Content with Content

 

[The following essay is adapted from a talk given at the University of California San Diego on November 20, 2000, to a group of computer science faculty and graduate students.]

As a substitute for the traditional opening joke, designed to put you at your ease while I become accustomed to the acoustics, I would like to call attention to the title of my talk. I have deliberately avoided speaking it aloud in order to preserve an ambiguity. I hope you have noticed and wondered about it. I hope you have thought to yourselves, "Well, he might mean it to be conTENT with content, meaning to imply some sort of satisfaction to be had in the information game." And then perhaps you thought "Say, that could be a good topic! I'll give him a break and see how it turns out."

Alternatively, you may have thought "He probably means CONtent with CONtent, perhaps meaning something about real content or maybe metacontent." And then you will have thought "Say, that could be good. I'll give him a break and see."

So my first point, apart from simply pointing to an instance where the demands of the information exceed the capacity of the particular channel, is that I hope you'll give a mere content person, a non-technical type, a break. I'll try to earn it.

One major theme of this series of talks and of the grant project with which it is associated, is "wireless." Wireless is the next big thing, or maybe the biggest big thing. They may have to shoot the Iridium satellites down, but nonetheless wireless is where it's all going. Hands up, please, PDA owners.

Let me sketch out a picture of a society in rapid transition and see if it seems familiar to you. As a consequence of a certain invention, many new companies are organized, shares of stock are sold, fortunes are made; the technology involved progresses rapidly; a whole new national infrastructure is built; and new ways of conducting both business and private life emerge. News of important events is distributed faster and more widely than ever before. Pundits speak of a brave new age, unlike anything known in the past, with an unlimited potential for growth and development. Recognize the scene? It's what happened with the invention of the telegraph.

It's useful to remind ourselves that once upon a time, hardly more than 150 years ago, it was "wired" that was the great new thing, and I don't mean that monthly compendium of utterly unintelligible advertising published up north of here. Presumably that magazine will shortly change its name to Unwired. The telegraph was the first great means of instant communication over significant distances, invented by, of all things, a painter. In a scene that was once a part of every American child's history lessons, a group gathered in the chamber of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in May of 1844 and listened as a famous message was tapped out to Baltimore. The message was "What hath God wrought!" and note, please, that it doesn't end in a question mark but with an exclamation point.

As a child reading my American history textbook and looking at an engraving depicting the scene, I never thought to wonder what those words might mean. I'm not sure to this day. Is God being credited with the invention? Is He being set up to take the blame for some of the consequences? I don't know. It is not recorded that anyone among those present that day expressed any such puzzlement. Evidently they understood what was meant - either that, or they all possessed sufficient sense of the occasion to keep their doubts to themselves.

It must have seemed miraculous to some, this sending of messages over great distances through little strands of metal. It was certainly the talk of the nation and of the world. One presidential candidate in the 1852 election reportedly claimed credit for having invented it. There was a downside, of course. The historical record is also silent on the matter of when the first truly stupid message was sent by wire, though no one will doubt that it was early on, or that innumerable similar ones soon followed. And there were skeptics. In 1854 one professional gadfly by the name of Henry David Thoreau expressed his doubts thus:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

I myself stand with Thoreau on this point. I used to ride a commuter train twice a day, five days a week, and in my official role of paying customer I was obliged to overhear one-half of an extremely large number of cell-phone conversations. I can tell you, "nothing important to communicate" in fact overstates the case. But back to Thoreau. Note that he does not deny that something worthwhile might conceivably pass along that wire between the two farthest-flung points in the Union. He merely wonders if it is, in fact, a given; and in doing so he implicitly denies the assumption that even if there is nothing important to communicate now, stringing a wire will make it so. Like all gadflies, Thoreau was content to ask the inconvenient question, the one that is not asked in polite society.

So it is a comfort to me to know that I am not now obliged to treat you as polite society, which is to say a kind of society in which the observance of convention trumps fact. In this room, in this company, surely, it is the facts that rule.

What are some germane facts, then? One is that we live - that we have been living for the past 5 or 10 or 15 years, depending on which commentator you listen to and how tech-savvy he or she is or wishes to appear - in the Information Age. This must be a fact, because it's been in all the papers and on TV and a lot of really rich people are saying that it is so. You may even believe it yourselves.

Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that this is indeed the Information Age. So, what does that mean? Does it mean that we humans, or some one among us, suddenly discovered a hitherto unrecognized substance, namely information, and that it proved superior to all previously known substances and so we're now making weapons and kitchenware out of it? In other words, is this like the Bronze Age?

Do we imagine that folks in the Bronze Age gathered at trade shows to hear the latest buzz about bronze? That they chattered endlessly about how they were now "into" bronze and asked one another "Are you bronzed yet?" And did they work 24/7 trying to be first to develop Bronze 2.0, now known as brass? Maybe not.

A second fact commonly cited nowadays is that, given that this is the Information Age, we humans have undergone some sort of sudden revolution in the terms of our existence. What had historically been scarce is now plentiful. What had been costly is now free, or nearly so. What was hidden is now seen. Paradise is Regained, or built anew, depending on your theology, and all out of sand and grad students.

In this view of things, information is taken to be identical with knowledge. And knowledge, as Francis Bacon taught us, is power. It's a simple syllogism, then, and it yields that popular shibboleth of contemporary techno-politics, "empowerment." What indeed hath God wrought? Now it's a question.

A third fact, which is perhaps already an ex-fact owing to certain recent developments in the stock market, is that Content is King. It was an ugly phrase at the best of times, though it felt pretty nice for a while there. Those of us who learned, or tried to learn, to think of our work-product as "content" were invited to pretend that we were at last, and in all justice, at the forefront of human progress. That notion lasted altogether a few weeks, until the first thousand or so porn sites had sprung up on the Web.

So - the Information Age; information wants to be free; content is king. What did any of that mean? Most essentially, what sort of stuff is this "information," that it has such transforming power?

If we look at the way the word is actually used in natural speech and in writing - in other words, if we look at the word "information" as a lexicographer does, and try to infer its meaning from a large sample of the contexts in which it appears - we discover another ambiguity. Or rather, we discover an equivocality that can produce ambiguity, and not only ambiguity but confusion and deception.

Here is some information:

 

1101011000110111010011101000010111011011011101001010001000011011110010100110 0101010010011010010110011001011010011010100101010110101011010100110101001100 1001000010101100101011100101010111001010110101010100110011101001000101001010 0010010100111110100100101010010111010110010010101110101000100001010101010101 1001101101000001101010100101010100101101110101010101001101010101010001010111

 

This is a standard mode of representation of information, and we all recognize it as such, though we can't tell much else about it.

Here is some information, too:

This we not only recognize as to genus, we can also identify the species, namely, factual statement in a written form of a natural language.

And thus we see two quite different, quite distinct kinds of things being labeled with the same word, "information." This is a good time to call upon my friends at Merriam-Webster, who really are lexicographers, to clarify. From their dictionary, here is one sense of the word "information":

 

  • knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction

 

In other words, the word "information is sometimes simply a synonym for "knowledge."

And here, slightly abridged, is the other:

 

  • the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences

 

Here, information is an attribute, an aspect of something - a "sequence" - in the world. When this sequence admits of alternative forms, any given variant is, or contains, "information."

We recognize at once that the first sense is the everyday, conversational meaning of "information." It's the one that all of us, even so-called "information specialists," employ when speaking to the family, the neighbor, the guy at the hardware store. For 99%-plus of the population, it's the only meaning of the word, and for the other under-1% it's the meaning at least half the time. I think that bears repeating: For 99%-plus of the population, it's the only meaning; and for the rest, it's the relevant meaning at least half the time.

The second sense is a technical one with very specific application in very strictly defined spheres of thought and activity. You understand it better than I can. I just call it the "engineering definition." My best, nonmathematical approximation of this meaning goes something like this: Information is a measure of how surprised you are by the next bit. Giggle if you must, but it will have to serve for now.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the art and craft of lexicography, I must explain that my friends at Merriam-Webster, like their British colleagues at the Oxford English Dictionary, are not in charge of the English language. They do not legislate the meanings of words. They do not rule on which meanings are correct, or acceptable, and which are not. They simply observe how words are actually used and report their findings. So when they report these two quite distinct senses of the word "information," they are reporting on a phenomenon observed in the world. This empirical basis for dictionary definitions leaves no place for anyone to argue that there shouldn't be two senses, or that the two are somehow actually the same.

At this point I should like to take a detour into the woods. Observe this bit of art.

You are charmed by this na´ve rendition of a tree, are you not? Now observe this one.

You will note that the artist has taken liberties with realism and has suggested, by these concentric arcs apparently hanging in empty space, that something has been emitted by the event depicted. By now you have recognized this as a visualization of the old riddle "If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

The alternative, that there is someone present, is shown in this third element in the sequence.

What is the answer to this age-old conundrum? In short, it's "No." In the absence of someone to hear, the tree doesn't make a sound.

Here's the explanation. The falling tree certainly causes strong trains of compression waves in the surrounding air. These were indicated by those concentric arcs in the second picture. But compression waves in air are just that, and only that. They are not sound. Sound is a mode of perception that humans and a great many other animal species embody. Certain anatomical structures referred to as receptors respond to the mechanical energy carried by those compression waves, and that response, through a complex process of transduction and signal processing, produces a perception of the kind we call "sound."

This is not to say that we don't sometimes use the word "sound" to refer to those waves in the air, irrespective of whether someone is listening. We do that often, and in most instances it is not only harmless to do so, it is also efficient and conventional, and it would sound odd if we did not. It's an example of the figure of speech called metonymy, calling a thing by the name of something else with which it is closely associated - like referring to the executive branch of the government as "the White House" or mentioning, just casually, that you spent last evening reading Shakespeare. Such figures are important for effective communication, for they allow us to replace abstractions with vivid, concrete images. But there come times when it is important to recognize figures of speech for what they are and to resume using words precisely, so that there is no mistaking what we mean.

By the way, I can use this same method to solve that other deep question that has come down to us from antiquity, namely, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? A little consideration of the question will show that implied within it is some working definition of "chicken." From an evolutionary point of view, we can say that some particular individual fowl at some instant of history was the first to embody all the characteristics of the chicken - provided we have exhaustively listed all those characteristics, that is, defined "chicken." That first chicken's parent lacked, let us say, one such characteristic, which some random mutation then produced in the offspring. What remains, then, is to agree on yet another definition: namely, "chicken egg." Is a chicken egg an egg laid by a chicken, or is it an egg from which a chicken hatches? If the former, the chicken necessarily came first; if the latter, the egg.

This is not simply wordplay. Clear, precise, and agreed upon definitions are an essential ingredient of knowledge. Without them, discussion merely circles around and around and frustrates all involved.

If you will permit me a digression within this digression, I want to look closer at this matter of deciding what is a chicken. I want to do this because what really goes on is precisely the opposite of what you probably believe. Suppose you are Adam, or Eve, and you are in the process of exercising a power devolved upon you from above, namely the naming of names. All around you are myriad as-yet-unnamed objects, in all shapes and colors and sizes. Some move about; some sway in the wind; some just sit there. Some you can eat; most not. You get to name them. You somehow understand that this does not mean bestowing individual tags like "Adam" or "Eve" or "Spot" but category labels - labels that apply not just to one individual but to all others like it.

A chicken attracts your attention. Of course, it is not a chicken, yet. It is just something that attracts your attention. Perhaps it wakes you at dawn. Perhaps you have accidentally discovered the delightful combination of egg and heat. Perhaps you have some prescient notion that one day not only will you like to eat this thing but that the pleasing flavor will become the universal default comparison for every weird food in the world.

Whatever your motive, you note the thing. Please understand that last sentence. Without a motive, without some ground for interest, you would not note the thing. So it is noted. The fact that it is generally seen in company with many others like itself supports your intuition that this is a kind of thing worthy of a name. And so you decide to name it "chicken."

A plausible sort of Just So story like this, leaving aside the mythology, captures our na´ve sense of how language works. There are kinds of things in the world; we recognize them; we name them. In fact, it is not so. Imagine now that you are one of Adam's and Eve's descendants, enough generations along that you can be a natural scientist, and you have discovered some new entities, perhaps on a distant continent, that strongly resemble chickens but differ in certain ways. The question is, are they chickens or are they not? In order to decide, you need a diagnostic test for chicken-ness. You need a list of those characteristics that entities must have in order to be considered for chickenhood, as well perhaps as a list of other characteristics, any one of which denies that status. Armed with such lists you can divide all birds, indeed all creation, into two categories, chickens and not-chickens.

The more you study the new objects, the more some of them resemble chickens as you have known them, yet the more minor differences emerge, differences you have to account for somehow; hence, you are continually adding to both lists. How do you know when to stop? When have you reached a sufficiently detailed and complete description of "chicken"?

Suddenly, or gradually, if you are of a reflective bent, you realize that you are not actually engaged in discovering what it is that makes a chicken. Rather, you are engaged in deciding, in defining - that is, setting limits to -- what it is that you are willing to admit is a chicken. A chicken is what you say it is. If it suffices for your purposes to declare all birds chickens, then so be it. On the other hand, if it is necessary that only the red ones be chickens, that, too, is yours to decide. It only bears keeping in mind that, if you are not Adam or Eve establishing the primordial names of things, then communicating clearly with other humans will likely be among your purposes to be considered. At any point you are entitled to say, "This completes the list. Anything that fits this description henceforward is a chicken." Whatever it is that makes it important to you to be able to distinguish a particular set of objects from all others and to call that set "chickens" is in your hands and, more to the point, in your head.

This concludes the digression-within-a-digression and also the original digression. Let's now return briefly to our friends the lexicographers just to note that what they are doing is not at all the same as what either Adam or his distant offspring the scientist was doing. The lexicographer does not define objects or categories; he only says what seems to be intended by particular words when they are used. What they tell us is a posteriori, after-the-fact, inferred. They report on social facts, not physical ones. So I still want to know what "information" is, in the "is" sense of is.

How many of you have read "Robinson Crusoe"? Even if you haven't, you know that it's a story about a sailor who is shipwrecked on an island. He manages to survive, to create for himself a new solitary way of life, and eventually he even gets used to it, as much as an innately social creature can. Then one day, after years and years of solitude, something happens. In his own words:

It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition: I listened, I looked round me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground, to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of a foot: how it came thither I know not, nor could I in the least imagine.

Perhaps you can imagine Crusoe's state of mind. So far as he has known for over ten years, his island is deserted. Never has he seen any sign of human life until now. Now here is this apparent footprint. He wonders seriously whether it might be not a real footprint at all but a trick of the Devil's to confound his mind. As we know from the story, it turns out that there is another person on the island, the native who comes to be known as Friday.

Here's a picture like what Crusoe saw.

What we see is various ridges, depressions, and other forms in sand. Now here is another picture of sand.

How would we describe the difference between the two? To make this easier, here they are side by side.

How many say that the difference is that this one exhibits a pattern, while this other one does not? Good. Now let's think about what you mean by "pattern." You would agree that in either of these fields there is a finite number of grains of sand. Large, very large, but finite. And that therefore there is a finite number of possible arrangements of those grains. Again, very, very large, but finite. This is one such arrangement; this is another. Each is a possible state of the sand in the field. Each is a point in the "arrangement space." Statistically there is nothing to distinguish between them. Each is, if you insist upon using the word, a particular pattern of sand grains. So why do you distinguish between them? Is it that you don't believe that this pattern could possibly arise by natural causes? Surely it could. It's highly improbable, but possible. This other one is also improbable. Any given arrangement is equally improbable. So why do you think of them, and not only that but see them, differently?

I'll tell you. You see this one differently because this particular pattern, unlike the other one and unlike the very large majority of all possible patterns, matches something in your brain. Again in common language, this pattern seems to you, as it did to Robinson Crusoe, meaningful. And the meaning is - here was a human being. By contrast, this other pattern - in its particularity equally improbable -- corresponds to nothing in particular in your brain and so it elicits no particular response.

We have a brain that, along with its sensory apparatus, is very good at perceiving patterns and matching them. In fact, to a large extent, that seems to be what brains are for. But not every pattern, and not just any pattern. Only certain ones. Which ones? The ones that are associated with things or circumstances of interest or importance to us as biological or social or intellectual beings - or, in short, those that are meaningful. Arrangements that do not interest us we tend either not to see at all or to dismiss as random or, yes, meaningless.

Here's a picture of a common street sign.

In ordinary language, we would say that it conveys information. You look at it, decode the markings, and know that you are expected to behave in certain ways in this place and that there might be a penalty to pay if you do not. All clear? I chose this particular sign, by the way, in order to broaden the cultural experience of you native Southern Californians. If any of you have moved here from less benign climates, this may provide a moment of nostalgia, or remind you why you moved.

Here's another street sign.

I took this photo two blocks from my house, at the intersection of two quiet residential streets. The two panels with words on them are clear enough, given our experience of street signs. But what is that arrow about? I can tell you, and you can take my word for it, that there's nothing noteworthy down there. This street comes to a T-junction a block away. I've wondered about this for years. No one I've asked in my neighborhood knows what that sign means. But we all assume it means something. Why? Because it has the look of a meaningful signal - it matches a general pattern we have of what signs look like - even though we lack the means to decode it. We infer from its form an intention to convey something, though evidently to someone else.

You've probably noticed various markings - arrows, numbers, and so forth - spray painted on roads and sidewalks where construction or road repair is going on. These, too, we immediately identify as informative signs, even though we don't know what they mean. Someone is evidently sending a signal to someone else, and while we recognize the nature of the event we are excluded from its actual significance.

I once found an odd variation on this situation, one in which, in effect, a signal is sent in such a way as to be unavailable to the intended receiver. It's this safety card from an airplane. The message is for anyone sitting in an exit row, and it begins "If you cannot read this card, please inform a flight attendant." Never mind.

One final demonstration, which I hope will be persuasive. Here is a picture rather like the one we began with.

 

1010101010101

 

When we see this we immediately interpret these markings as being the signs we know as "ones" and "zeroes." We are, moreover, strongly inclined to assume that together they make up some sort of unit, a coherent whole, that they have been arranged in this way by someone with the intention of representing something, and that they therefore constitute information of some sort. Fair enough. What is the message? You don't know. You lack some key to the secret.

Suppose I tell you that this string of symbols is a binary representation of a natural number. Those of you who are quick at mental math may already have calculated the decimal equivalent. The rest are content to accept this as a plausible explanation for these marks.

Suppose now that I tell you that I was lying about a binary number. If it were true, by the way, the decimal equivalent would have been 5,461. But it's not true. Instead, I tell you now that this string of symbols represents the outcomes of successive flips of a coin. This is an experimental situation with which you are familiar from statistics. You immediately understand. In each trial, either outcome is possible; each actual outcome, properly coded, is written down. Each digit represents a bit of information, in the engineering sense we saw before of distinguishing between alternatives. But you didn't see that until I gave you the key. In fact, for a while you believed something quite different. Without some key, these are just marks, about which admittedly you can make some assumptions based on long experience. But they're only assumptions. With a key you understand the full situation, don't you? Unless, of course, the key you have is not really the key. Either way, the marks remain unchanged throughout.

Now suppose I tell you that I was lying about the coin flips. There is no natural number and there is no coin . Rather, these marks really represent successive positions of a light switch. What now? Perhaps you think I've again merely substituted one interpretive key for another. But please see two important things: First, again, the marks are still unchanged. They just sit there, unchanging and inert. They may have been set down intentionally, as you assume; they may be works of the Devil, as Crusoe briefly suspected; or they may be products of some mindless natural process. Second, the new key I've suggested, the light-switch story, is not equivalent to coin flips. The light switch is constrained to just two possible positions, and those must, must occur alternately. So for any given locus in this series, the next bit is not in doubt. Therefore, by the engineering definition, this string, so interpreted, contains no information at all.

So what information does this string contain? Or does it contain information at all? How can its state, its content, depend on what is in my mind, or in yours? It can't unless you believe in action at a distance, which has been outlawed in physics since the 17th century, or in sympathetic magic.

The answer - my answer, anyway - is that it does not contain any information at all, under any circumstances. No string of characters, no arrangement of objects, no message, no sign, no signal does. Information has no physical existence. What exists are myriad arrangements of objects and energy in the world, and brains that are wired to detect and respond to certain patterns in them. The arrangements in the world probably follow some basic statistical laws, but these laws are ignored by purposive creatures like us who learn how to use certain kinds of arrangements for their own purpose, that is, to symbolize meaning.

Thus: I wish to communicate to you some number. I choose a certain scheme of representation, namely binary digits. I make marks accordingly. The marks embody nothing. They are just marks. But because your brain and mine are wired and have experienced the world in similar ways, the pattern I have created with these marks evokes an appropriate response in you - provided additionally that I give you some clue as to the kind of pattern it is. Without that clue you may entertain various guesses but you can't confidently alight upon the intended meaning. By the same token, should the pattern arise spontaneously in the world, by purely natural causes, or should it be produced accidentally by me in the course of some unrelated activity, it can evoke a response in you even though it was not intended to do so.

Hence I conclude that information is not put in, as is usually said to be the case; nor is it sent; nor is it somehow detected or extracted. It has no being whatever, out there in the world.

In short, information is a mode of perception, just as is sound, just as is color. There is no sound in nature; sound is how we humans perceive compression waves in air. There is no color in nature; color is how we humans perceive wavelength in electromagnetic radiation. There is no information in nature; information is how we humans perceive patterns. The word "information" as it is used in "information science" - to designate some substance, some aspect of substance, in the physical world - is a figure of speech, another metonymy. It lets us replace a dull abstraction - some matter of statistics - with a more familiar and seemingly real name. It's a useful figure, of course, as figures of speech usually are - else we would not have them - but it is important for us shamans who pretend to work with it in various ways to understand it for what it is.

One class of people seem to have grasped this point, however subconsciously. These are the folks who produce such expressions as "Content is King" and "content provider." "Content provider"! Think about what a large and diverse range of activities and skills that covers. Essayists, editors, composers, painters, saxophone players, poets, filmmakers, singers, reporters, lithographers, animators - on and on. And think of how little thought goes into lumping them all together like this.

Here is some content:

 

ipscing elit, sed diam nonumy eiusmod orem ipsum dolor sit ametandur consectetur minimim veniami quis nostrud exer citationem lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. magna aliquam erat voluptatis possit duo conteud notiner si effecerit ut loren ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetus eiusmod tempor et INCIDUNT UT LABORE ET M IPSICING ELIT, SED DIAM CUM NONOMY EIUSMOD PER LOREN IPSUM DOLOR SIT AMET. consectetur ad rem fontes minimim veniami quis nostrud et regis mensam fornamesecitur ipse ille nos apparabuntur sunt florilegis hoc melioris

 

You've not likely seen this before. It's called body type or dummy type or, more colorfully, greek type. It's not really Greek, of course, which uses a different alphabet. Rather, it's Greek in the sense of "It's Greek to me." It's usually Latin or a mixture of Latin and English, but in any language it's gibberish. Sheets of this stuff, in various typefaces and sizes, used to be sold to book designers, typographers, and the art departments of publishing houses. In preliminary designs for a new book or magazine, it was used to indicate where blocks of type would occur on a page and roughly how it would look. Of course the designers and artists could have used blocks of real text to accomplish the same thing, but it was found that people tend to start reading real text, even if only to see what it's about. It turned out to be far more effective to use something that does not distract the attention of the people who are supposed to be judging the design. Its function, in short, was to occupy space without meaning anything.

And that is precisely the meaning of "content" in this wired/wireless, networked, 56K/T3 world. "Content" is the ultimate commodity, the ultimate fungible good. It's the stuff we talk about when we talk about talking; it's the stuff we write about when we write about writing stuff; and above all, it's the stuff we talk about storing, processing, and transmitting when we talk about doing those things. Oddly, in light of what we have said about information, content is quite real. It takes up space. You can measure it, and in fact the whole point is that you must measure it. I want, for example, 24 lines by 15 picas of greek type, 9 point on 11-point leading. Any book designer or layout artist in the world knows immediately what that is and how to do it and what it would look like. You write a program that requires that some precise number of bits occur at some precise location, and you do it so that later some precise number of terabytes somewhere else will undergo some precisely defined procedure. Wherever you find it, "content" will be ladled out by the pint, by the pound, by the yard, or by the megabyte.

Marketers talk a lot about "content." As between "content" and "information," they prefer "content by a wide margin, two syllables to four.

Of course, people who simply talk and listen, or write and read, or sing and hear, do not speak of content. They speak of - or even in -- prose and verse and of song and dance and of fact and fancy. And when they speak of information it is not in the engineering sense. They tend to speak in terms of "information I need," or "information I can trust" or just "answers to my questions." And what they mean is meaning, something suited to human means and purposes. What they mean is knowledge.

Remember this slide, originally proposed as an example of "information" in the ordinary sense of "knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction"?

Is it even that? I tell you now that it isn't because it lacks some further quality that is talked about all too seldom in the context of "information" and practically never in the context of "content." That quality is truth. This arrangement of marks, decodable and intelligible as it seems to be, and meaningful as it apparently is, is nonetheless and shamefully false. That is to say, the response it evokes in the reader fails to correspond to what is actually the case out in the world. I don't propose just now to go any deeper into a philosophical discussion of the meaning of Truth. I will offer only this practical advice: some purportedly factual statements are correct, and some are not; the latter are to be avoided. As for the statement about planets and their moons, here's what an editor would do to it to correct it.

Our friend Thoreau said "It takes two to speak the truth - one to speak, and another to hear." This captures nicely the notion that what is really happening in communication happens in two brains and not somewhere in the middle. It also supplies ample foundation for the much later, and rather less poetic, formulation "garbage in, garbage out." For it takes two also to speak rubbish - one uninformed but firmly opinionated dolt to jabber away, and a weak-minded one to accept whatever the first one says.

One of my first experiences of Usenet, though an indirect one, was profoundly instructive. Sometime around 1993 or '4 a librarian friend happened upon an exchange in some group or other and sent it to me. It went something like this:

  • Cool early-adopter netperson number 1: "It says in my Britannica that the Library of Congress was burned in 1814."

This is, by the way, a factual statement, and it is also true.

  • Even more cool, even-earlier-adopted netperson number 2: "Oh, that's not true. Britannica's wrong."
  • Chastened, but still-earlier-than-you-on-the-net person number 1: "Really? Say, thanks for setting me straight."

And so, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, that empowering and radically democratic information tool of the typing classes, our friend No. 1 has given up truth in exchange for falsehood, traded in light for darkness, and he feels well served into the bargain. A century and a half ago this required great lengths of copper wire, suitably hung from hundreds of tall poles, and properly insulated. Now, with the technological progress of the last few years, this colloquy would be accomplished wireless. Think of that! Wireless! Most likely at least one of the participants would be sitting in a train right behind me. What hath we all wrought?

So much for all those courses in critical thinking. Hence my conviction of the overwhelming importance of focusing on what goes on in the two brains at either end of the information transaction. This transaction is so complex, so much can go wrong, so much so often does go wrong. The "knowledge" that Webster talks about unfortunately does not come with a Good Headkeeping seal of approval. Knowledge, for all of us poor mortals, is usually simply whatever is in our heads Unless we have trained ourselves to think carefully, critically, and often, whatever is in our heads is, by virtue of location, true. You just can't know falsehood. Thanks to that oddity in brain function, we "know" some pretty absurd things sometimes, and we hold onto them pretty tightly because the evidence of absurdity is always in someone else's head, tucked neatly and conveniently out of our sight. Whatever you think you know carries everything before it, even if what you think you know is that Elvis is currently living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The "information," and the machinery that brings it to us, which we might want to blame for putting that notion in your head, is a far less serious problem than the fact that your head was so receptive to it.

I hope you will process that information thoughtfully.

© 2000 by Robert McHenry