The generalization involved in the common use of the reified idea of information must not hide the complexity and richness of the debate it has produced. Debate which significantly emerges from the contradictions inherent to Shannon's formulation -summarized in the two italicized sentences-:
«The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that they are selected from a set of possible messages». (Shannon y Weaver, 1949:31-32)
As Bateson (1985:413) rightly pointed out, «the engineers and mathematicians believe that they can avoid the complexities and difficulties introduced into communication theory by the concept of 'Meaning'» reducing the matter to the syntactical level and building the concept of information from a theory of signals (von Foerster, 1991:60). However the idea of signal is only apparently aseptic, and only apparently syntactical. The signal refers to a difference that is ‘out there’, but that ‘something’ which is difference is distinguished by someone. The distinction is presupposed by Shannon and Weaver in the form of selection (see Qvortrup, 1993). The fact that information is defined as the probability of selection involves the observer in at least two aspects: first, probability implies expectation and context of use; and second, the selection is only conceivable on the basis of the assumption of someone who selects. In both cases there appears implicit semantics as a horizon of meaning (Brier, 1992).
Moreover, the development of the concept of information as a measure of order which constitutes its fundamental link with universal magnitudes (such as mass or energy) presupposes the observational act as well. In Shannon and Weaver’s theory, both information and noise depend on variety. If redundance is defined according to the “adjustment” between variety and the number of elements, information and noise are expressed in direct proportion to variety. In other words, information and noise depend on the number of elements different from one another. Neither of them can be defined in larger quantities than those allowed by the amount of variety (Ashby, 1977:238). In fact, as Ashby poses,
«It must be noticed that noise is in no intrinsic way distinguishable from any other form of variety. Only when some recipient is given, who will state which of the two is important to him, is a distinction between message and noise possible». (Ibid. :256)
The issue of the distinction between information and noise brings us definitely to the problem of observation. It seems implicit in Ashby’s words that order is the cognitive contribution of the observer that makes it possible to conceive the difference between information and noise: order, as a Peircean sign, it is so for someone in a certain circumstance. The consequent paradox is that information is proposed as a universal measure of order for a system whose activity of selection (to which information depends on) involves a local order, coherent with its structure and operations. From the point of view of communication (understood as ‘transmission’ of information), there has to be a correspondence between the orders of selection of the observing systems involved and, therefore, there has to be an operational and structural correspondence between them (von Foerster, 1991:75).
The epistemological contradictions of information ultimately refer to its condition as a code of difference. Consequently, it is primarily an observational problem, a problem of the management of differences. In this sense, and partially following Qvortrup’s classification (1993), it is possible to outline at least three differentiated positions throughout the contemporary debate on the epistemological status of information:
(a) The objectivist position, according to what has been posed before, considers information as an ontologically self-sufficient magnitude of Nature. In this case, the information is an external difference to the observer and independent from him. Without resorting to Stonier’s ontological exaltation in which the independent existence of information is remarked as "a basic property of the Universe", Wiener’s words suffice to illustrate the common denominator of this approach and its cognitive-communicational derivations:
«Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and using information is the process of our living effectively within that environment. To live effectively is to live with the adequate information». (Wiener, 1954:18)
(b) The constructivist position introduces in the concept of information the observational instance as a result of the systematic reflection on the contradictions pointed out in the objectivist approach. The development of the second-order cybernetics placed self-reference in a privileged position within the operations of the cognitive system, making impossible the conception of the informational flow in terms of transmission of objects. The constructivist shift established thus two complementary options: either (b.1) reviewing the concept of information, so that it became coherent with an idea of communication understood as a behavioural coupling between two interacting systems, or (b.2) establishing the hypothesis that the environment only exists for the system as a product of its own creation. The one we call ‘constructivist position’ corresponds to the first option (b.1), while the one we name ‘radical constructivism’ will emerge from the development of the second hypothesis (b.2).
The first option, derived from the incorporation of the observational reflexivity, compelled thus the consideration that communication did not depend so much on what ‘the environment gave the system’ but rather on what happened with the system in its interaction with the environment or with another system (Maturana and Varela, 1996:169). Thus information ceased to be a ‘capturable’ external difference and came to be conceived as a difference in the environment linked to an operational change (a difference) in the system. The Batesonian definition of information as the difference that makes a difference (Bateson, 1985; 1991) summarises the conception of communication as operational coupling and in a way advances the second constructivist hypothesis. In fact, for Bateson the difference is an observational operation that emanates from the encounter between the perceptive structure of the system and the world as it is presented to it. Implicitly the difference is neither in the world nor in the observer, but in the encounter between them. Also implicitly (b.2): the world can only be for the observing system depending on what it is (that is, the environment is part of the observing system inasmuch its operational structure presupposes it). Consequently, the difference is after all defined as a mental issue.
(c) The radical constructivist position introduces, thus, a differential note with respect to Bateson’s definition. Paraphrasing the famous sentence, information would appear from this perspective rather as the difference that finds a difference (Qvortrup, 1993). In fact, this implies an elimination of the conductist substratum that remained in Bateson’s formulation, in the sense that it made possible glimpsing a cause-effect coordination between the difference in the environment and the difference in the observing system. The consideration that the environment exists for the system depending on its operational structure obliged to restrict the functional determinism of the cause-effect connection in the system-environment encounter, especially when one was careful enough to highlight that communication was in no circumstance a traffic of differences from the environment to the system and vice versa.
This view of information as an endogenous emergence of the operational coupling implies the conception of selection not in the terms of a designation or a ‘pointing at’ with respect to something external, but as a restriction of the system operation itself. In other words, the system does not select differences of the environment; the system is in itself a selection of the differences in the environment. As in the previous case, the premise refers to a double hypothesis: on the one hand (c.1), the consideration of the set system-environment as an inseparable whole for the external observer -applicable to self-organising systems, like living systems-; on the other hand, (c.2) the consideration of observing systems as operationally closed systems. The former line of reflection (c.1) is the one developed by von Foerster (especially in von Foerster, 1981), the latter (c.2) constitutes the essence of the autopoietic systems theory developed by Maturana and Varela (1980, 1996 and Varela, 1979, 1996).
In his article Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things, published in 1972, Heinz von Foerster (1991:65-78) outlines the following propositional chain: (1) The environment is experienced as if it was the residence of objects, stationary, moving or changing; (2) The logical properties of “invariance” and “change” belong to the representations, not to the objects; (3) Objects and events are not primitive representations. They are representations of relations; in such a way that (4) the environment is the representation of the relations between “objects” and “events” and (5) a living organism is a third order relater (operation of relations between relations of relations) from which the differentiation between system and environment constitutes an emergence from that operation of relations:
«Let be D* the terminal representation made by an organism W*, and let it be observed by an organism W; let W’s internal representation of this description be D (W, D*); and, finally, let W’s internal representation of his environment be E (W, E). [...] The domain of relationships between D and E which are computable by W represents the “information” gained by W from watching W*:
Inf (W , D*) º Domain Rel m (D, E)
(m = 1, 2, 3, ... m)
The logarithm (of base 2) of the number m of relationships Rel m computable by W (or the negative mean value of the logarithmic probabilities of its occurrence <log2 pi = S pi log2 pi ; i = 1 ® m) is the “amount of information, H” of the description D* with respect to W :
H (D*, W ) = log2 m
(or H (D*, W ) = - Spi log2 pi) »
In such a way that both the descriptive approach to the concept of information (Inf) and the probabilistic expression of the amount of information (H) prove to be relative concepts (c.1), being thus impossible to affirm that the environment “contains” information, and even less that it is “able” somehow to “transmit it” to the system. The corollary presents somehow solipsist notes that should be made more precise. «The environment so as we observe it, is our construction», concludes von Foerster (1981:41). Something similar happens with Varela’s affirmation (1979:45): «Information, sensu stricto, does not exist». It is important, as Qvortrup (1993) recommends, to underline the qualifications “in the way we observe it” and “in strict sense” modalizing each of the two previous sentences. Both qualifications refer to the recursive nature of observation. In von Foerster’s terms, both precisions remind us that observations cannot be made without an observer, or as Varela himself points out:
«The fact is that information does not exist independent of a context of organization that generates a cognitive domain, from which an observer community can describe certain elements as informational and symbolic». (Varela, 1981:45)
From the perspective of autopoietic systems (c.2), the operational closure of the observing system makes that endogenous conception of information a logical requirement
«Autopoietic systems do not have inputs or outputs. They can be perturbated by independent events and undergo internal structural changes which compensate these perturbations». (Matura and Varela, 1980:81)
As a consequence, what is normally perceived as interaction (in the sense of an exchange of information) is understood here as a behavioural coupling of operationally closed systems perturbing each other (Qvortrup, 1993). This no longer involves a difference as cause of a difference, which presupposes a certain conmensurability between system and environment (or, in other words, an ontologization of the difference between both). It rather entails independent coupling changes (as part of systems’ structural drift), becoming part of systems’ horizon of operations and, therefore, becoming meaningful differences. Rather than being produced or made, differences, in that case, are found by the system.
«In the context of the autopoietical reproduction the environment exists as irritation, disturbance, noise, and it only becomes meaningful when it can be related to the system's decision-making connections. This is only the case when the system can understand which difference it makes for its decision-activity when the environment changes or doesn't change in one or the other respect. Such a difference which exists for the system in the environment and which for the system may imply a difference for the system itself, i.e. a different decision, in accordance with Gregory Bateson we would call information. As 'difference that makes a difference' information is always the system's own product, an aspect of the processing of decision and not a fact in the environment which exists independently of observation and evaluation. On the other hand the system cannot freely create information as its own product or let it be. The system is continuously perturbated by the environment, and with its decision-network it seeks out perturbations so as to transform them into information and to use them as a guide for decision-making. ». (Luhmann cit. in Qvortrup, 1993).
Ultimately, the two constructivist perspectives considered here link the observational problems of information to a conception of cognition that, inasmuch as it is assumed as part of its own condition of observation, becomes necessarily a kind of epistemology. In other words, for the constructivist perspective, cognition and epistemology overlap each other in the same operative principle:
«There is an external world which already follows from the fact that understanding can be made as a selfcontained operation; however, we do not have any direct access to the world. Understanding cannot reach the outsi de world without understanding. In other words, understanding is understanding as self-referential process». (Luhmann, 1990a:33)
That self-referential proposal of cognition articulated upon an endogenous conception of information forces to attend to the biological principles implicit in observational logics and ultimately poses a radical revision of the concept of communication.
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J.M. Aguado (2/3/09)
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