Re: Shannon/Weaver & Fiber Optics

Subject: Re: Shannon/Weaver & Fiber Optics
From: Johndan Johnson-Eilola <johndan -at- SAGE -dot- CC -dot- PURDUE -dot- EDU>
Date: Wed, 30 Nov 1994 12:10:57 EST

Shannon & Weaver *were* talking about telephony, but they also seem to
posit the transmission model as foundational rather than particular to
electronics. Like many of you, I'm grappling with the problems of
communication models, and I see the lure of Shannon & Weaver's work
(it's straightforward, quantifiable), but the model often leads to
both philosophical and ethical problems (to the extent that these
can be separated). Here's a comment Weaver makes in his book with
Shannon, *The Mathematical Theory of Communication* that forefronts
some of the issues:

has so penetratingly cleared that air that one is now, perhaps
for the first time, ready for a real theory of meaning. An
engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and
discreet girl accepting your telegram. She pays no attention to
the meaning, whether it be sad, or joyous, or embarassing. But
she must be prepared to deal with all that comes on her desk. This
idea that a communication system ought to try to deal with all
possible messages, and that the intelligent way to try to is to
base design on the statistical character of the source, is surely
not without significance for communication in general. Language
must be designed (or developed) with a view of the totality of
things that man may wish to say; but not being able to accomplish
everything, it too should do as well as possible as often as
possible. That is to say, it too should deal with its task
statistically. (117)

It would be misleading to say that Weaver's example is poorly chosen and
a product of Shannon & Weaver's time (the 1940s), because even if, in a
fit of surface-level PC surveillance, we merely removed the "very proper
and discreet girl": I think the depersonalizing assumptions are an
important--and dangerous--part of the problem.

Sorry for the long quote; I'm currently revising a book on hypertext
that devotes a chapter to functional documentation, so these ideas are
very much on my mind.

- Johndan

- Johndan Johnson-Eilola johndan -at- sage -dot- cc -dot- purdue -dot- edu
Department of English voice: 317/494-1761
Purdue University fax: 317/494-3780
West Lafayette, IN 47907

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