Epistemology of Noise

Book Review: An Epistemology of Noise by Cécile Malaspina

It’s rare to find a book that’s as clear about the metaphysics of a technically dense field as this book is about Information Theory and Cybernetics as a whole. Based on Malaspina’s dissertation work under the supervision of Iain Hamilton and a committee of Emmanuel Picavet, Matthieu Saladin, and Ray Brassier, this book already promises big things from the start. In recent days, it seems like the so-called ‘Speculative Realism’ movement is no longer in vogue, with topics such as Object Oriented Ontology and Thing studies generating lots of side-eyes from the greater community of critical theory. Yet books such as this show that its influences are still relevant to post-continental philosophy. While perhaps the directions of Harmon and others on dealing with subject-object and ontological dilemmas have caused some backlash, books such as this one provide new directions for theoretical connections within philosophy and cybernetic theory.

Malaspina doesn’t start with a common-place or classical understanding of information, but rather the ‘‘information’’ of cybernetic discourse. In pointing to Claude Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication 1, she introduces a theoretically constructed and rhetorical dialectic about information. She leans into this dialectic in order to reach a valuable conclusion: while Shannon’s information and Wiener’s 2 information are mathematically identical, a dialectic exists in their explanations about the origins of entropy and noise. For Shannon, noise is that which is not information, and entropy is in part information. For Wiener, entropy is what is to be avoided, and it is accounted for by noise. As Malaspina so aptly puts it, for Shannon, information is the unexpected (the entropy). For Wiener it’s the predictable part of the channel, the non-entropy. Yet, functionally they are saying the same thing about Shannon’s information channel. How is this true?

Shannon is considering the channel itself and the way information can be observed without semantic necessity. That is, Shannon does not consider information to be a priori to the channel. It is only once the communication channel is designed (one router to another, or a phone line, or some other telecommunication technology) that information is known for Shannon. For Wiener on the other hand, he is thinking about what can be presumed about our interpretation of information at the other end of the channel. He takes information and the channel to be co-constructed, and thus, simultaneously a priori. Thus, he presumes that for information to exist, latent semantic content exists outside of the noise. While Wiener takes for granted that every communication system requires Shannon’s technological foundations of information, Shannon resists this interpretation. Instead he presumes that for every analytically determined message to exist, a well-designed channel must exist. That is, Wiener was being a technological determinist about information by presuming that the channel is a priori to the communication. Shannon was merely showing what a “good” communication channel technologically does. Of course, as Malaspina points out, often information exists traveling across channels that are not well-designed to dissect information from noise a priori.

In her outlining this dialectic, Malaspina cuts to the core of cybernetic foundations. That is, she justifies that if we stick to Shannon’s perspective of knowledge about information without semantic assumptions, then in many (if not most) cases, the dissection of noise from information is a subjective analytic and synthetic separation, and not at all an objective observation. She makes this even more clear by reinserting the caloric (K) part of entropy that Shannon left out from thermodynamic models of entropy. In doing so, she shows there should always be a material cost to determining information and that we should never have assumed the distinction of information from the material degradation of the channel itself. As such, knowledge can occur by interpreting noise from a subjective position. This is where her epistemology originates.

Having outlined where analytically noise becomes a priority for knowledge, she dives into several interesting places in which noise is empirically a valid study. Most clearly, she points to noise in relation to finance and technical trading. In making the point that tech trading depends on pre-existing synthetic dissections of noise and information, she puts her thumb on the throat of a particular kind of resistance trading: “noise trading”. This is precisely the kind of trading that occur through GameStop, WallStreetBets, etc. That is, these are people who look for “glitches” in tech trading and exploit them. These are people who experience the design of the channel and experience their weaknesses even before they know the meaning of the noise.

Malaspina goes about redefining and synthesizing the meaning of noise across a series of different spaces, such as that of aesthetics, statistics, and psychopathy. In each case, she is speaking to the impacts in which cybernetic determinism has had a say on constructing our contemporary world, calling back to critical points made by earlier new materialist thinkers which questioned, debated, and reshaped cybernetics. In relation to understanding the political moment from the perspective of ‘the state’ this book takes the 10,000 foot view that one from a Hegelian view might see, and brings it crashing back to Earth by agreeing that ultimately its those who frustrate the dissection of noise and information who regain power. This work puts her squarely in the same theoretical camp as Eugene Thacker, Alexander Galloway, Laura U. Marks, and many other contemporary new materialist theorists adjacent to these issues.

There is so much in this book worth looking at and considering. This is a book that I am going to have to return to multiple times and it might be the book that has impressed me the most in this past year. If you’re invested at all in epistemology, metaphysics, or history of information or cybernetics, this book is a requirement text.


Image Attribution: Alexander O. Smith

  1. Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1998). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. University of Illinois Press. 

  2. Wiener, N. (2019). Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. MIT press. 

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