A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Three Amigos: Information, Context, and Action

In the working model I am gradually trying to explore, the universe can be described in terms of three components:  Information, Context, and Action.

A physicist might be more comfortable with the notion that the universe consists of matter and energy (and that matter is just a special case of energy).  That is fine.  On some basic level one could argue that all we see and do and think and dream is simply a complex ballet of energy.  But for my purposes that is a bit like suggesting that all the literature of the world -- from Beowulf and the Bible to the collected works of Shakespeare and all the Harry Potter novels -- is just a "special ballet" of letters.  It is true in a basic sense, but it does little to reflect the content or meaning of the literature in question.

So I can accept that energy is the alphabet of the universe and matter merely its upper case manifestation.  I won't split atoms with particle physicists over their view of reality.  But just as letters congeal somewhere up the chain into plot, motive, and irony, so too the basic building blocks of the universe form the components I am choosing to focus on:  Information, Context, and Action.


I hope to explore in some detail just what is meant by "information" in the future, but just as I have touched upon in the past I think we can make do with the very basic and more or less intuitive sense of what is meant by "information".  This is simply the collection of descriptors we use to define any object or event.  A cup of coffee contains information about its temperature, its weight, its caffeine content, its sweetness, etc.  It also contains information about its location in time and space.  For example my cup of coffee on the morning of July 29th, 2012 in Vermont is different from even a nearly identical cup of coffee on the morning of Jan 1st 1963 in New York City simply because it contains whatever information is necessary to distinguish it from any other cup of coffee.  If an object is unique it will have at least one piece of information that sets it apart from all impostors.

We are awash with information.  If even a simple object like my cup of coffee contains so much information, we'd be hard pressed to consider all of the information contained in every object at every place at one time on the planet.  Too say nothing of all the information that spans time.  

But we don't need to worry about the almost infinite quantity of information in the universe in order to appreciate what information is and how it can be used in the present context.  If we were talking about water, we would not need to concern ourselves with the contents of all the rivers and lakes and oceans on Earth in order to have a basic appreciation for the stuff.  So too with information.  We do not need to worry about how much information is out there nor specifically what that information is in order to describe what we mean by "information".  Information is any piece of data about any thing.


We have touched upon context in the past as well, and we will really plow through this notion now to stick with what we have already determined -- that Context is information placed into some sort of frame of reference.  Context is loaded with power and we can't hope to do it justice right now, so we'll stick with the basic gut reaction that context is the "meaning" we assign to the information we receive.  It is the movie now showing, and any one piece of information is merely the latest character to enter the frame.


Action is simply a special case of information, the same way matter is a special case of energy, but it is useful for our purposes to consider it separately.  Action, in this model, is the response to information which is advised by the current context.

For example, if we stick with the cup of coffee from earlier:  I am at my desk.  I take a sip of coffee.  The coffee is hot.  I decide that it is too hot for comfort.  I put it down and wait a while before I continue to drink it. In this simple model, the relevant information was the temperature of the coffee.  It was hot.  The context I put that into was that it was so hot that I experienced pain when I drank it.  This advised me to perform the action of waiting to drink it.

Now even in such a pathetically simple example there are all kinds of things we glossed over.  The coffee contains much more information than merely its temperature.  Furthermore my decision to pick it up and drink it was advised by a great deal of context -- I have a routine where I drink coffee every morning, I am chemically addicted to caffeine, I wanted the liquid to help wash down the peanut butter toast in my mouth, etc. etc..  And of course I could not take the action of putting down the coffee if I had not taken the actions of making it, pouring it, picking it up, tasting it, and on and on.  Even the "action" of waiting for it to cool is a number of distinct actions including putting it down and deciding not to pick it up for some time and then ultimately deciding to pick it up again.

This one very simple example contains almost too much information, context, and action to hope to describe.  How are we ever to make any progress with bigger concepts than my morning coffee?

The answer lies in the genius of context.  For whatever reason, context is a magical bubble that can expand and contract around information to exclude anything we don't want to be bothered with while trapping neatly inside most or all of the information we do want to consider.  So as we explore the model of ICA (information, context, and action), we can easily stop ourselves from wondering about every fine detail.

When we're riding in a car speeding down the interstate, we may look out the window, but our minds are perfectly comfortable with the notion that we really can't see very much.  We speed past trees so quickly we can't always even make out what kind they are, let alone their age, how healthy they are, whether they house any squirrels inside, etc.  We simply see a bunch of trees and our minds are perfectly content to leave it at that. But if we were walking along a path through the same woods, we would undoubtedly learn just a bit more about the trees around us.  And we could choose to learn even more still if we were so inclined (or if we had some sort of school project to complete.)   The context of our travel down the interstate takes care of excluding huge swaths of information we simply don't care about (or at least accept that we can't perceive).

So we're going to speed down a mental interstate right now.  We are not going to worry about the shape of every tree. We have a destination to get to and we'll settle for blurry shapes passing by, at least for now.

So the three basic particles of my working model about how we think and communicate are Information, Context, and Action.  We're going to be seeing a lot of these Three Amigos.  But don't worry, it will be much less painful than watching the movie.

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