Information in motion

Minkowski spacetime

Human scale

This series started by looking at information in, and as, physical phenomena, then in differences and patterns, and then how it infects and influences human and computational systems as an active entity. Now I change perspective to explore the active and subjective nature of people in perceiving and processing information. To do so, I return to a frequent reference, James J. Gibson and his ecological approach to perception.

Change over time

Gibson’s definition of an environment is not limited to space – no medium, surface or substance is static, any more than an animal is. But we have a “geometrical habit,” as he says, of separating space from time.

Position & movement

Let’s take a brief detour back to physics, to bring together space and time in relation to information and observation. Hermann Minkowski was Albert Einstein’s teacher in Zurich, and just before he died in 1908 he added to Einstein’s theory of special relativity with his own theory of spacetime.

Subjectivity

But this is indeed all still at a theoretical level; let’s begin to get more specific. Animal locomotion, according to Gibson, “is not usually aimless but is guided or controlled – by light if the animal can see, by sound if the animal can hear, and by odor if the animal can smell.” In other words, the information we pick up as we’re moving through time and space guides and controls our movement. See the previous article in this series for an in-depth discussion linking this to a computational perspective.

Duality

Even without any movement, we automatically see from multiple perspectives, because we have two eyes – a perceptual system, as Gibson calls it. Alternately close each eye while you’re reading a single word of this text. Nick Sousanis details this in his excellent book Unflattening, pointing out that neither eye gives the “correct” view, and – in relation to movement above – seeing is like walking (since we also have two feet), as a constant negotiation, a balance between two different sources. (Zacks notes that we also have two hemispheres to our brains, which each interpret information in different ways.) Sousanis shows how viewing the sun from different points on Earth enabled us to calculate the circumference of the planet, and viewing other stars from two different points in our movement around the sun let us calculate their distance from us.

Shifting perspective

Just as the world is never exactly the same at every time and place, no two individuals perceive things the same way, even if they observe a comparatively static environment from exactly the same spot. And even the same person changes over time. Perception of any available information, therefore, says something about the observer as well as the environment.

Mental movement

What happens when we perceive movement itself? Zacks cites experimental evidence that watching someone else move, even in a film, provokes a complementary reaction in the part of our brain that regulates our own movement – we mentally rehearse the same action. The urge to move is usually suppressed, but he notes that many children haven’t yet been conditioned to do so, and many adults will subtly move in reaction to perceived motion – flinching when something comes at them, looking or turning their body in the direction someone else is oriented. Knowing this, you can exploit it – lecturers for example can both influence and be influenced by their audience, responding for example to gaze and body position.

To inform

Besides observing and influencing actions, the other main way we can change our own or someone else’s view is through dialogue, in some form of language. According to Sousanis, “The means by which we order experience and give structure to our thoughts – our languages – are the stuff we breathe in and a sea we swim in.” Recall Gibson’s notion of medium; here it’s applied to the social environment. If Marshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message, if language is a medium, what message does it carry, in itself, apart from all the individual messages it encodes?

Beyond information

Cue Marcel Duchamp. He was also heavily informed and influenced by science, but then twisted its, and our, perspective through his work. He applied the term “antiretinal” to his art because he opposed a simplification of vision, a mere classification of facts – what you see is what you get.

Information in trouble

As we arrive at the end of this series on information, we have to accept that the very notion of information itself relies on its own shadow: the absence of information. In previous articles, I discussed a lack of information where there is a lack of variation, but that was a difference in quantity, not quality. Here I am referring to the perception of something and the creation of meaning where no perceivable information exists. Call it apophenia if you like, but we have an innate drive to make sense of things, even where sensory information is absent.

Illuminations

Did you know that people (and all living things) emit light? Researchers found this was related not to heat but to time, specifically bodily rhythms. Ultrasenstive camera equipment is needed to detect the very weak photons emitted, but let’s speculate that this light can by subtly detected by other living beings, by means we are not yet aware of. Were this the case, it would call into question Gibson’s distinction between radiant light and reflected light. To him, we cannot see light directly, only its reflections off of surfaces –we see information in light. But what if we see light itself as information?

Notes

  1. Regarding the senses as systems, Juhani Palasmaa believes that touch, not vision, is our main sense, and looking at something, we imagine touching it.
  2. Campagna, F. (2021) Prophetic Culture. (Bloomsbury — in press)

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