The Information

the-information-gleickWhat is Information? Is it inseparably connected to our human condition? How will the exponentially growing flow of information affect our societies?  How is the exploding amount of information affecting us as people, our societies, our democracies? When The Economist talks about post-truth society, how much of this trend is related to the failure of fact-checking, increasing polarity and fragmentation of media and the distrust of ‘experts’?  The Information starts with a reference to Borges’ Library of Babel:

The Library of Babel contains all books, in all languages.  Yet no knowledge can be discovered here, precisely because all knowledge is there, shelved side by side with all falsehood.  In the mirrored galeries, on the countless shelves, can be found everything and nothing.  There can be no more perfect case of information glut. We make our own storehouses.  The persistence of infomation, the difficulty of forgettting, so characteristic of our time, accretes confusion. (p. 373)

In The Information, James Gleick takes the reader on a historical world tour to trace the origins of our ‘Information Society’, basically an old term that keeps on being reinvented. It’s a sweeping and monumental tour that takes us from African drumming over alphabets, the beginnings of science, mathematical codes, data, electronics to the spooky world of quantum physics.  He shows how information has always been central to who we are as humans. He points to foreshadowings from the current information age such as the origin of the word “network” in the 19th century and how “computers” were people before they were machines.

shannonThe core figure in the book is Claude Shannon. In 1948 he invented information theory by making a mathematical theory out of something that doesn’t seem mathematical. He was the first one to use the word ‘bit’ as a measure of information. Until then nobody would have though to measure information in units, like meters or kilograms. He showed how all human creations such as words, music and visual images are all related in the way that can be captured by bits. It’s amazing that this unifying idea of information that has transformed our societies was only conceptualized less than 70 years ago.

It’s Shannon whose fingerprints are on every electronic device we own, every computer screen we gaze into, every means of digital communication. He’s one of these people who so transform the world that, after the transformation, the old world is forgotten.” That old world, Gleick said, treated information as “vague and unimportant,” as something to be relegated to “an information desk at the library.” The new world, Shannon’s world, exalted information; information was everywhere. (New Yorker)
At its most fundamental, information is a binary choice.  A bit of information is one yes-or-no choice. This is a very powerful concept that has made a lot of modern technology possible. By this technical definition, all information has a certain value, regardless of the content of the message.  A message might take 1.000 bits and contain complete nonsense. This shows how information is at the same time empowering, but also desiccating. Information is everywhere, but as a result, we find it increasingly hard to find meaning.  Has the easy accessibility of ‘facts’ diminished the value we assign to it?
Despite the progress in producing and storing information, we have remained human in our ability to filter and process information. Gleick gives the example of his own writing process:
The tools at my disposal now compared to just 10 years ago are extraordinary. A sentence that once might have required a day of library work now might require no more than a few minutes on the Internet. That is a good thing. Information is everywhere, and facts are astoundingly accessible. But it’s also a challenge because authors today must pay more attention than ever to where we add value. And I can tell you this, the value we add is not in the few minutes of work it takes to dig up some factoid, because any reader can now dig up the same factoid in the same few minutes.
It’s interesting because this feeling of the precariousness of information is everywhere. We think information is so fragile, that if we don’t grab it and store it someplace, we’ll forget it and we’ll never have it again. The reality is that information is more persistent and robust now than it’s ever been in human history. Our ancestors, far more than us, needed to worry about how fragile information was and how easily it could vanish. When the library of Alexandria burned, most of the plays of Sophocles were lost, never to be seen again. Now, we preserve knowledge with an almost infinite ability.
Redundancy is a key characteristic of natural information networks. As Taleb taught us, decentralized networks are much more resilient than centralized structures.  Every natural language has redundancy built in. This is why people can understand text riddled with errors or missing letters and why they can understand conversation in a noisy room.  The best example of a natural information network may be life’s genetic make-up:
“DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level—an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being.” “When the genetic code was solved, in the early 1960s, it turned out to be full of redundancy. Some codons are redundant; some actually serve as start signals and stop signals. The redundancy serves exactly the purpose that an information theorist would expect. It provides tolerance for errors.”
 Technological innovation has always sparked anxiety. Gleick quotes Plato’s Socrates that the invention of writing “will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.” (p.30) Mc Luhan recognized in 1962 the dawn of the information age.  He predicted the confusions and indecisions the new era would bring and wrote about a ‘global knowing’.  Thirty years before H.G. Wells wrote about a World Brain, a widespread world intelligence, taking the form of a network.  Wells saw this network as a gigantic decentralized encyclopedia, managed by a small group of ‘people of authority’. The network would rule the world in a ‘post-democratic’ world order.
Gleick writes that we’re still only at the start of the Information Age. Some effects on us and on our societies will only become apparent in the coming decades. Will the internet continue to evolve into a world brain or will it splinter into various parts. Will the atomisation of our media into countless echo chambers continue and what kind of society will it lead us into?
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 recognize creatures of the information. (p.426)