The Technium

The Story of Information


[Translations: Polish]

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The history of information and how it came to drive our culture, if not our life, is the subject of James Gleick’s wonderful book, The Information. It is a curious history because despite the length of the book, we still don’t really know what information is. But at least we are aware of it. It’s taken centuries for this most elemental thing to become visible to us.

Gleick connects the dots that connect information to us, and there are many dots. He covers the history of communications of every sort, and the history of information science, which are the most enjoyable parts. At the core of the book is Claude Shannon and his theory of information. Gleick has done better than anyone else in trying to explain the paradoxical nature of information. But it is not easy to understand, in part I believe, because what Shannon meant by information is not what most of us mean by it.

Still, here in one volume is the great story of the most important element at work in the world, and its story is well told. I had forgotten what a fantastic stylist Gleick is. It’s a joy to read him talking about anything.

The Information an important book in that it recognizes and articulates what has not been recognized or articulated to date: that information is the foundation of both human culture and the universe itself, and we should know more about it. Gleick paints the first formal portrait of information as a noun. I recommend the journey; to nudge you there, here are some sample excerpts from the book. (I also interviewed Gleick for Wired.)

On Babbage and his calculating machine:

Like the looms, forges, naileries, and glassworks he studied in his travels across northern England, Babbage’s machine was designed to manufacture vast quantities of a certain commodity. The commodity was numbers. Producing numbers, as Babbage conceived it, required a degree of mechanical complexity at the very limit of available technology. Pins were easy, compared with numbers. It was not natural to think of numbers as a manufactured commodity.

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The engine “must, when completed,” he said, “produce important effects, not only on the progress of science, but on that of civilization.” It would be the rational machine.It would be a junction point for two roads–mechanism and thought.

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As for the engine, it had to be forgotten before it was remembered. It had no obvious progeny. It rematerialized like buried treasure and inspired a sense of puzzled wonder. With the computer era in full swing, the historian Jenny Uglow felt in Babbage’s engines “a different sense of anachronism.” Such failed inventions, she wrote, contain “ideas that lie like yellowing blueprints in dark cupboards, to be stumbled on afresh by later generations.”

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On the arrival of the telegraph:

The telegraph enabled people to think of weather as a widespread and interconnected affair, rather than an assortment of local surprises.

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There was the man who brought a “message” into the telegraph office in Bangor, Maine. The operator manipulated the telegraph key and then placed the paper on the hook. The customer complained that the message had not been sent, because he could still see it hanging on the hook.

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“A net-work of nerves of iron wire, strung with lightning, will ramify from the brain, New York, to the distant limbs and members,” said the New York Tribune. “The whole net-work of wires,” wrote Harper’s, “all quivering from end to end with signals of human intelligence.”

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That morning, a druggist in Slough named John Tawell poisoned his mistress, Sarah Hart, and ran for the train to Paddington. A telegraph message outraced him with his description (“in the garb of a kwaker, with a brown great coat on”–no Q’s in the English system); he was captured in London and hanged in March. The drama filled the newspapers for months. It was later said of R the telegraph wires, “Them’s the cords that hung John Tawell.”

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On the nature of information:

Information is surprise.

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The three are fundamentally equivalent: information, randomness, and complexity–three powerful abstractions, bound all along like secret lovers.

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The phonograph, impressing sound into foil or wax, had yet to be invented, but Babbage could view the atmosphere as an engine of motion with meaning: “every atom impressed with good and with ill . . . which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base.” Every word ever said, whether heard by a hundred listeners or none, far from having vanished into the air, leaves its indelible mark, the complete record of human utterance being encrypted by the laws of motion and capable, in theory, of being recovered–given enough computing power.

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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 the earth’s 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?

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Does it not seem as though a great body is in the process of being born–with its limbs, its nervous system, its centers of perception, its memory–the very body of that great something to come which was to fulfill the aspirations that had been aroused in the reflective being by the freshly acquired consciousness of its interdependence with and responsibility for a whole in evolution? A “sort of cerebrum for humanity, a cerebral cortex which will constitute a memory and a perception of current reality for the whole human race.”




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