discarding information

by Latrippi on November 13, 2006

It costs to possess knowledge of the world: not necessarily because it costs anything to obtain this knowledge, but because it is difficult to get rid of it again. Pure, clear consciousness is the true cost — and we cannot know anything about the world without this clear consciousness, which, on the other hand, we cannot possess unless we have discarded all the information we had in our consciousness a moment ago.

Computation and cognition consist of discarding information: picking what matters from what does not. The discarding of information is the thermodynamic proper, that which costs.

Information is interesting once we have got rid of it again: once we have taken in a mass of information, extracted what is important, and thrown the rest out. In itself, information is almost a measure of randomness, unpredictablity, indeterminacy. Information is more related to disorder than to order, because order arises in situations where there is less information than there could have been. . . .

The complexity of the physical and biological world can be described as depth: the amount of discarded information. What interests us in life is not that which contains the most information and thus takes the longest to describe. . . . Nor is it the extremely well ordered and predictable, for there are no surprises there.

What interests us are things that have a history, things preserved in time not because they are static and closed but because they are open and concurrent, because they have discarded quantities of information along the way.

–Tor Nørretranders, ”The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size

I’ve spent the past year or so — a year and a half, actually — pushed back, way back from the mediasphere, discarding information. Not wandering in the desert, exactly. But I’ve been on a pilgrimage, in actual fact: putting things in perspective, reacquainting myself with (offscreen) worlds of physical and personal and psychical depth. It’s a journey I embarked on quite intentionally. A luxury but, at a certain point, a necessity, too.

Among other instigating factors, I’d come to distrust my strategizing, narrativizing mind, often eighteen steps ahead of the rest of me and, for that reason, not always a trustworthy guide. I’ve been practicing listening instead. As John Cage puts it (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the book here): “Instead of making the unconscious part of the mind turn and face the conscious part, we make the conscious part of the mind turn and face the unconscious part.”

I’ve been working on that now for about twenty years. It’s easy to get distracted.

So, yes — it’s taken time to get here, longer than I would have thought. I haven’t done things I assumed I would do — like, say, clean out the legacy code and cruft and overhaul this website (ach!).

I’ve written two small (very small) pieces in the past year. For Mountain Wind, the newsletter of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, I wrote a short reflective essay, Drawing on Silence, on the practice of kyudo, a traditional Japanese form of archery. And at Wikipedia, a week after attending BarCamp San Francisco, I re-wrote the article on BarCamp, pretty much from scratch, coming out of the woodwork, apparently, to save it from deletion.

I’ve done other things. Small things, modest initiatives, things that register — embrace, even — the resistance of the material world. Things that take time and patience. Things with traction, a certain history and depth.

Then no sooner was I ready to re-engage but opportunities came to meet me, and called me out to play. And a bit embarrassing, really — the Ruby Slippers effect! Where I’m ending up looks a lot like where I started from, except that, now, things look different. More thingly, maybe. The world scrubbed fresh.