The Information

James Gleick

We all rely on it. This blog couldn’t exist without it. What is it?

Information. More specifically, the smallest unit of information — the bit. Yes or no. Up or down. On or off. Left or right. 1 or 0. In the famous phrase of physicist John Archibald  Wheeler: “It from bit.”

Wheeler was kind enough to provide an expansion for us:

Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.

Wheeler’s notion and the seminal contributions to information theory of the discipline’s patron saint, Claude Shannon, lie at the heart of James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Gleick’s book is a fascinating story of information — its nature, the changes in how we’ve conceived it, and the technologies that continue to grow from those changes.

(Due to a number of limitations, not least the weakness of this writer’s skills in math and physics, we’ll ignore the effect of quantum physics on classical information theory’s  “flip-flop” version of states inherent in the notion of “1 or 0.”)

There have been many changes in the way we perceive information. As Gleick notes in a related essay, “The Information Palace,” published in the New York Review of Books in December 2010, the word “information” was dismissed a century ago by the Oxford English Dictionary with the pedestrian definition, “An item of training; an instruction.” Now, in the online version of the OED— a change that is itself indicative of the way information has changed — “information” has an entry of 9,400 words.

This dramatic shift parallels the growth of the “Information Age,” in which we now live — and from which it’s hard to see how we’ll emerge again.

Gleick’s article offers another key insight into the themes of his longer work:

[Consider] the ancient Latin precursor: the verb informare—to give form to; to shape; to mold. Information is the act of infusion with form. Where, and how? The forming takes place in the mind.

With Shannon and Wheeler, Gleick sees information not as a thing, a quantity, but rather as an action, a process. And whether that process occurs at the subatomic level or with a viral YouTube video, it’s the same process: turning “bits” into “its.”

The Information is an informative and entertaining read. Even if you already know quite a lot about the Internet and the growth of information technology from hand signals to server farms, Gleick’s book is sure to offer both new details and insightful restatements of concepts. In fact, the more you already know about information, the more you’re likely to get out of The Information.

The most common criticism of Gleick’s book to be found in the reviews is that he focuses on the process of communicating information and ignores most of the social and personal consequences of the information explosion.

Geoffrey Nunberg, an information theorist from UC Berkeley, put it this way in a review in the New York Times:

[Gleick’s] focus on information as a prime mover and universal substance leads him to depict its realm as a distinct place at a remove from the larger social world, rather than as an extension of it. … But there’s no road back from bits to meaning. For one thing, the units don’t correspond: the text of “War and Peace” takes up less disk space than a Madonna music video. Even more to the point, is “information” just whatever can be stored on silicon, paper or tape?

While it is true that Gleick’s focus is the information process itself, it’s not true that he completely ignores its consequences. Rather, he concentrates on the consequences of our understanding of the role of the bit for all of our sciences, as well as for our conceptions of learning, knowledge, and truth. It’s hard to get more consequential than that.

And Gleick spends considerable time on an admiring analysis of the phenomenon that is Wikipedia, a phenomenon that is both a direct consequence of information theory à la Shannon and an example of the democratizing power of information, in this case usefully defined as a combination of bandwidth and access.

As noted science writer Freeman Dyson points out in “How We Know,”  his lengthy review of The Information:

Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. … The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.

Some of the best sections of The Information are passages where Gleick explains the ways that new technologies changed not only our experiences with information but also the ways that we interacted with the world as a whole. Considering the telegraph, Gleick writes that “the most fundamental concepts were now in play as a consequence of instantaneous communication between widely separated points. Cultural observers began to say that the telegraph was ‘annihilating’ time and space.”

The telegraph was just the first of the great “annihilators.” As Gleick writes:

Three great waves of electrical communication crested in sequence: telegraphy, telephony, and radio. People began to feel that it was natural to possess machines dedicated to the sending and receiving of messages. These devices changed the topology – ripped the social fabric and reconnected it, added gateways and junctions where there had only been blank distance.

As Gleick observes, as far as we can tell we are alone among animals in being able to abstract from the message to the medium:

Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us – not anymore. We humans, alone among organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception. We are aware of the many species of information. We name their types sardonically, as though to reassure ourselves that we understand: urban myths and zombie lies. We keep them alive in air-conditioned server farms. But we cannot own them. When a jingle lingers in our ears, or a fad turns fashion upside down, or a hoax dominates the global chatter for months and vanishes as swiftly as it came, who is master and who is slave?

No matter the philosophical answer to that question, the impact of new information technologies on the store of human knowledge has been dramatic:

The past folds accordion-like into the present. Different media have different event horizons – for the written word, three millennia; for recorded sound, a century and a half – and within their time frames the old becomes as accessible as the new. … For a certain time, collectors, scholars or fans possessed their books and their records. There was a line between what they had and what they did not. For some the music they owned (or the books, or the videos) became part of who they were. That line fades away. Most of Sophocles’ plays are lost, but those that survive are available at the touch of a button. Most of Bach’s music was unknown to Beethoven; we have it all – partitas, cantatas, and ringtones. It comes to us instantly, or at light speed.

Gleick is very much aware of  “The embarrassment of riches. Another reminder that information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.”

In fact, Gleick ends his book by introducing Borges’s haunting story “The Library of Babel,” in which reside all possible books — all possible information, all possible counter-information; all possible nonsense, all possible counter-nonsense. Information is not knowledge, nor knowledge wisdom, indeed.

The library will endure; it is the universe. As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms. We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.


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