Sunday, July 19, 2009

Notes on The User Illusion, Part One

The User Illusion, is a magnificent book. It is written by the danish author Thor Nørretranders. The Swedish title of the book, "Märk Världen", is a better title. "Märk Världen" means Notice the World it can also be a pun, "Märkvärdigt", means Astonishing.

The popular usage of the term information has been perverted from the original meaning of the word. The original meaning of the word is similar to the word data. It is something that can be transmitted, stored or transformed. It does not have anything to do with meaning. In popular usage the word information is often interpreted as something that has an actual meaning and not just raw data that may or may not mean anything to anyone.

Thor Nørretranders refers to information as data. It does not matter if a conversation over the phone is gossip or if it is an explanation of the theory of relativity. It is information nonetheless. He claims that random information commonly referred to as chaotic as containing more meaning than ordered information. To support this claim he gives a simple example.

A random sequence of coin-tosses (101010101111) cannot be reduced to anything but the same sequence of coin tosses, while a regular sequence (111111111111) can be reduced to the simple statment: 12 ones. Therefore the 12 ones contain less information than the coin-tosses.

Another interesting aspect of this is that it is impossible to know in advance if a sequence can be reduced or not until the actual reduction has been done. This is related both to Turing's halting-problem and to Gödel's incompleteness theorem.

Logical Depth

A conclusion's logical depth is a measurement of its meaning, its value. The harder it is for the sender to reach a conclusion, the larger is its logical depth. The more "calculation time" he has used the greater is its value, since the receiver of the conclusion is relieved from having to perform the same calculation.

Logical depth can informally be defined as the number of steps in a conclusion or causal chain that connects something with its probable origin. Logical depth describes complexity.

A table of moon phases can be calculated by a simple formula, but it takes time. A living organism can be specified by a few genes but it takes a long time to develop the complete organism.

Chaos and disorder cannot be reduced to something less. The shortest program is identical to it all. They have no logical depth.

It is difficult to make things look easy. Clarity demands depth.

Communication and Exformation

To communicate is to take information (a mental state) in the sender, reduce this state to a message that can be transferred over a channel to the receiver, the receiver then interprets this message as information (his own mental state).

The explicitly removed information, Nørretranders calls exformation. A statement has depth if it contains a lot of exformation. That is, information that existed in the sender, but was purged while composing the message, and is no longer present in the final result.

There is no possible way to calculate the exformation of a message from the contents of the message. This can only be found in the context of the message. The sender forms the message so that it refers to a common context allowing the receiver to re-create the meaning from this context. A good communicator not only thinks of himself, but also of what the receiver is thinking about.

Meaning is purged information, removed information, unneeded information, exformation.

Information is not needed to transfer exformation. An example is an agreement between a child and his parents that instead of calling every week, he will only call if he is in trouble. Every week exformation is communicated, all is well, by not sending any information at all.

To communicate well we must be able to take the information in our heads and create meaningful symbols of it. These symbols should represent a common understanding so that the recipient of the symbols can induce the same understanding that we have.

Meaning and Consciousness

What we consciously experience in any given moment, limits itself to a very miniscule part of the flood of information that flow through our senses. --Manfred Zimmermann

The bandwidth of our conscious is less than 50 bits/s. Our senses take in around 11 million bits/s with the vision at 10 million bits/s, touch - 1 million bits/s, hearing and smell - 100 000 bits/s, and taste - 100 bits/s.

Most of what we experience, we can never tell someone else. We experience millions of bits but can only verbally communicate decades.

But we are not limited to verbal communication. Just as our senses can recieve 10 millions of bits our bodies can also communicate. Our bodies send out 100 000 bits/s through body movements, voice modulations, facial expressions, etc. It is just not possible to recieve all this information consciously. This is why there is no substitute for face to face.

A good bedtime story is good since it induces feeling in the adult that the child is able to pick up and react to. The excitement, sadness, and happiness induced by great tales such as The Ugly Duckling, by H.C. Andersen is what makes them great. The tale creates a much wider communication channel than a tale that means nothing to the adult, since the emotions emitted from the adult induces the same feeling in the child at a much higher bandwidth than simple words can communicate.

The unconscious is not hidden from anyone, but the person, who for himself tries to hide the sides of himself that were disliked by the people who he loved while growing up.

Others know more about us than we do.

Most of the information that pass trough us is never experienced consciously, although this information has a noticable effect on our behavior.

The Unconscious

When we meet a new person, we usually make a really quick decision whether we like the person or not. We say, "You nerver get a second chance to make a first impression!" and "We don't have chemistry". These decisions are made so quickly that they cannot possible be made by the limited understanding of our conscious. This is indirect evidence of high-speed channels that operate unconsciously.

The conscious is a much smaller part of our life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of that which we are not conscious of.

Our conscious is like a flashlight and wherever it looks there is light. The obvious conclusion of the flashlight is that it is light everywhere. We are conscious less than we think, because we cannot be conscious of not being conscious.

I am sure that there are no words in my conscious when I am really thinking. --Jacques Hadamard

Real thinking is not a process that is performed consciously.

Thoughts die the moment that they are put into words. --Schopenhauer

When was the last time you ate fish? Yesterday? Last year? Never?

The moment you started thinking about this, your conscious mind let go. How did you come up with the answer you gave? Did you think through all the meals you have eaten in your life or did it just pop into your head?

Summary part one

The first part of the book sets the stage for the rest of the book. It introduces, and defines, the words: information, exformation, and logical depth. It also introduces the notion of meaning, consciousness and unconsciousness.

Our conscious can contain less than 50 bits per second. While our senses take in more than 11 million. Our brains process the 11 million bits of information and reduces them down to 50 meaningful bits, symbols that map into the rest of our brain and knowledge. But processing takes time even for something as able as our brains. But isn't our conscious perception immediate? No, it's not, but it appears to be! The second part of the book and the second part of this summary deals with this discrepancy.


Hedin Exformation said...

We seem to share an interest in the book "Märk världen" - jag försöker förankra ordet exformation i det svenska språket via min nya blogg - kolla gärna in den ...

Anders Janmyr said...

Jag kollade din blog. Jag är intresserad av det mesta som har med hjärnan att göra. En annan intressant bok inom samma område som jag har anteckningar om är "Strangers to ourselves"