Is representation necessary for encoding to be meaningful?

We take for granted that the easiest way to "decode" the patterns in an old phonograph recording is simply by playing the recording; that is, by spinning the recording on a turntable while a needle tracks the recording's grooves.

Impressions made by the patterns of sound in the recording studio are embedded in the phonograph, but attempting to decode those patterns by digitally analyzing the impressions would be hopelessly complicated. On the other hand, chaotic mechanical events that took place while the recording was being made easily become meaningful to us when we drag the needle along the groove.

The complex interaction of the recording needle with the record is attuned to the complex interaction of the playback needle with the record. The coupling of one complex set of interactions to another creates a higher order of organization that makes an explicit underlying representation or encoding of either of the sets of complex interactions unnecessary for the system as a whole to function meaningfully.

One way of looking at this is to realize that the recording does not "contain" acoustical information, but rather that the recording studio, the recording needle, the recording itself, and the playback needle all comprise a single system. The information resides in the system as a whole, and not in any individual component.

Although the recording transmits a collection of interactions between events in the studio and events in the listener's home, the recording does not contain a message. We see these intervening interactions as distinct from each other only because of psychological and linguistic preferences. In fact, all of the interactions are part of a single process, and this process is devoid of any extrinsic encoding.

Perhaps it would be fruitful to question the cultural prejudices that entice us to see biological systems in terms of encoding.

For example, do genes truly encode information? Or is that actually a rather naive way of describing a process that is so complex and dynamical that it can never be reduced to bits and bytes? The genome of an organism can be mapped, but to claim that the map is the "blueprint" of the organism and then to set out to decode that blueprint may be like trying to analyze the grooves in a record. The meaning resides in the dynamics of the entire cell, not in the patterns of distinct codons.

Michael Webb, 2000

home ]