It is hardly news that the world is a flow of matter, energy, and information. It is a foundational notion of most of the sciences, and especially of ecology, which has exerted particularly significant influence on anthropological thinking. I mention this because I would like to call attention to what a theoretically sophisticated understanding of the relatively neglected third of these might offer anthropology.

I say neglected, but it really hasn't been. Those things falling under the umbrella of information are part and parcel of just about everything anthropologists write. Whenever we talk about meaning, symbols, learning, communication, knowledge, worldview, languages, ideational systems, even social relationships, we are talking about things having to do, in some capacity, with information. What I suggest has been neglected is an explicitly information theoretic perspective (though I remain open to correction on this matter!). Nevertheless, it must be admitted before going forward that this is a road fraught with difficulty and uncertainty, because information is still poorly understood.

Just what is information? There are in fact many different inter-related notions of information, what it is, what it means, and how to measure it. We have the thermodynamic notion of information (or entropy) of physical systems, Shannon's mathematical communication theory, or MCT, algorithmic information theory, and a variety of problematical notions of semantic information.

What are the connections between these, and what does it matter? Indeed, it is difficult to immediately see the connections between the entropy of a physical system (e.g. the thermodynamics of gas in a flask), the quantity of information conveyed by a signal over a telephone wire, the semantic information content of a sentence like "Jerry was frightened at the prospect of losing his pension.", the informational content of DNA, recipes, and computer programs, and the symbolic nature of holy communion or of the molimo. I do not pretend to have any final answers; in fact, it's an open area of contemporary research. But I think it's worth a look.

A few last words

I like to think of myself as belonging to anthropology's tribe, but my advanced training is not in anthropology, but in computer science, the science of information. I am in the middle of trying to finish my Masters thesis work in computer science, a task that has already taken far more time than it may be worth. In the future, I may dwell a lot on information, a topic at the heart of my thesis work. I hope that the good people here at the Open Anthropology Cooperative will find these discussions of sufficient interest to participate and comment, even if at times their connection to anthropology may seem tenuous. I will do my best to point out the connections where I see them. Those connections are, I hope, the ultimate justification of my research.

Finally, some of the work in information theory requires mathematical notation. Ning's blogging platform does not currently support LaTeX or many other advanced features. I put in a request to Ning that they support LaTeX equations, and they've responded that they think it a good idea and have forwarded the request to their engineers. So... we'll see what happens.

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Comment by John McCreery on December 16, 2009 at 6:14am
Could be true that Drupal would be better. I have, however, been associated with a non-profit organization that tried to start over from zero with Drupal. Over fifty thousand dollars later (the software is free; the developers aren't), the result is still crap. I am more inclined myself to go with stuff that works. The time, grief and money required to be on the bleeding edge is too much.
Comment by Jacob Lee on December 16, 2009 at 3:53am
Thanks John.

My ticket to have LaTeX equations supported here on Ning was closed without explanation, and that particular functionality does not seem to have been implemented.

I'm not terribly impressed with Ning's platform. It does make things easy for OAC of course (not the least of these, not having to pay for hosting, domain names, and support). I'm pretty sure that a site better attuned to OAC's interests can be made using Drupal though.
Comment by John McCreery on December 7, 2009 at 9:59am
Go for it! I, for one, will be waiting eagerly to be informed by what you come up with.


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