Geoghegan: Draft Notes for an essay on Information in Formation (Session 10)

For our last session, Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan to attribute a draft version of an essay on the concept of information, which nicely ties into with some of the topics of Passage des Digitalen in general and its last chapter, “Signal Intelligence”, in particular. Please be aware that this is a draft version and Bernard kindly asks not to quote or cite without his explicit permission.

[Draft: not for quotation or citation!]

I think perhaps the word ‘information’ is causing more trouble in this connection than it is worth, except that it is difficult to find another that is anywhere near right.

– Claude Shannon

Why is there a theory of information? Although antecedents to the term information appear as early as in the writings of Virgil, the term excited little systematic reflection before the twentieth century.[2] Then, as if out of the blue, from 1924 to 1954 scientists of diverse disciplinary and geographical backgrounds put forth competing theories of information.[3] One of these scientists, Claude Shannon, quickly emerged as father of the new field of information theory.[4] Supplementary movements to found schools of information, disciplines of informatics, and conceptualize the characteristics of an emerging information society followed.[5] This essay addresses that oversight by examining how changes in natural philosophy and the emergence of technical media encouraged the reconceptualization of information as a statistical measurement of serially patterned, non-anthropocentric traces.[6]

Medieval and Early Modern Information

When the word information appeared in Middle English in the fourteenth-century it fit squarely within a scholastic cosmology wherein resemblance “organized the play of symbols [and] made possible knowledge of things.”[7] Derived from Latin informare (which could connote education, instruction, inspiration, or even agricultural shaping of the earth), information initially denotes the imparting of form onto matter. In the earliest extant reference to information in English, dating from 1387, John Trevisa writes that “[f]yve bookes com doun from heven for informacioun of mankinde.” In 1530 monk William Bonde can likewise assert that Christian apostles make their “Crede by instinccyon & informacyon of the holy goost.”[8] In this period repetition and similitude are not the source for information; they are the quintessence of its form.

As resemblance lost its grip on the European epistemic imaginary in seventeenth-century, but an emerging class of natural scientists suggested information should be submitted to schemes of rational and systematic analysis.[9] In Anglophone philosophy information became another name for so many impressions and adrift in the empire of empiricist signs. In 1738 empiricist philosopher David Hume encapsulated the emerging stakes of information-analysis by asserting that “the power, by which one object produces another, is never discoverable merely from their idea, ’tis evident cause and effect are relations, of which we receive information from experience, and not from any abstract reasoning or reflection.” [10] Information as form of resemblance had lost its autonomous epistemological purchase.[11] In-forming imparted no intelligibility to the objects of observation. “Abstract reasoning or reflection” could however dissolve first-order analogical properties within second-order forms of rational analysis that allowed intellectual accounting to commence. Philosopher Michel Foucault characterized Hume’s epistemic shift as part of a broader demand in early modern thought that resemblance “be subjected to proof by comparison.” The emerging procedures demanded “means of measurement with a common unit, or, more radically, by its position in an order” to establish the identity of resemblance.[12] Materialized traces become entities in their own right meriting comparison with one another.

The Cultural Techniques of Telegraphy in the Nineteenth-Century

As we cross into the early nineteenth-century it becomes necessary to turn away from the local usages of the term information and instead examine an emerging constellations of cultural techniques[13] that produced entities available for definition in informational terms. Telegraphy constitutes one such cultural technique that has a decisive impact on the re-investment of everyday phenomena as entities available for informational analysis. Its widespread adaption in the nineteenth-century in fields including physiology, electromagnetism, linguistics, metrology, spiritualism, and commodity trading allowed generated a new, ever-expanding repository of traces that shared comparable semiotic features.[14] By translating fleeting phenomena into serial and standardized traces, telegraphy allowed for new forms of analysis that compared these traces among one another. The result was the gradual appearance of modern informational entities.

Three factors proved decisive in delineating information: Instrumentation, graphical standardization, and economization. Instrumentation allowed for the technical investment of communications with formal properties and patterns suitable for comparison across a range of contexts.[15] The development of standard technical notations that could describe diverse entities as diverse as human speech, the action of the nervous system, or written language facilitated the scientific generalization of “information” as an entity independent of its medium.[16] Economization encouraged engineers to maximize profits by identifying the minimum data and infrastructure necessary to serve customers.[17] Often these procedures reinforced one another: Instruments produce standardized inscriptions amenable to precise quantifications that enable an economic reduction and automation in laborsaving instruments. These reciprocal actions also recursively consolidate larger communities as standardized methods of telegraphic investigation consolidated across laboratories, firms, and regions.

The Handbook of the Telegraph published in London in 1862 provides clues to how the cultural techniques of the telegraphy stripped communications of meaning and context and reinvested them with standard properties. The guide advises would-be telegraphic clerks that excellent handwriting and basic competency in mathematics (skills associated with creating a standardized and quantified chain of reproduction) will aid them in their quest to become communications professionals. It also lists one skill as non-essential: Facility in the language of messages dispatched by clients. “An ‘instrument clerk’,” the manual explains, “may be quite competent to telegraph or receive a dispatch in a foreign language and yet not understand a single world of it.”[18] Underscoring this structural indifference of the instrument and its operators to the meaning or experiences of users, the manual enumerates diverse economic, geographic, and temporal factors that can fly through the instrument clerks’ fingers with indifferent ease: “Constant practice enables him to signal, i. e. to send and receive messages…with the rapidity of lightning, hence annihilating distance and concentrating time, conveying tidings of the movements of an army, the rise and fall of dynasties, or the desires of a peasant, with like facility and marvellous speed.”[19]

The disinvestment class, contexts and cultures allowed for the production and investment of signals as standardized technical objects calibrated to industrial efficiency. This operated most evidently at the level of the Morse code, which employed short notations for frequently used letters such as a, e, and s and longer notation for infrequently used letters such as x and z.[20] Such coding strategies took for granted that signals’ existed in the first instance as elements within a closed media ecology governed by rules of efficiency and differential distinctions. Engineers refashioned transducers, wires, and even the docile bodies of clerks as what Maddalena and Packer as standard equipment for a burgeoning infrastructure of industrialized communications.[21] For example, one study by an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories observed, Morse code involved “a tradeoff between code speed and the mean number of hand motions per transmitted letter.” Thus what at first appeared as a variety of apparent inefficiencies embedded within Morse code in fact reflected human instruments’ requirement for rest, pause, and reflection. This labor-intensive refashioning of the human elements as components in a technical infrastructure allowed for the stabilization and standardization of the entire network.

Theorizing Information in the 1920s

The cultural techniques of telegraphy proved more enduring than the telegraph. In the twentieth century, as the industrial and political power of the device waned, its techniques of standardization, instrumentation, and economization consolidated into theories of information.[22] A precursor to the theory of information is the 1928 essay “Transmission of Information” by Ralph Hartley of the Bell Telephone System.[23] His most crucial insight was not methodological but terminological: He discarded the cognitively connoted term engineers habitually applied to designate transmission patterns, intelligence, in favor of the less anthropocentric term information. Hartley cited the example of a hand-operated submarine capable of transmitting both messages composed by human beings or by an automatic selecting device. The receiver of such a signal does assign meaning to the message but only decodes its sequence. Therefore, Hartley posited, “we should ignore the question of interpretation…and base our result on the possibility of the receiver’s distinguishing the result of selecting any one symbol from that of selecting any other. By this means the psychological factors and their variations are eliminated and it becomes possible to set up a definite quantitative measure of information.”[24]

The scrubbing away of semantics and psychology allowed Hartley to offer a standardized measure of information that generalized from the situation of telegraphy to the circumstances of all technical and serially patterned transmissions. He defined information as

H = n log s

where H designates the quantity of information associated with n selections and s stands for the total number of symbols from which the transmission makes a selection. This definition assumed that any form of communication would take the form of a unidirectional, serial and discrete selection of predefined symbols. Although this proved more or less intuitive in the case of telegraphy, Hartley observed “when we attempt to extend this idea to other forms of communication certain generalizations need to be made.”[25] In analyses of media including telephony and television Hartley showed how communications could be construed as serial representations from a predetermined range of symbolic options. He cited the tendency of these and other forms of electrical communications to invest continues flows of a source into serial, discrete and predefined coding options. In one of his more peculiar examples of information structures the relative patterns and freedoms of such selection, Hartley asserted, “in the sentence, ‘Apples are red,’ the first word eliminates other kinds of fruit and all other objects in general.”[26]  Thus even spontaneous, ostensibly non-coded and non-technical communications situations lost their apparently spontaneous and expressive kernel and were replaced by a series of alternating, differential selections. No longer was telegraphy an informational medium for transmitting speech and intention; speech and intention became a medium for the production of telegraphic information.

Information Reformation After 1948

By the end of the 1940s the desirability of moving from specific theories of information measurement to general information theory was widely felt if not always clearly articulated. The very difficulty defining what was felt as necessary may explain why the problem of information and its theoretical specification seemed to suddenly arise in diverse disciplinary and geographical settings at this moment. In 1948 alone at least eight competing accounts of information appeared in prestigious English, British, US-American and French journals.[27] Claude Shannon of Bell Telephone Laboratories put forth the most influential account. In the opening lines of his 1948 essay “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” published in AT&T’s Bell System Technical Journal Shannon posited that “[t]he fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” Shannon made a number of crucial additions and specifications to the work of Hartley, including such as demonstrating the statistically predictable character of communication signals, defining how strategic redundancy and variable transmission rates could ensure error-free communications, precisely specifying the definition and capacity of communication channels, the identification of information with entropy, and the postulation of binary digits as the most elementary yet far-reaching method for devising coding and transmission schema. By the end of the 1950s engineers widely accepted Shannon as offering the most comprehensive scientific basis for a theory of information

Shannon’s text was also widely regarded a theoretical study of very limited practical application.[28] His demonstration of how precisely improved the coding of transmissions could forestall errors and save bandwidth could only be executed with extremely expensive digital computers available to encode and decode communications. The bottleneck, as it were, was instrumental, scriptural, and economic: The instruments necessary to execute these improved techniques of standard inscriptions were prohibitively expensive. Theoretical work on Shannon’s findings continued yet their widespread application only appeared in the 1980s when falling prices in computers made the development and use of sophisticated digital coding mechanisms economically viable.

Yet the line from telegraphic intelligence to digital information was neither direct nor predetermined. Norbert Wiener, who had received in Ph. D. in philosophy and studied with the likes of Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell, argued for situating information theories within a grand program of scientific and conceptual synthesis that he termed cybernetics.[29] He identified information with the development of an epochal conceptual entity that could halt the decay of the scientific disciplines into ethically barren and intellectual incoherent specializations.[30] The British physicist Donald MacKay worked in radar research during the war but informed his attempt to develop a theory of information with sources such as Wittgenstein and Calvinist theology.[31] During the late 1940s he elaborated a theory of information that sought to reunite the technical concerns of communication engineering with a more general theory of knowledge and scientific method. Despite these theories’ relative resistance to a narrow and technicist conception of information neither really offered a radical critique or alternative to the telegraphic reasoning. Both theories accepted the basic identification of information with technical instrumentation, graphical standardization, and economic standardization. In other words, their “alternatives” remained grounded in a communicative cosmology that had already appointed Shannon’s methods as the heir apparent to a modern theory of information.


[1] I thank Lisa Åkervall and Ross Etherton for their invaluable suggestions on this essay.

[2] See Rafael Capurro, Information: Ein Beitrag zur etymologischen und ideengeschichtlichen Begründung des Informationsbegriffs (Munich: Saur Verlag, 1978), esp. 55–67. This work offers the richest treatment of philosophical and scientific notions of information from antiquity to the present. For an excellent and brief introduction to the term, including an emphasis on the more juridical connotations of early information, see James Gleick, “The Information Palace,” NYRblog, December 8, 2010, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/dec/08/information-palace/.

[3] The most instructive and comprehensive accounts of the rise of a scientific definition of information are Friedrich-Wilhelm Hagemeyer, “Die Entstehung von Informationskonzepten in der Nachrichtentechnik” (Free University of Berlin, 1979); William Aspray, “The Scientific Conceptualization of Information,” Annals of the History of Computing 7, no. 2 (1985): 117–40; Jérôme Segal, Le Zéro et le Un: Histoire de la notion scientifique d’information au 20e siècle (France: Editions Syllepse, 2003); John Durham Peters, “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 12, no. 2 (July 1988): 9–23; and Sergio Verdú, “Fifty Years of Shannon Theory,” IEEE Transactions on Information Theory 44, no. 6 (1998): 2057–78.

[4] See Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “The Historiographic Conception of Information: A Critical Survey,” The IEEE Annals on the History of Computing 30, no. 1 (2008): 66–81.

[5] Ronald Kline discusses intersections between the rise of information theory and schools of information science are discussed in “What Is Information Theory a Theory Of? Boundary Work Among Scientists in the United States and Britain During the Cold War,” ed. W. Boyd Rayward and Mary Ellen Bowden, The History and Heritage of Scientific and Technical Information Systems: Proceedings of the 2002 Conference, Chemical Heritage Foundation (Medford, New Jersey: Information Today, 2004), 19–24; For an early invocation of the information age, see Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), 36. On the characteristics of an information society, see Daniel Bell, “The Social Framework of the Information Society,” in The Computer Age: A 20 Year View, ed. M. L. Dertoozos and J. Moses (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979), 500–549.

[6] Technical media or technische Medien is something of a term of art in germanophone media studies for communications defined by abstract coding systems that are automated and manipulated with relative autonomy from the human sensorium. Friedrich Kittler identifies the rise of organized, intensively deployed and exploited technical media with the rise of telegraphy. See the bilingual German/English account of this change in Friedrich Kittler, “Geschichte der Kommunikationsmedien,” in Kunst im Netz, ed. Jörg Huber and Alois Martin, 1993, 73–79.

[7] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 17. Tom Gunning discusses the significance of this passage in his forthcoming book, which he presented in part as “Inventing the Moving Image (and Forgetting it Again),” Bauhaus University-Weimar, June 2010. I thank Professor Gunning for informing my argument and analysis here.

[8] These usages and the definition of information come from the OED entry on information.

[9] The most in-depth analysis of this transformation, with a particular concern for the rise of information as a scientific and technological concept, is Bernhard Siegert, Passage des Digitalen: Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften 1500-1900 (Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose, 2003).

[10] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 69–70. Bold added.

[11] For more on information and Hume, see Peters, “Information,” 13. For a more systematic statement on signs and analogy during this period, and comments on Hume’s philosophy within this episteme, see Michel Foucault’s comments on “The Representation of the Sign” in The Order of Things, esp. 60 and 63.

[12] Foucault, The Order of Things, 55.

[13] On cultural techniques, see Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp, eds., Bild-Schrift-Zahl (Munich: Fink, 2008); Lorenz Engell and Bernhard Siegert, eds., Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung, no. 1 (2010); Thomas Macho and Christian Kassung, eds., Kulturtechniken der Synchronisation (Munich: Fink, 2013); and Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “After Kittler: On the Cultural Techniques of Recent German Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society 30, no. 6 (November 2013): 66–82.

[14] The most current and comprehensive account of how telegraphy transformed the situation of the sciences, with profound implications for theories of media, is Florian Sprenger, Medien des Immediaten: Elektrizität, Telegraphie, McLuhan (Berlin: Kadmos, 2012), 205–330. On electricity, electromagnetism, and telegraphy, with special reference to imperialism and nineteenth-century commerce, see M. Norton Wise, “Mediating Machines,” Science in Context 2, no. 1 (1988): 77–113; on metrology and telegraphy Simon Schaffer, “Late Victorian Metrology and Its Instrumentation: A Manufactory of Ohms,” in Invisible Connections: Instruments, Institutions, and Science, ed. Robert Bud and Susan Cozzens (Spie Optical Engineering Press, 1992), 23–56; on physiology and telegraphy, see Timothy Lenoir, “Helmholtz and the Materialities of Communication,” Osiris 9 (1994): 185–207; on spiritualism, electrical experimentation, and telegraphy, see Richard J. Noakes, “Telegraphy Is an Occult Art: Cromwell Fleetwood Varley and the Diffusion of Electricity to the Other World,” The British Journal for the History of Science 32, no. 4 (1999): 421–59; on telegraphy and the changing epistemology of the natural sciences, see Siegert, Passage des Digitalen: Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften 1500-1900, 334–336 and 359–367.

[15] Instruments and instrumentation have been a site of focused research in recent decades. See Don Ihde, Instrumental Realism: The Interface Between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Albert van Helden and Thomas L. Hankins, eds., Osiris 9 (1994); and Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman, Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[16] On the role of standardization in creating objects for organized scientific inquiry, see Joan H. Fujimura, “Crafting Science: Standardized Packages, Boundary Objects, and ‘Translation,’” in Science as Practice and Culture, ed. Andrew Pickering (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 168–211; and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, “Scrips and Scribbles,” MLN 118, no. 3 (April 1, 2003): 622–36. For discussions of how media take part in producing standardized traces, see Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 1–68.

[17] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: The Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University of Press, 2002), 32–60.

[18] R. Bond, The Handbook of the Telegraph, Being a Manual of Telegraphy, Telegraph Clerks’ Remembrancer, and Guide to Candidates for Employment in the Telegraph Service (London: Virtue Brothers & Co., 1862), 1.

[19] Ibid., 2.

[20] In fact, there were a variety of Morse codes and only gradually were they standardized into binary representational schemes. For a discussion of these codes and their relative efficiency, see E. N. Gilbert, “How Good Is Morse Code?,” Information and Control, no. 14 (1969): 559–65.

[21] Kate Maddalena and Jeremy Packer, “The Digital Body: Telegraphy as Discourse Network,” Theory, Culture & Society 32, no. 1 (2015).

[22] Thomas Macho notes that such conceptual belatedness is a hallmark of cultural techniques. See Thomas Macho, “Zeit und Zahl: Kalender- und Zeitrechnung als Kulturtechniken,” in Bild, Schrift, Zahl, ed. Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2008), 179.

[23] Ralph V. Hartley, “Transmission of Information,” Bell System Technical Journal, no. 7 (1928): 535–63. “The Early Days of Information Theory,” IEEE Transactions on Information Theory 19, no. 1 (1973): 3.

[24] Hartley, “Transmission of Information,” 538.

[25] Ibid., 542.

[26] Ibid., 536.

[27] Verdú, “Fifty Years of Shannon Theory,” 2058.

[28] See James L Massey, “Deep-Space Communications and Coding: A Marriage Made in Heaven,” in Advanced Methods for Satellite and Deep Space Communications, ed. Joachim Hagenauer (Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1992), 1–17.

[29] See Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948); and Norbert Wiener, “The Mathematical Theory of Communication [Review],” Physics Today, no. September (1950): 31–32.

[30] Norbert Wiener, “What Is Information Theory?,” I. R. E. Transactions on Information Theory, June 1956, 48.

[31] See Donald M. MacKay, Information, Mechanism and Meaning (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1969), 2–3; Donald MacKay, The Clockwork Image: A Christian Perspective on Science (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974); and Paul Helm, “The Contribution of Donald MacKay,” Evangel 7, no. 4 (1989): 11–13.

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