Re: More on information

Ton Maas (
Sat, 8 Nov 1997 00:12:05 +0200

Message-Id: <v03102804b08938975f97@[]>
In-Reply-To: <>
Date: Sat, 8 Nov 1997 00:12:05 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: More on information

Thanks for all the thoughtful responses to my "no storage" bit.

>We all know that we cannot store "sewing" ("sewing" probably isn't a meme but
>"a stitch in time saves nine" is) but we would not deny that the knowledge
>of sewing, including descriptions of needles, thread, material, patterns,
>etc., can all be stored in some form of symbology so that the knowledge can
>be translated or transferred where it can again be "accessed" by a person for
>their use. The perceptions of the organism and the quality of such symbology
>determines how close the "map is to the territory."

There is a nice collateral to this, which is related to one of the key
notions in my own book (olny in Dutch, alas) on natural learning: the
concept of calibration as a means of correction in learning. Whenever a
skill is taught & learned, the conversation between teacher and student has
a way of becoming metaphorical in nature. A violin teacher will tell his
student that he/she has to "give it a bit more air" or to "let the note
slip upward". To an outside observer this communication often seems quite
nonsensical, but to the participants in the learning process it actually
refers to (or triggers) a shared experience. Whereas in "feedback" type
learning (most schooling falls in this category) communication can be quite
literal and precise (in fact, this type of learning depends on explicit
lists of instructions which only need to be executed correctly to achieve
the intended goal), "calibration" style learning involves skill or
"know-how" rather than knowledge. It follows from this that everything
about sewing that can be stored, only makes sense to individual
practitioners as long as the living tradition survives. Of course this
varies with the "level" (or compexity) of the skill, but I have been told
(for example) that the art of navigating the big sailing freighters from
the seventeenth century is forever lost and cannot be retrieved from
written accounts and/or instructions or manuals from that time.

>It would appear to be (and I believe that Ton would agree) very safe to
>continue to use such terminology of "information storage, meme complexes
>printed in books, or meme codification through symbology," etc., and all of
>us knowing fairly well what we think is occurring. I believe that Ton was
>simply drawing attention to the problems associated with our concepts about
>"meme definition" when we talk about "replication" or "storage," etc., if
>not, he will surely correct me and inform us in his own inimitable way, very
>accurately and with insight.

I have become rather wary of using the term "information" too loosely and
feel more comfortable with the concept of "meaning" (or "relevance"), as it
emphasizes the relational (if not processual) aspect of informing. All I'm
saying is that we should be very careful with reifying "objective"
phenomena such as "stored information", because they have no meaning
whatsoever outside the ongoing activity of living practitioners. According
to some "strict" memeticists the ancient Egyptian memes survived many
centuries to the present day, but in fact they were only introduced to our
memetic space through Champolion's discovery of the hieroglyph code.
Without him they would still be noise, albeit very elegant noise :-) I know
that I'm oversimplifying the case, but I hope you get the idea...

Suppose a less technologically inclined future civilization digs up some of
the artefacts from our present era. Apart from the confusion the sheer mass
of our debris would probably cause, there is an interesting difference
between, say, longplay records and compact discs. With an analogically
coded medium such as the grammophone, retrieval of the stored "information"
is not as unlikely as with digital coding. In fact, a simple sheet of
aluminum foil could be enough to retrieve some sounds from the grooves
(enough to get at least an idea of what's on the album), but with a compact
disc that scenario is highly improbable.

>But I think that it is probably apparent that we agree that the meme, when
>traveling between organisms, is a physical representation of the original
>construct within the organism's cognitive milieu, and as such, is a
>codification of the original, just as all "informational" exchanges between

My nitpicking comment would be that the meme *is* a physical representation
only insofar as we perceive or use it. I would prefer the phrase "is to us"
over "is". For me the whole exercise only stresses once again the fact that
our language has a very strong inherent "objectifying" tendency.



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