Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Information Theory and Communication (repost from my blog)

So, one of my old Fordham students, John Farrelly, recently sent me an e-mail alerting me to a video online on vimeo (similar to youtube), which turned out to be an educational film from 1953 about communication from a distinctly information theory-based perspective. It's by Ray and Charles Eames, entitled A Communication Primer. The subjects covered in the film are topics I always used to cover in my introductory classes (I haven't taught one in a number of years, though).

Communication as a discipline, and Communication Departments as a feature of institutions of higher education are for the most part a product of the postwar era, post-World War II that is, so we're talking late 1940s and beyond--for example, Fordham's communication department was created in 1946, combining radio, journalism, and theater. And information theory and cybernetics, two related concepts coming out of MIT and forming a theoretical framework based on science, mathematics, and engineering, were embraced early on as the basis of a legitimate science of communication. Not quite a paradigm, by the sixties more psychological perspectives were taking hold, especially those rooted in Rogerian/cliented-centered/humanistic therapies.

But information theory and cybernetics remained part of the basic curriculum in communication back when I was an undergraduate major in the 1970s, and for some time after that. However, it seems that their presence was on the decline, and the textbooks that I used did not give them adequate coverage, not at all. Of course, I was able to make up for that in lectures and class discussion, but I have to wonder how much of this tradition has been lost over the years?

I say lost, and it truly is a loss, because this theory group has something important to contribute to our understanding of communication, and to our understanding in general. This material was also part of the basic curriculum for the old media ecology program, even though it was not directly connected to the work of Mumford, Innis, McLuhan, Havelock, Langer, Ong, Ellul, or any of the others--one notable exception being James Beniger's brilliant work, The Control Revolution; also worth mentioning is Jeremy Campbell's Grammatical Man.

Additionally, these ideas informed the work of folks like Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick, Erving Goffman, Edward T. Hall, Ray Birdwhistell, whose work cut across anthropology and psychology--there were collectively known as the Palo Alto group long before Palo Alto became known as Silicon Valley. Relatedly, information theory and cybernetics provides a foundation for systems theory, and the more recent concepts of chaos, complexity, and autopoiesis. Order and chaos are mediated by information. This all goes back to Claude Shannon's information theory, popularized by Warren Weaver, and to Norbert Wiener's cybernetics.

And of course, back when Shannon, Weaver, and Wiener were all coming up with this stuff, there was no such thing as computers. At least, not as we know it. The word computer referred to a person who performs calculations. The first calculating machines were just being developed at the end of the Second World War, and telephone systems were the height of complexity, and had much to do with the origins of information theory. And yet, this was the beginning of digital technology, binary code, and the like. This clearly can be seen in this film.

So, while there is entertainment value in the 1950s era documentary style, really, it's okay to laugh if you feel the urge, there is also something important to be learned about the new media, the digital media, yes, the participatory media, from this film. So, take a look:

I should add that between the time that John brought this video to my attention, and the time I got around to writing this entry, the video was removed from vimeo. Disappointing, to be sure, but I was not prepared to abandon the effort, so I did a google search for "Eames' A Communications Primer" and found it still available on http://www.archive.org/details/communications_primer (and there seems to be an option to download the film on a menu on the lefthand side). Hopefully, this video will still be there by the time you're reading this. If not, well, that's life on the electronic frontier.

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