The Information of Meaning

CogS 4350
Winter, 2008 - M,W,Th 1:00-4:00

     Dr. Tom Carter
     Office: PSB 287a
     Phone: 667-3175

  • Digital Culture, by Charlie Gere. Published by Reaktion Books, Ltd. ISBN 1-861-89143-1
  • An Introduction to Information Theory, 2nd revised edition, by John R. Pierce. Published by Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-24061-4
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Published by Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-37926-7
  • The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers. Published by Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-097500-8

General Introduction: This course is part of our GE cluster, Humans in the Information Age. The course will use the contemporary theory of information as a context and lens for exploring examples from information technologies, biology/genetics, language/linguistics, cognition/artificial intelligence, philosophy, and the arts.

Purpose of the course and learning objectives: The primary purpose of the course is to develop a general understanding of the foundations of the contemporary theory of information, and to develop from there to applications and issues in various fields. The course will begin with a broad examination of information and information technologies in today's culture. From there we will move to Shannon's basic model of communication channels and related theoretical tools. We will develop a general understanding of the model, and see how the theory can be applied in a variety of fields. We will explore applications of these ideas to a variety of disciplines, including biology/genetics, language/linguistics, cognition/artificial intelligence, philosophy, psychology, scientific methodology, and the arts, with a particular emphasis on literature. We will explore the varieties of approaches to information and meaning across different cultures in various modes of communication, such as differences in languages and the arts, including visual arts and music, and symbolic representations and meaning. Students will be responsible for exploring and developing example applications of these approaches.

This course will take an interdisciplinary approach, using information theory as a central theme in understanding various aspects of human culture and endeavors. During the course, we will explore and apply a variety of investigative methodologies. Our emphasis will be on the application of advanced reading, thinking and writing skills to the study of complex problems, with particular attention being paid to team-based research efforts. You can expect to find the course challenging, but rewarding.

Requirements/Responsibilities: Your first responsibility is to be prepared, aware, active participants in class, and in team projects. This means that you will be expected to read attentively each of the assigned sections, and be prepared to contribute to discussions of the material each class day.

  1. To help you prepare for class discussions, you will write a brief response (two pages or less) to each reading, to be handed in each class day; and be active participants in class. For some sections, I may give you more explicit directions for your responses to the readings.
  2. There will be at least one in-class writing experience (think - mid-term).
  3. There will be a longer (4-6 page) written response to / analysis of one or more of the books you are reading for the class.
  4. Each of you will also write/develop an individual longer (6-8 pages) final paper/project, on a topic of your choice related to the material of the course, and showing your own learning and development through the course.

The grades for this course will be based on these four components. Each component will carry approximately the same weight. Plus/minus grading may be used. The work you do for this course will be your own. You are not to submit other people's work and represent it as your own. However, you will be expected and encouraged to work collaboratively with others during the course.

General outline of course topics:

  • Theories and making sense of the world.
  • Information and information technologies in the contemporary world, and their metaphorical places in our understandings of the world.
  • Contemporary cultures and the cult of information.
  • Finding and making meaning, and their role in our understandings of the world.
  • Shannon's model of information and communication channels.
  • Codes, bits and symbols. Entropy and average information. Efficient encoding.
  • Information theory and biology - DNA, RNA and beyond. Genes, genomes, coding, and identity. Uses of the codes and coded information.
  • Information theory and psychology.
  • Information theory and language / linguistics. Translation, and the effects of context (including cultural context) on extracting and understanding meaning.
  • Information theory and art.
  • Information and cultural differences -- how various cultures represent and use information, and how differences in language and symbolic representations affect meaning and understanding.
  • Philosophical notions of meaning, and their relation to entropy and information theory.
  • Computers, computation, and information processing.
  • Creativity, originality, and information theory.
  • Information, intelligence, and artificial intelligence. Cognition and information processing.
  • Information theory, experiments, and knowledge about the world.
  • Information and literature - metaphors, models, meaning and understanding.

General Education:

This course (and this cluster) are part of the General Education portion of your degree program. When we proposed the cluster, one of our responsibilities was to explain how the courses would satisfy the General Education requirements. Here is a portion of what I wrote about this course.

Additional information on the "GE checklist":

  1. Subject Knowledge: This course introduces students to the elements of information theory, which is a central component of the information processing model of cognition. Students will develop an understanding of the application of the information theory models to a variety of communication systems, such as language/linguistics, and biological systems.
  2. Communication: Students in the course will be writing reflections on the readings for the course, and expository papers on particular topics relevant to the material of the course. They will be expected to develop a group presentation summarizing, explaining, and extending an application of information theory to a particular example. These tasks have as part of their requirement careful, clear, and rigorous communication of complex material and ideas.
  3. Inquiry and Critical Thinking: The primary focus of this course is the development of methods and techniques for careful, structured analysis of various aspects of human culture and biological existence through the application of information theory. Students will continue to develop their ability to understand and apply rigorous theoretical tools to specific examples.
  4. Information Retrieval and Evaluation: An essential aspect of this course is understanding what information is, how it is obtained, and how it is communicated. This includes examination of reliability of communication channels, and the extent to which we can trust information we receive.
  5. Interdisciplinary Relationships: This is a very strongly interdisciplinary course. We will apply the methods of information to a variety of disciplines, including biology/genetics, language/linguistics, philosophy, and the arts. The course will also develop the specifically interdisciplinary approaches particular to some specific theoretical methods in cognitive science. We will explore commonalities and differences among the various approaches.
  6. Global or Multicultural Perspectives: A particular emphasis of the course will be issues of language/linguistics, such as intertranslatability of information encoded in language. We will explore the commonalities and differences among various approaches to effective communication. A central concept will be the exploration of issues of identity and difference, as revealed by information theory and entropy measures, with particular application to genome sequences. We will also be exploring how we understand the world through various scientific, literary, and artistic modes, including similarities and differences among various media, and in various cultures.
  7. Social Responsibility: An important theme of this course will be the difficulties of understanding the meaning of transmitted information. Decisions we make depend on reliable information about the world, and our ability to trust that information. This will be particularly true of our use of genomic and other biological information. This course will focus on the reliability of communication, and on what is involved in deriving meaning from data we gather or receive.

Additional discussion on Global and Multicultural Perspectives:

A central theme in information theory is the effect of context and perspective on the extraction of information from transmissions over a communication channel. The most important communication channel we all use is language. Throughout the course, we will examine a variety of issues in terms of the effects of cultural differences on understanding, and how various information media can influence culture and perspective. A particular emphasis of the course will be issues of language/linguistics, such as intertranslatability of information encoded in language. We will explore the commonalities and differences among various approaches to effective communication. We will look at how various media are used for the communication of information, including symbol systems embedded in language, nonlinguistic symbols such as the visual arts, and systems that are not obviously symbolic such as music. A central concept will be the exploration of issues of identity and difference.

We will explore a variety of examples of cultural differences in communication systems. One important linguistic example is the effects of language differences such as gendered nouns in romance and germanic languages. The fact that nouns have a gender in some languages adds to the communication redundancy in the language, and can improve reliability of communication. Languages such as English use gendered pronouns and word order in sentences for redundancy and reliability. These differences also affect metaphoric possibilities in the language, and the possibilities for poetic ambiguities. Because humans are deeply linguistic beings, our entire worldview can be affected by differences in language constructs.

A second important example is variety in modes of expression in the visual arts. For example, much of western art works toward realistic representation. Within some other cultures, such as Japanese ink-brush art, expressive gestural modes are prevalent. These differences in communicating esthetic and emotive aspects of our understandings of the world can play important roles in how cultures approach problems facing us.