Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication, the paper with the first recorded use of the word bit, introduces the notion of digital communication. To solve the problem, Shannon justifies the following simplification:
The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.
One of the consequences of removing semantics from the problem is that the information theorist can abstract away the communication medium through an appropriate probalistic model. While physically very different, copper wires, coaxial cables, wireless devices, and compact discs are treated with unified design principles to make sure the information contained on them is reliable despite unknown effects the environment might render on any of them.
Indeed, semantics play a much larger role in human communication, and humans can be more distinguishing about how they choose to communicate through voice, images, and writing. While personal conversations allow for intimacy, blogs are typically directed at a larger audience. Because I am not exactly sure who reads my blog, I tend to be careful about how I write my entries. I correct not only grammatical errors but also word choice when it more effectively conveys what I have in my head.
The use of a particular medium to convey information can also affect how that information is perceived. Animation is a medium several people do not associate with art. This group overlooks movies like Spirited Away. To them, animation, and cartoons in particular, are meant for children. South Park caused much uproar when it premiered in part because of its perceived childhood appeal. Of course, a child can enjoy Spirited Away and while South Park can be clever at times, it does not rise to the level of art.
I once belonged to that group and did not fully question my perceptions until this week. While surfing through the meager television offerings in our hotel room, I came across Paranoia Agent, an anime program featured on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The episode featured both a suicide group and a serial killer. It was not for children. The episode did not feel “cartoonish” or campy, either. It was filled with symbolism, and the production quality was remarkable. Its creator had a sense for aesthetics. It was art.
Unlike Shannon’s bits, art is difficult to define. My high school English teacher told us that the best way to tell if a particular piece of writing has artistic merit is to have done a lot of reading. Like Shannon’s bits, this principle transfers to other media, as well.