An exploration of the nature of human meaning and the ways the digital age imperils it.
In 1948, Claude E. Shannon published a seminal paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which not only changed the landscape of communication technology, according to Hsu, but the modern understanding of information, which now threatens human civilization. Shannon defined the bit as a fundamental unit for the encoding of information and also declared it meaningless and a devastating problem for mankind. Out of Shannon’s paper grew what the author calls “Machine Information Theory,” which is never clearly defined but seems to amount to the simultaneous aggrandizement of information (it becomes central to human activity) and diminishment (it becomes bereft of any meaning). This is problematic because humans need meaning for their survival. In fact, civilization was born out of and is made possible by written language: “This was the signal event that marked the beginning of civilization with the beginning of written language. The continuity of written symbols spanned the scale of time to provide continuity in society: civilization.” In order to rescue an understanding of information as stored meaning, Hsu argues we need a “Human Information Theory” as a counterweight to the shift inaugurated by Shannon’s work. Such a theory should devise a “single unit of information” that functions as a bearer of meaning, clarifies thorny questions about ownership of information, and can be adequately priced.
Hsu’s discussion of meaning raises important and timely questions about the ways information is understood by a society that collapses the distinctions between it and wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and data. He makes a powerful case that a sizable but misunderstood historical shift has occurred and that this miscomprehension could have disastrous societal implications. Also, the author astutely observes some of the philosophically titillating paradoxes that emerge from the modern interpretation of information. For example, in some senses, information is free, in others it’s extremely costly, and in some circumstances, when meaning is involved, it’s potentially priceless. However, Hsu’s meditation is messy and meandering, and it’s often exasperatingly unclear what point precisely the author is trying to make. Also, while Hsu argues that a Human Information Theory is urgently necessary, the author can’t confidently articulate what such a theory would amount to: “What is the Human Information Theory? To be frank, who knows?” The book concludes with more than 50 pages of paired words—for example, “eternal” versus “transitory”—and encouragement for the reader to think about them, though the objective of that exercise remains nebulous. Finally, contrary to Hsu’s suggestion, the question of meaning and its relation to language is not a new one—Plato discusses it at great length in the Cratylus, long before the digital age. He doesn’t seriously engage the inexhaustible literature on this subject, and as a result, his study is not nearly as searching as it could have been.
An unfocused, confusing attempt to grapple with a complex philosophical dilemma.