THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY SEVEN

From these conversations between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks:

Parks: Sorry, what do you mean exactly by a channel? I’m lost.

Manzotti: A channel is the physical structure or circumstances that allow two separate events to be connected—the air pressure waves that occur when Romeo utters loving words to Juliet, the wire between a switch that you flip and a light that turns on, or everything that happens between your typing some letters on your phone and someone else reading them on theirs. Essentially, Shannon broke down any communication of data into its most basic constituents, namely a multitude of yes/no questions, that he called bits. Eight bits would make a byte. Information, in this new manifestation, is expressed as a number that tells us how many yes/no questions can be asked and answered through a given channel. A megabyte, for example, indicates capacity for around eight million such questions. Your smart phone requires a few million bits—yes/no questions—to put together, point by point, a photo on the screen. But, there is no internal semantic content, no data or image inside the device, no point along the causal chain where you can put your finger and say, Aha, information!

Parks: Could we say that there is no more information in a cell phone, than there is information in the air between my voice speaking and your ear listening? Or between a radio transmitter and a radio receiver?

Manzotti: You could indeed. Information here is simply the capacity of any channel to affect a causal coupling between two events, speaking and hearing, typing letters and reading them. It is not a thing between those events. If there is no one on the receiving end to hear the voice or read the letters then quite simply there is no information because we don’t have our two events.

Parks: So what do neuroscientists mean when they talk of information processing in relation to the brain? For example, a mouse’s brain when the animal smells a piece of cheese.

Manzotti: Honestly, it is a bit like when we say that the sun goes down. Of course, we know it doesn’t literally go down, but it is a nice expression and it saves a lot of explanation. The problem with the concept of “information” comes when we start to take it literally, as Floridi does. We start to imagine there really is a mental, non-physical stuff called information. A subtle dualism creeps in, as if the brain contained organic material on the one hand and this mysterious, immaterial “information” on the other. In fact Floridi speaks of moving from a materialist vision “in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one,” as if there were some sphere of existence that is not physical.