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Information, Uncertainty, and Meaning

The field of “information theory” or “communications theory” has as its core concept the idea of the transmission of information as the “reduction of uncertainty” about possible states of the source. The definition is very mathematical and involves very specific concepts of “message,” “encoding,” and the characteristics of the channel of transmission. Even though the formalization is in very mechanistic communications theory terms, the idea of reduction of uncertainty is a powerful tool for describing many information and transmission related phenomena. But there are also other common-use conceptions of information which, at least on the surface, appear unrelated to the communications definition. We often speak of objects as “containing information,” as if it were a kind of liquid which could be poured into a book-shaped container by the author and wrung out drop by drop as the reader pages through it. It may be that speaking of information as if it were a substance is simply a convenient short-hand which makes it possible to avoid the headaches and convolutions necessary to describe information as a time-based communicative process. But it is also true that the classic (Shannon, 1948) definition could simply be too rigid to express the complex shifting semantic meaning systems employed by humans in the processes of perception and communication.

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Humans, Bias, and Communication Phenomena

Even if the specifics of the processes of coding meaning and information in intentional (or unintentional) communication are not fully understood, some of the results may be visible on a social level. If individuals have exchanged information, there might be a convergence in the meanings they associate with certain signs or actions. There my be an increased tendency to see things from each other’s perspective. Through conversation they establish a common context, a dictionary of shared words, and a collection of common connotations and references which grows with each interaction. In Eco’s terms, the “semantic trees” exchange elements; the possible meanings attached to the symbolic referents they employ become more similar. In a sense, a micro-language is developed, a subculture between the interactants, a set of expectations and conventions. If it were possible to attach some metric to the degree of meaning convergence, this might be a usable measure of information transfer.

Fig. 7 Diagram shows a summary of differences in mean semantic loadings of terms for English (star) and Japanese (circle) speakers. In this spatial representation, emotion terms that are judged as more similar (by a method similar to Osgood’s) are closer to each other than terms that are judged less similar. The dimensions of the diagram are from a Principal Component Analysis. Dimension 1 appears to correspond to what Osgood referred to as the Evaluative Factor (good-bad, pleasant-unpleasant, positive-negative) and Dimension 2 appears related to his Activity Factor (fast-slow, active-passive, excitable-calm). (copied without permission form Romney et. al. 1999)

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Networks and Social Structure

Social relations tend to have an amorphous and ephemeral quality, making the term “social structure” at times seem like an oxymoron. Yet it is clear that there are also reoccurring patterns in individuals’ social contacts, and both people and organizations often describe the patterns in terms of fixed relationships. The abstract ties of extended family lineages, social support networks, organized webs of informants, and hierarchical political organizations are frequently spoken of as structures or networks – sets of relations between individuals which may partially predict or explain their behavior. It is often useful to conceptualize these patterns of interaction, friendship, or aid as formal “webs” or “networks” in order to visualize them more completely, compare them, and analyze their properties. A formal network description usually involves delineation of the ties or connections which interrelate a group of individual actors according to some criteria. (Figure 11)

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Dynamics of Conformity and Association

In the previous sections I’ve made some speculative predictions, both at the level of the individual or dyad and also at the level of groups, about the dynamics of information which is socially transmitted. One thing which has become apparent to me as I become more familiar with decentralized systems and emergent behavior is that it is extremely difficult to guess what the system’s global performance will be, even when the rules of the components are fully understood. It might seem that many of the statements I’ve made about the properties of social networks and information transmission imply dynamics which would lead simply to a general homogenous mixtures of transmitted culture. Yet there are many real-life experiences of social structure and transmission where this is not the case. How could simple transmission rules create complex patterns? What are the potential impacts of cultural transmission for the creation and modification of social groups? What classes of processes might drive group formation and dissolution, and how does the presence of groups in social structure affect transmission and population-level properties?

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Models and Definitions

All networks can be represented solely in terms of the connections between their elements, assuming that whatever combination of factors making people more or less likely to associate with each other is accounted for by the distribution of those associations that actually form. … The likelihood of a new connection being created is determined, to some variable extent, by the already existing patterns of connections. (Watts, 1999)

Because the actual functions governing the when, where, and amount of information transmission are so complex and context dependent, there are a great number of dimensions for conceptualization, experimentation, and analysis. I’ve already mentioned some previous work involving the effects of status and trust on transmission. There are numerous other possibilities to examine: power, transactional exchanges, sex differences, etc. As the problem is so multidimensional, it is difficult to ascertain which perspective would provide the most informative perspective from which to view the data. And of course which variables are relevant also depends on what scale the phenomena are examined and explanation is desired.

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Bennnington Social Network Study

At the same time that I’ve been doing the literature research for this project, I’ve also been conducting a short term longitudinal study of social and informational networks as they develop among the entering first-year students of the Class of ’04 and the rest of the Bennington College community. I had several reasons for wanting to do this. Throughout this work I have been discussing and suggesting conceptual frameworks for thinking about information in social networks. My hope was that doing this kind of study might give me some real data for comparison – a qualitative check on how well theory actually describes what is going on. Ideally a network study of the campus might give me a baseline idea of the social structure of Bennington which could be built upon in future work. At the very least, attempting to construct and implement a study would teach me a great deal about methodologies and the complicating factors which will inevitably crop up when dealing with theory and data in the real world.

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Thesis Conclusion

This paper began with an brief description of my experience in the complex group dynamics of a political protest in Washington D.C. I chose to open with that topic because the bulk of the discussion I have presented is fairly academic and abstract. I wanted to provide a real world example of why this sort of quasi-philosophical hair splitting is relevant to everyday life and real problems. I believe that a better understanding of communication and cultural processes could have important real world applications, especially as this is a period in which the modes of media, and the associated power implications, are somewhat in transition. I also feel that it is important to keep the pragmatic elements of a realistic setting salient as a reference point for the more academic discussion: how does one decide what course of action to take in a confused and possibly dangerous setting? My hunch is that we look around to see what others are doing, ask people who may be in the same situation, try to recollect what we have seen or heard of others doing in the past, or try our luck with constructing a response based on our knowledge of the world and how it works. This set of basic “common sense” knowledge is one of the crucial aspects of culture.

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A Proto-Blog

Back in the dark ages before CMS, I tried to move the notes from a thesis project into an online form. It didn’t work very well, but I think some of the texts and comments are still interesting.

This site is an experiment. I’m starting research for a thesis on the Transmission of Information in Social Networks and the Environment. I’m hoping that this website will become an integral part of the research by providing a location for discussion, commentary and criticism. Ideally it will augment the verbal discussions I have with people by creating a written record of discussion and the drafting of ideas.

screen shot of skye's proto-blog

Video Tracking Project

Trails in Newman CourtIn May 1999, I took architecture/sculpture course titled “Idiosyncratic Apparatus” (Sue Reese and Donald Sherifkin). I was interested in visualizing the paths traced out by individuals as they moved through spaces. I wanted to make the architectural concept of the “program of circulation” concrete and measurable. I was also curious what might be revealed about the social psychology of individual interaction if there was a methodology for precisely recording the positions and velocities of individuals in relation to each-other and the environment they were moving through.
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