Information in attention

Diagram redrawn from Van de Velde, 2003

Selective (in)attention

Exactly how do we attend to a piece of information? In two previous articles I have defined information as a fundamental physical and biological entity in terms of energy, difference and pattern. Here I expand on its subjective character, as experienced, interpreted and acted upon by humans and others.

Perceptual intelligence, computational creativity

But we’re not computers. Human learning is not the mere accumulation of information in memory, and not everything can be broken down to individual “information elements.” Think of learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car — millions of tiny movements are not consciously processed, recalled and recombined. The body plays a role here, and an important corollary is that some processing seems to take place outside the brain, in our arms and legs, and indeed in every cell of our bodies.

Against processing

Let me know give a counterpoint. In previous articles in this series, I’ve discussed the work of James J. Gibson. In his version of perceptual intelligence, or what he calls the theory of information pickup, perception should not be separated from processing, as I did above. There isn’t a point where we stop sensing and start memorising, he says. Instead, we simply pick up, or perceive, what he calls invariants in the environment—things that don’t change—against those that do. We do this unconsciously and seamlessly within a singular perceptual system. By separating out memorised or internalised knowledge, he believes, we falsely assume that our knowledge of the world already exists somehow; instead, we constantly perceive persistence and change, and as we continue to do this, we learn over time.

Attention poverty

Armed with this knowledge of what people and computers can do with information, we can now return to the question of what information can do with people and things, whether information itself can be viewed as somehow alive. As something intangible, it is a kind of ingredient that is exchanged and processed; it can’t undertake any sort of computation itself, right?

Information in action

If information affects us so directly and physically, what effects does this have on us? In the second article in this series, I mentioned the environmental psychologist J.J. Gibson, who detailed the role of information in a natural environment — specifically how it affords action. In particular, his theory of affordances is about perceived actions we can take in response to information we encounter. He separates the natural environment into medium, surfaces and substances. A surface of about the height of our knees affords sitting; an enclosed space affords shelter; a stick smaller than human size affords all sorts of uses — we call such particularly useful objects tools.

Behaviour landscapes

We can now return to Van de Velde’s quote at the top of this article, and expand it: “Attention is the oxygen of information. Without attention information is dead. With attention it influences action.”

Conclusion: A computational dialectic

Seeing information as alive is to view it as a virus — spreading, infecting, influencing biological, digital or organisational agents who may have shared or conflicting interests. As I detailed in this article, it has a very real, material basis — real viruses exchange information in the form of DNA, colliding atoms exchange electrons or spin states, information resides in physical forms in brains and hard drives. At human scale, it affords actions and changes behaviour.


  1. Van de Velde, W. (2003) The world as computer. Proceedings of the Smart Objects Conference, Grenoble.



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