The notion of information in Simondon [1]


What exactly is information in the thoughts of Gilbert Simondon? Is it different from what has been understood by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener? This question seems to be crucial to understand firstly the concepts of transduction, individuation, amplification, disparity etc; secondly the relation between Simondon and cybernetics: is Simondon a cybernetician? But it seems to me that the responses from the commentators of Simondon remain unsatisfactory, firstly there is a misunderstanding of “information” in cybernetics; secondly Simondon tries to distant himself from his fellow cyberneticians, but in fact in his lecture notes and conference papers [60s and 70s] Simondon spoke like a neuroscientist today.

This series of notes attempt to understand the notion of information in Simondon and its relevant implications to address the current technological development. In fact, the misunderstanding of information seems to be normal, because even in cybernetics Shannon and Wiener share two different understandings of ‘information’. It seems that some commentators of Simondon tend to propose such correlation: Cybernetics- form, Simondon- information even though the term information was firstly made known by the cyberneticians. For example in Muriel Combes’s Simondon Individu et collectivité –Pour une philosophie du transindividuel, while explaining Simondon’s critique of hylomorphism, she pointed out:

Form, especially ceases to be understood as principle of individuation acting on the material of the exterior and becomes information. But information diving in this new conceptual context, loses the sense that was conferred on it by the technology of transmission (that consider it as what circulate between a emitter and a receiver), for designating the same operation of the form holding, the irreversible direction in which individuation occurs .[1]

Here Combes understands information as “what circulate between an emitter and a receiver”. This seems to be a pitiful misunderstanding of information in cybernetics, though it becomes a common sense. Information for Shannon is never about form or meaning, instead information designates surprise, uncertainty and entropy. Entropy is the measure of uncertainty, “of how much ‘choice’ is involved in the selection of the events or of how uncertain we are of the outcome”[2]. Entropy hence concerns the redundancy of information and the exceptions or surprises that was given by a message regardless of its meaning. But we can approach the meaning of information from another aspect, if we consider that information is now nothing about the semantics but rather it possesses an affective nature that allows it to affect its neighbours and hence to the whole network. For Wiener information takes a different definition, it is the measure of disorder. Disorder and surprise are different, but they share something in common which is ‘difference’. Hence Bateson is able to define information as “a difference which makes a difference”.

The richness of the discussions in cybernetics are rarely taken into account of understanding Simondon, the Simondonian scholars seem to emphasize how different is Simondon from the cyberneticians without looking into the legacy. In fact one can find a lot of similarities between Wallan McCullough and Simondon; further if one looks into the contemporary literatures of neuroscience, Simondon may be called an advocator of neurodynamics. In the introduction to L’individuation à la lumière des notions de form et d’information, after criticizing the matter-form hylomorphism, Simondon proposes the idea of a good form [bonne forme] which is based on information rather than the Platonic form inherited in the tradition of occidental philosophy. Simondon’s position is quite clear when he says:

the pure notion of form should therefore be saved twice from a rough technological paradigm: the first time, relatively in the ancient culture, due to the reductive usage which is made of such notion in the hylomorphic scheme; a second time in the state of the notion of information, for saving information as signification of the technological theory of information in modern culture. [3]

Here it is essential to understand why Simondon still proposes a form (though a good one) after criticizing the bad ones. The departure from form to information is a new approach to the question of individuation. Hylomorphism presupposes forms as the principle of individuation which is derived from the individuals regardless of the true process of individuation. A true process of individuation as Simondon proposes, can be perceived as crystallization. One has to be extremely careful here that the physical individuation demonstrated in the example of the crystal is only an analogy. Analogy plays an important role in the theory of Simondon which allows him to extend his study of technology to a social and psychical dimentions; at the same time it also destabilize his system of thoughts since it is haunted by a disparity [la disparation] (lets be faithful to Simondon’s vocabulary) between thoughts and beings. The process of individuation is not governed by form as one can conceive of a mould and the material, as what Simondon illustrated of the image of making bricks: one fill the mould(form) with clays (material). Information here becomes the differences and the possibility of difference which triggers and conditions the whole process of individuation. But crystallization cannot do without a form, the chemical bonds between the ions (for example sodium chloride) and molecules (for example water molecules in snow flakes) are determined by a ‘form’. The process of crystallization can be also modulated, that is to say the form information is circulated can be controlled. This aspect of information is very clear in Simondon especially in one of his conference papers titled L’amplification dans les processus d’information (1962).

Form and information are by no means two oppositions, but they represent two paradigms to understand the process of individuation. Forms can also be information, and the data based on which information is produced (or not if there is no surprise). It is the same case in Shannon’s attempt to work out the redundancy of the English language (which to him is 50%). The above explanation doesn’t yet suffice to clarify the notion of information, we should look into L’amplification dans les processus d’information, which I think also allow us to think in parallel of the notion of ‘control societies’ proposed by Deleuze.

[1] Muriel Combes, Simondon Individu et collectivité –Pour une philosophie du transindividue, “La forme, surtout, cesse d’être comprise comme principe d’individuation agissant sur la matière de l’extérieur et devient information. Mais l’information, plongée dans ce nouveau contexte conceptuel, perd le sens que lui confère la technologie des transmissions (qui la pense comme ce qui circule entre un émetteur et un récepteur), pour désigner l’opération même de la prise de forme, la direction irréversible dans laquelle s’opère l’individuation.”

[2] Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication

[3] Simondon, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de form et d’information, « La notion pure de forme doit donc être sauvée deux fois d’un paradigmatisme technologique trop sommaire: une première fois, relativement à la culture ancienne, à cause de l’usage réducteur qui est fait de cette notion dans le schème hylémorphique ; une second fois, à l’état de notion d’information, pour sauver l’information comme signification de la théorie technologique de l’information, dans la culture moderne», 35

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