Culture, information, etc.

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 6 Feb 1994 09:44:54 JST

I suspect that the following note is alread a bit "behind the curve," but
since I took the trouble to write it, here it comes.


>From D.Read

While it's shared, public, taken for granted

>>certainly visual, sensory information is not culture.

>From B. Graber

>>I want to be able to say, I want to be able
to say, "Automobiles are a feature of our culture."


>>automobiles are not information.

Great stuff! And very helpful, too. I was actually forced to slow
down and think about how to reply. To me that's what real debate is
all about. Now, how would I reply?

To Read.

I assume that what you mean by "visual, sensory input" is something
like "unmediated visual input," the stuff that happens when light
strikes the retina and we're standing side by side looking at the
same thing. Your theory will then require mental representations to
process the input; and we'll call those "culture" please. To which I
would then (as a one-time AI programmer as well as anthropologist),
do show me some of that "unmediated visual input." On a physical
level ask anyone who has tried to build an industrial robot what
"side-by-side" can do to incident light, even in tightly controlled lab
settings. Your assumption that we're getting the same input is all by
itself problematic.

The more serious issue is where you get off calling it "information"
as though it existed apart from the processing, which, in the case of
human beings, is heavily dependent on social factors. (My daughter
and I are standing on a Tokyo street corner, the sky is grey so light
is diffused and shadow-free, a strikingly dressed Japanese woman
walks by. Daughter Katie is taking in the outfit? Me, I give you three

In fact, I think our working positions are very close. You want to say
that human beings don't just see the world, they see the world
through cultural glasses, which your use of the world "mental"
suggests, oddly enough, are located behind the eyes instead of in
front of them.

The only thing that I, agreeing with Geertz, don't like about that, is
the implication, which maybe you don't have in mind at all, that I'd
have to be some kind of mindreader to understand the glasses'
prescription, when all I usually have to work with is words, images,
public acts--stuff that occurs between people instead of somewhere
inside them.

Be that as it may, If we have to postulate something going on inside
to account for what we see outside, I've got no problem with that.
I've never seen an electron; I take it for granted electrons exist. I
also assume that electrons have real, perceptible effects in the
world and that people can point explicitly to what they are.

Turning now to Graber.

"Automobiles are not information"!! Consider the following puzzle.
To a BMW owner his car is something to worship. To his dog it's
something to piss on. What's the purely material difference? I know
this sounds, franky, pissy, but, as with Read, I don't think that our
actual positions are that far apart. Note that I do allow that
information can be inscribed in material objects. Since I want to
insist that only public information is culture, I can hardly do
anything else.

Actually what I'd like to see from both you and Read is some samples
of your work. Since to me, at least, the bottom line is "Do our
definitions point us to discoveries we wouldn't have made without
them?" (from a scholar's point of view) and "Are their consequences
morally acceptable?" (from a citizen's point of view). In reviewing
our debate, I've come to the conclusion that much of my own heat is
generated by the notion that "cultures" are monadic units, with all
its literally bloody consequences.

Cheers, John