Re: information transmission

John Wilkins (
Mon, 15 Mar 1999 12:09:13 +1100

Date: Mon, 15 Mar 1999 12:09:13 +1100
From: John Wilkins <>
Subject: Re: information transmission

Bruce Edmonds made the comment that Shannon's definition is not the best
sense of "information" (I presume he means for memetics). In fact, I
think it is the only sense that matters, but that the term fails to
capture the semantic sense of "meaning" (which is what Shannon said in
his original paper, anyway).

I think that the problem lies in the encoding of a message for
transmission. In order for the received message to have the right
Shannon entropy (that is, to be the same as the sent message) a
considerable amount of commonality is required at source and sink in the
way of protocols.

Dretske has a nice discussion of knowledge as information (but not
information as knowledge) in the ref below that I recommend to all
memeticists. He points out that the information capacity of a message is
highly relative to the way that message is encoded and decoded, and
hence also the Shannon entropy measured in bits.

Since we are evolving the protocols by convention at the same time we
are evolving the messages sent using those protocols, there is no
absolute measure of the information content sensu Shannon-Weaver nor the
complexity sensu Kolmogorov-Chaitin in a cultural representation.

To briefly illustrate: as idioms change, messages between them can be
differently received than intended (eg, the term "boy" as used by a
British public schoolboy, and understood by the boyz in the 'hood' in
LA). For communication to occur, the protocols must be very much the
same. What is noise in sending might be significant in reception, and
v.v. Yet the protocols are evolving also as memetic ensembles of rules
and vocabularies. There is no simple level of selection and drift.

Dretske, Fred I. 1981. Knowledge and the flow of information. Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press.

[It's a bit dated, because there have been developments in Info Theory,
but the point remains stable.]

Also for comparison, see Dawkins' take on IT at


John Wilkins, Head, Graphic Production The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research Melbourne, Australia <mailto:wilkins@WEHI.EDU.AU><> Homo homini aut deus aut lupus - Erasmus of Rotterdam

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