[23 May 2011]
We are surfing. We are floundering. We are drowning in a sea of information. Shall we stop to count the waves, or try to make sense of it all? The first of these two is the way of information theory.
Information, in case you haven’t heard, is the new darling of the theorists. It all began in the late ‘40s, when mathematical researcher Claude Shannon, following in the footsteps of engineering colleagues at Bell Laboratories, decided to undress it of its many layers of meaning. Information, he suggested, can be reduced to a switch turning on or off, a yes/no answer, a binary choice or bit. Strung together into a sequence of zeroes and ones, it can be quantified even when it has nothing to say.
This concept proved extremely useful to technicians looking for efficient ways to store, transfer, and process signals inside and between computers, eventually leading to the digital revolution we are still living through. Soon, however, the concept acquired a life of its own, spreading everywhere from biology to economics—until success went to the head of what historian Carl Bridenbaugh, quoted in this book, called the Bitch-goddess of Quantification.
By 1989, physicist John Archibald Wheeler was suggesting that information not only had no meaning; it had no body, either. In his own memorable phrase, he took the “it from bit”, telling us that all the particles and forces of the universe, even space-time itself, are essentially manifestations of an underlying digital principle. With this, information reduced to the simplest conceivable difference was declared to be the mysterious foundation of everything that exists.
Now, it’s true that difference is a basic ingredient of reality; but so is unity, with which it goes hand in hand (the German philosopher Hegel already talked about the “unity of unity and difference”). The bit is difference distilled. Like all other man-made concepts (“color”, for example), it’s an impressive and helpful abstraction; but it’s a stretch too far to imagine it as somehow having an independent existence, above and beyond the world of physical objects.
Moreover, just as “color” properly used is not enough to understand, let alone paint, a Picasso, so there is much that the strictly technical concept of information cannot cover. Consider, for example, misinformation, spin, and outright propaganda. Alas, the theory is silent on all this. A lie told a thousand times is just another string of bits.
James Gleick, the author of this book and of the bestselling Chaos, is a fan of the theory, but he feels the pull of the vast reality beyond it. Luckily for us, his thick volume is not filled with rows of zeroes and ones; instead, it is packed with the rich history of human thought and communication through the ages—of the tools, techniques, and technologies people created, before information theory ever existed, by means of ingenuity and hard labor.
Babylonian cuneiform clay tablets, African drums, the first English dictionaries, the semaphore telegraph system Napoleon installed all over France, the languages and paradoxes of logic, Wikipedia, and other examples, make his book a lively and, shall we say, informative read. So do the stories of flesh-and-bone characters such as Charles Babbage and his collaborator Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who together in the 19th century tried to create a mechanical computer. In Babbage’s own immortal words, the aim was to produce “logarithmic tables as cheap as potatoes” (99).
Gleick views this history as a prelude to the theory, as a process of “information becoming aware of itself” (12); but it makes more sense instead to think of information theory as one episode in the broader story of cosmic and human development. In this narrative, information isn’t pure quantity; it’s a necessary but always partial aspect of the natural world and of social reality—of ethics, politics, science, art, work, and everything else we value in life.
By contrast, information in the hands of the Bitch-goddess is ghostly and dehumanized. Why? What explains the appeal of a theory that empties messages of meaning and wrenches them from their historical and even physical existence?
Gleick and others blame what he calls “the flood”, the huge rush of data constantly washing over us, for the dissatisfaction and feeling of unreality that go with the information age. But the problem, like the issue, isn’t simply one of quantity.
Information dehumanized and cut up into bits is the product of a dehumanizing culture dominated by advanced, sinister, and unfathomable technologies. It’s no coincidence that, as we find out in this book, the foremost theorists of information—Shannon and Norbert Wiener in the US, Alan Turing in Britain, and Andrei Kolmogorov in the Soviet Union—all worked on WWII projects involving weaponry or cryptography; nor is it surprising that the post-war world, born with the blast of two atomic bombs and grown into the most-powerful-ever system of social surveillance, should worship theories that shut away human meaning and purpose.
The sea grows larger and more ominous every day. Eventually, however, we might learn to navigate it, perhaps, ironically, with the help of some of the technologies that now rule over us. Shall we let them colonize our minds for dark and alien aims, or use them for our own? It’s a vital question information theory cannot answer, but humans will want to ask.