Counting Electric Sheep: Understanding Information in the Context of Media Ecology

Lance Strate
2012 Information  
In the field of media ecology, defined as the study of media as environments, media and medium, and ecology and environment are key terms, while information, although commonly employed, is generally used without reference to a specific definition. This article examines the mostly implicit assumptions about and understandings of the term information in the context of the field of media ecology. Information can be seen as a synonym or subset of content or message, can be divided into different
more » ... d into different orders or levels of content/communication and relationship/medium, and on both levels is dependent on and altered by changes in technology, code, and form. Although sometimes discussed as if it were a substance, information is best understood as a function of communication, which in turn is a function of mediation. As a function of mediated communication, information is closely associated with news and control. Information is also considered the defining characteristic of our contemporary period, but is best understood as a product of electricity, electric technology, and the electronic media. As we have moved from orality to literacy to electricity, so too has the emphasis shifted from wisdom to knowledge to information. Despite popular celebration, this evolution is not an unmitigated good, and what is needed is a balanced media environment. 445 problematic phrase, in that new information is redundant, and old information oxymoronic, except in the sense that information that is old to one party may be new to another, hence the expression, that's news to me). Messages that contains no information can include those associated with ritual, including the everyday rituals of phatic communication (e.g., hello, how are you? fine, how are you?). Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson separate communication into two levels, content and relationship [9] . Information can be exchanged on the content level, but only after channels of communication are established on the relationship level. Moreover, it is on the relationship level that instructions are provided on how to interpret information exchanged on the content level. Parallel to the content and relationship level of communication, Watzlawick et al. discuss the differences between communication and metacommunication, the latter being defined as communication about communication. The relationship level of communication, along with metacommunication, insofar as they stand in contradistinction from content, are the equivalent of medium (and therefore of environment, system, context, and situation). Content and messages lacking in information can still have meaning. Like information, meaning is a term that has a great deal of significance within the field of media ecology. But unlike information, which is associated with novelty and situated within the message, meaning requires familiarity and is situated within individuals (and groups) [10] . Information is a type of stimulus, while meaning is understood to be a response to a stimulus, and can take the form of behavior (for most organisms) or thought (itself a form of behavior) [11] . Because meaning is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, it does not require the presence of information, but rather can be said to be based on recognition and recall [12] , and to a certain extent projection [13, 14] . Meaning is not the opposite of information, but to the extent that meaning is based on familiarity, and information on novelty, the two can be said to exist in inverse relationship to one another. Meaning is generated, in part, by the grammar, rules, structure, etc., of the medium, all of which are aspects of the code or form, and all of which place constraints on the information that can be transmitted or stored, thereby providing the needed redundancy to allow information to be meaningful, rather than being reduced to noise [15] . Information, Medium, and Environment Postman notes that, "because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different technologies have different political biases." [6] Holding aside the effects, in addition to accessibility and speed of information, different media can be distinguished by the amount or volume of information that the can produce, contain, preserve, and transfer, by their capacity for information storage, information retrieval, information transmission, and information dissemination. In other words, information in various ways can be used to characterize a given medium. McLuhan goes so far as to declare that, "the electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message." [3] In this instance, the concept of information is neither equivalent nor subordinate to that of content or message, but independent of them, much in the same way that the concept of medium is understood to be its own message, independent of any actual content. Similarly, information is used in a manner parallel to that of medium when it is combined with the term environment, so that the phrases information
doi:10.3390/info3030442 fatcat:xumnygkvprd2fk3cfsy2hgc6ne