Active Information
F. David Peat

I have been speculating about a triad
in nature and mind. It could be envisioned as a triangle. But not so much a static figure as one in constant movement and transformation.

Physics of the 18th century dealt with the movement and transformation of matter. That of the 19th introduced the notion that various forms of energy - work, heat, electrical, chemical, biological, etc - are mutually interconvertable, transforming one into the other according to the laws of thermodynamics. Then, at the start of our century, Einstein's E=MC2 showed the mutual transformation of matter and energy. Now at the end of the 20th we should perhaps entertain the notion of a triad (matter, energy, information) in place of the duality matter-energy.

It is certainly true that, with the rise of the computer, digital representations of all kinds, and electronic communications, the 20th century has become the age of information. Yet information is generally treated as something passive, ie. in Information Theory, information is a cargo being shipped from sender to receiver.

There are arguments to suggest that information also plays an active role. Vision is a case in point. As signals move from the retina along the optic nerve they meet a flood of information coming down from the visual cortex. This downward flow arises out of the various strategies employed in seeing and has the effect of actively screening, coding and comparing incoming signals. In this sense our vision is not a passive gathering of information but prehensile, a purposeful activity of information throughout the entire visual system from the muscles around the eyes to the cortex itself.
The immune system could also be considered as an activity of information, one that constantly scans the environment. As an active pattern recognition system it is perhaps as complex as the brain itself.

The analogy can also be made with language, since the word, as information, also acts within the body. This corporialization of words was recognized by Wilhelm Reich and later Jacques Lacan. In this sense the word is made flesh and dwells within us. Language is not a passive carrier of information but an activity in its own right. Language exerts an influence on how we think, act and perceive. In turn, social changes are reflected in transformations of language. It is the job of the poet to transform society by purifying language and transforming the activity of words. Indeed, it becomes the responsibility of each of us to hold onto words and help them retain their power and their purity.

Maybe the activity of information extends right into the quantum domain. David Bohm's ontological, or causal, interpretation invokes active information in a particularly interesting way. By way of a caution, in his later years at least, Bohm stressed that his Ontological interpretation was not so much supposed to be a realistic account of what occurs in the quantum domain but simply a demonstration that alternatives to conventional quantum theory and Bohr's Interpretation are logically possible.
The point here is not whether Bohm's account of quantum theory is credible or not, but rather that it makes use of "information" in a new and interesting way. That, I believe, is what is most fascinating about Bohm's interpretation: that it attempts to add the activity of information to our notions of matter and energy. It suggests that form has an activity of its own. In particular it in-forms, or gives form to, energy.

Hence information is not something passive that is carried by a book, telephone line or radio wave, but an actual activity in nature, a physical form, albeit subtle, that has its interaction with matter and energy. And just as matter and energy are mutually convertible, the same may be true of matter-energy and information.

This page last updated on July 11, 1999
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