Decoding Shoes

I’m a person who likes to know things. This is especially true when those “things” are relevant to me. For example, when asked by my housemates about pet peeves, I said I don’t like it when I don’t receive prior notice regarding guests. Thus it became a rule in my house that we have to notify the group chat before bringing people over. This rule was eventually abandoned by everyone at the start of the second semester because it became bothersome.

Even though this nosy personality of mine makes life troublesome at times, I believe it often leads me to discover or realize things I otherwise wouldn’t have. In fact, I think my nosy personality might explain why my most significant takeaway from this course involves a decoding process; my favorite conceptual lesson I’ve learned is the idea that information exists all around us in an encoded form.

I truly came to realize this because of two things. The first is┬áJames Gleick’s definition of “code” in The Information: “words or symbols standing in for other words or symbols” (168). I originally did not think much about this line because I thought of “code” in more technical terms; binary code, for example, where a different set of numbers (a symbol) can stand for different letters (another symbol).

The second thing was this passage in Walden: “When I return to my house I find that visitors have been there and left their cards, either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf or a chip. They who come rarely to the woods take some little piece of the forest into their hands to play with by the way, which they leave, either intentionally or accidentally…I could always tell if visitors had called in my absence, either by the bended twigs or grass, or the print of their shoes” (“Solitude”).

Thoreau’s words made me realize I needed to re-examine Gleick’s definition of code because I was viewing information too simply; I thought information could only be expressed as something verbal (gossip or verbal directions), technology specific (binary code), or data specific (charts). Thoreau, however, had realized what I didn’t: information exists in everything, including all objects, around us. If you were to analyze Thoreau’s passage using Gleick’s definition of code, then you could say the footprints and bended twigs hold coded information. They are physical symbols that represent other symbols or information, namely that people had visited Thoreau’s cabin when he was not physically there. Their traces are the encoded form of the message/information: “I was here.” From this, I finally understood that all objects around me hold encoded information; I just need to actively decode the information.

This made me reconsider the way I read literature. When I read, I typically tend to ignore large setting descriptions. Instead, I scan the passage and form a general conclusion (“this is a dilapidated building,” “this is a lab,” “this is the main character’s bedroom,” etc.). I realize I should be paying more attention to the specific objects the author includes in the description, for they might reveal or foreshadow something about the plot or characters.

I’ve also found a way to apply this in my everyday life. I now have a way of knowing who is in my house without having to rely on the group chat: shoes. When I want to know who is in the house, I go to check the shoes in the front door. If I see a strange pair of shoes I don’t recognize, it means that we have a guest; if I see a pair of indoor house slippers, then I know a specific housemate is not home. The shoes are a symbol; they hold information that is coded. As long as I know how to decode this symbol (mainly by remembering which shoes belong to which housemate), then I’ll be able to receive the information I want to know.

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