For Tom

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Language In A Petri Dish: the scientific misunderstanding of signals

No sane person deliberately seeks to misinterpret messages or to incorporate falsehoods into their reasoning. We pay attention to symbols because the consequences of ignorance or misunderstanding can be disastrous. Driving through a red traffic signal is an act that thankfully almost all drivers wisely avoid. If we weren't careful about the ways that we use symbols — their meanings — then communication would quickly descend into incomprehensible babble. It really does matter how we use signs and for the most part we stick to the rules. But sometimes even scientists are sloppy. This post is about a very specific but widespread form of scientific sloppiness: the misattribution of symbol-use to cells and simple organisms. 

Symbol users act in extremely strange ways. On the basis of a simple sign — a word, a coloured light or an abstract scrawl — we can be led to engage in some of the most elaborate, sophisticated, and sometimes the most bizarre, behaviours. And perhaps the most bizarre thing of all, is that the sign itself can be formed from absolutely anything. That is the extraordinary power of symbols: we can use anything to symbolise anything else, so long as the people we are communicating with know the rule we are using.

Rule following is perhaps the most fundamental requirement of symbol use. If we do not know the rule, we cannot know how to respond. This is why only the most intelligent creatures are capable of using symbols — because only the most intelligent creatures are capable of using tools; of putting raw materials to uses for which they were never designed.

A very brief scan of current research within the biological sciences will be sufficient to demonstrate that talk of chemical "signalling" between organisms (and even between cells) is extremely common. And neuroscience is almost entirely committed to the conviction that neurons produce signals. In my experience the merest suggestion that such talk is mistaken is often regarded as tantamount to heresy, not because there are particularly compelling reasons for supporting such a view, but because there seem to be so few reasons against it. In other words, talk of biological signalling is simply a terminological habit or convenience that adds just a little glamour to terms that would otherwise be restricted to "stimuli" and "causal triggers".

I am sometimes asked whether I think it does any harm to talk of biological or neurological signalling. My usual response is to say that I’m not in a position to know. But a better response would be this: what good does it do to suggest that we can observe the rudiments of language in a petri dish? Since when was it wise for scientists to get it manifestly wrong about their philosophical foundations, and since when was it wise for philosophy to follow suit?