What a Context Is: Information Flow Theory

I’ve been busy lately, and let this discussion lapse for a bit. Let’s see if I can kickstart it again.

Sometimes, information flows from the physical world to a person who observes and interprets his perceptions to create and recognize new knowledge. Sometimes, someone creates a message in a physical medium and “sends” it into the world hoping that there will be another person who not only can sense it, but can recognize it as a message and can receive the information layered on top of the physical perception. The first is an example of simple observation and perception, the second is an example of communication within a context. While both rely on the perception of physical reality by the observer, they are fundamentally, though subtlety, different.

I have been reading a book on the mathematical theory underlying the “flow” of “information” in the real world, and while I don’t yet really understand the theory, there are some points the book is failing to make about context which I think are important.

Barwise, Jon and Seligman, Jerry, Information Flow: The Logic of Distributed Systems, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Not that the book was intended to cover the concept of context, per se, being an attempt to lay out a mathematical/logical framework for describing the flow of information across, through and between physical systems. It does have an extensive section on “local logics” which when I understand it better may help me describe my own ideas about context in a formal manner.

What struck me, and forms the origin point of today’s discussion on contexts, is the example the authors use to introduce and illustrate the technical discussion. And as you will see, it is not just the example given, but variations of it that I will use to elucidate better what a context is and is not. To get to the meat of my thinking, here is their example, as written on pages 4-5.

Judith, a keen but inexperienced mountaineer, embarked on an ascent of Mt. Ateb. She took with her a compass, a flashlight, a topographic map, and a bar of Lindt bittersweet chocolate. The map was made ten years previously, but she judged that the mountain would not have changed too much. Reaching the peak shortly after 2 P. M. she paused to eat two squares of chocolate and reflect on the majesty of her surroundings.

At 2:10 P. M. she set about the descent. Encouraged by the ease of the day’s climb, she decided to take a different route down. It was clearly indicated on the map and clearly marked on the upper slopes, but as she descended the helpful little piles of stones left by previous hikers petered out. Before long she found herself struggling to make sense of compass bearings taken from ambiguously positioned rocky outcrops and the haphazard tree line below. By 4 P. M. Judith was hopelessly lost.

Scrambling down a scree slope, motivated only by the thought that down was a better bet than up, the loose stones betrayed her, and she tumbled a hundred feet before breaking her fall against a hardy uplands thorn. Clinging to the bush and wincing atthe pain in her left leg, she took stock. It would soon be dark. Above her lay the treacherous scree, below her were perils as yet unknown. She ate the rest of the chocolate.

Suddenly, she remembered the flashlight. It was still working. She began to flash out into the twilight. By a miracle, her signal was seen by another day hiker, who was already near the foot of the mountain. Miranda quickly recognized the dots and dashes of the SOS and hurried on to her car where she phoned Mountain Rescue. Only twenty minutes later the searchlight from a helicopter scanned the precipitous east face of Mt. Ateb, illuminating the frightened Judith, still clinging to the thorn bush but now waving joyously at the aircraft.

Was Judith Lucky That Miranda Knew Morse Code?

In a word, yes. In so many ways:

  • like the fact that Miranda was near the bottom of the mountain,
  • that she had a clear view of the side of the mountain where Judith lay,
  • that she had a cell phone at the car,
  • and most importantly, Judith was indeed lucky that Miranda knew the Morse code for “SOS”.

In fact, it was also lucky that Judith herself knew the code. So in the story as given, since Judith knew the code to use when she found herself in trouble, she used her light as the syntactic medium in which she encoded a message of her need for help. The fact that Morse code is a globally standard coding scheme simply meant that both Judith and Miranda both shared a common context without ever having met. The fact of their shared knowledge of the code provided the context by which Judith was able to get her message to Miranda.

What if Miranda Didn’t Know Morse Code

Things could have been much worse for Judith if either of them had no knowledge of the code, or if neither of them did. In addition, it was lucky that Miranda was somehow aware (or realized as she was watching) that a flashing light could be used to signify such a code, and that she then obviously deduced from the repeated pattern that someone was sending a message.

Imagine what might have happened if Miranda had seen the flashing light, but didn’t recognize it as a code, and therefore didn’t try to translate what she was seeing. Instead of reacting by calling for help, she might have thought to herself “Oh look, there’s a light up on the mountain. I wonder what that is?” but then gone on about her business.

In other words, Miranda could have observed her environment and perceived the flashing light but concluded that it was simply a physical phenomenon of no particular import. She may have perceived the signal but failed to recognize it as a message. In which case, this would show that Judith and Miranda had failed to establish a context for the communication.

What if Judith didn’t know Morse Code?

If Judith didn’t know Morse Code, perhaps she would still have started waving her flashlight around. Miranda having seen the light would have no reason to recognize a code.

Would this mean Judith would be out of luck? Not necessarily, if Miranda was also an experienced hiker. Miranda being in the context of hiking, it might occur to her that there shouldn’t be a light on that part of the mountain at that moment in time. She might think to herself that the random way the light was moving, plus its position on the mountain compared with where the safe trails were, added up to someone in distress.

In this case, a message has still been sent from Judith to Miranda, with the same result. The context that Miranda was thinking in plus her perception and prior knowledge of the mountain trails, allowed her to reach a conclusion that there was someone on the mountain in trouble. But it is important to note that Judith was not in the same context as Miranda.

In fact, if Miranda was a ranger, she may have been trained to look for and recognize the behavior of people in distress. In this example, we must conclude that Judith was not actually participating in the context with Miranda. It was Miranda’s knowledge of and mindset regarding her perceptions of the dangerous mountain environment which led her to deduce the existence of a person in trouble, not the fact of Judith’s trying to send a message.

Yes, this Judith tried to send a message, but she couldn’t have known that her random wavings would be recognized in anyway. Whereas the Judith who used Morse code actually knew of a context and encoded a very specific message using that context, with the expectation and hope that someone else might also understand it.

The difference in the two versions of the story is subtle. In both cases a message was sent, and in both a message was received and an action was taken. But in the first story, a bridging context in the form of Morse Code was called upon to carry a very specific message, while in the second story there was no bridging context. In the second story, it was entirely the perceptiveness and deductive power of Miranda’s “hiking Mt. Ateb context” which allowed her to create for herself new information: namely that “someone out there is in trouble”.

Once More, What If Judith Wasn’t In Trouble?

Let’s take one more variation of the story to enforce this last point. Let’s say that everything happened as described, except that instead of falling down the scree, Judith purposefully rappelled down the side of the mountain. And furthermore, that instead of clinging desperately to a thorn bush, that she had actually managed to establish a bivuoac in that peculiar outpost. In this version of the story, perhaps Judith is waving her flashlight around as in our second story, only this time merely to light her little campground while fixing herself dinner.

Now imagine ranger Miranda, trained as before and with a knowledge of the trails, but without prior knowledge of anyone camping where Judith found her perch. Using her same described skills of perception and deduction, Miranda may still come to the conclusion that there was someone on the side of the mountain in trouble, and would take the aforementioned steps to effect a rescue. Only she would find that Judith was not in need of help, and is now put out by the disturbance of her relaxation by the whirring chopper blades.

In this version of the story, Miranda is still in the same context as before, and uses her perceptions and the rules of that context to reach her conclusion. The fact is, and this second version of the story should make it clear, that while information did flow from Judith to Miranda just as before, we cannot call this information a “message” carried on a medium and in a context shared by Judith and Miranda. In other words, it was not a purposeful communication across a bridging context.

No, quite simply, in both of these latter examples, Miranda’s context guided her to her perception and the creation of the knowledge that Judith was on the mountain and in trouble (even if she was mistaken on this last point in the final story).


The fact that a person who presses a flashlight button does or does not intend to send a message – to communicate through that act -defines whether we classify the information flow as being a symbollic act or not. Perhaps the person does not realize or care whether there is another person watching for a flashlight in the dark. The factthat someone sees the light and acts in response does not mean that communication has occurred. Just because information has flowed does not mean that symbols have flowed.
This is a subtle distinction but an important one.

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