I am not even 100 pages into my latest William Poundstone book and I already know it’s going to be a favorite. Fortune’s Formula, The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street is the fourth Poundstone book I’ve read. The man is a genius of a writer. Labyrinths of Reason and Prisoner’s Dilemma have been in my personal top ten list for years and years and I urge people to read them every chance I get.
I have long been fascinated by the idea of “meaning” in communication. I’ve held the belief for as long as I can remember that the responsibility for communicating meaning is always placed on the person creating the message. If I am trying to tell you something, it is never your fault if you don’t understand. I just read a passage in Fortune’s Formula that really rocked me. It’s so good that I can’t help but quote it here:
What is the “substance” of a message, the essential part that can’t be dispensed with? To most the answer was meaning. You can squeeze anything out of a message except meaning. Without meaning, there is no communication.
Shannon’s most radical insight was that meaning is irrelevant. … Shannon’s concept of information is instead tied to chance. This is not just because noise randomly scrambles messages. Information exists only when the sender is saying something that the recipient doesn’t already know and can’t predict. Because true information is unpredictable, it is essentially a series of random events like spins of a roulette wheel or rolls of a dice.
If meaning is excluded from Shannon’s theory, what is the incompressible substance that exists in every message? Shannon concluded that this substance can be described in statistical terms. It has only to do with how unpredictable the stream of symbols composing the message is.
A while back, a phone company ran ads showing humorous misunderstandings resulting from mobile phone noise. A rancher calls to order “two hundred oxen.” Because of the poor voice quality, he gets two hundred dachshunds — which are no good at pulling plows at all. A wife calls her husband at work and asks him to bring home shampoo. Instead he brings home Shamu, the killer whale.
The humor of these spots derived from a gut-level understanding of Shannon’s ideas that we all share whether we know it or not. Try to analyze what happened in the Shamu commercial: (1) The wife said something like, “Pick up shampoo!” (2) The husband heard, “Pick up Shamu!” (3) The husband wound up the conversation, said goodbye, and on the way home picked up the killer whale.
It is only the third action that is ridiculous. It is ridiculous because “Pick up Shamu” is an extremely low-probability message. In real conversations, we are always trying to outguess each other. We have a continuously updated sense of where the conversation is going, of what it likely to be said next, and what would be a complete non sequitur. The closer two people are (personally and culturally), the easier this game of anticipation is. A long-married couple can finish each other’s sentences. Teen best friends can by in hysterics over a three-character text message.
It would be unwise to rely on verbal shorthand when speaking to a complete stranger or someone who doesn’t share your cultural reference points. Nor would the laconic approach work, even with a spouse, when communicating a message that can’t be anticipated.
Assuming you wanted your spouse to bring home Shamu, you wouldn’t just say, “Pick up Shamu!” You would need a good explanation. The more improbable the message, the less “compressible” it is, and the more bandwidth it requires. This is Shannon’s point: the essence of a message is its improbability”