April 2011

Richard Wirick


The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick


In his new book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick sees three distinct phases in the enterprise of human communication. The first preliterate information systems involved African drumming languages, in which signaling was inefficient, cumbersome, and yet bewitchingly florid and recursive. Humans conveyed information this way for some 30,000 years. Sahel African drummers did not drum in compressed phonemes, but with beats that amounted to a loose musical correspondence to facts in the world. A drummer would not drum to his hunting son “Come back home,” but rather: “Make your feet come back the way they came / Plant your feet and legs (once again?) / In the village that belongs to us.” It was at once formulaic and too fluid to accommodate complexity.

By the time of Plato, when words were composed of jumbles of letters, the philosopher had his (non-writing, entirely oral) stand-in Socrates complain that written languages stifled creative memory. Plato saw the creation of scripts as amounting to “external characters not part of themselves (that is, people).” A wooden, rote “reminding” could not surpass the “exercise of memory which counted for true thought.” (Republic, 694, translation by Benjamin Jowett). The use of texts would lead to categories, taxonomies, logic -- something Plato saw as a radical, alien mode of thought amid the oral culture that still (several hundred years after Homer) surrounded him. He called preliterate cultures “the Multitude,” and extolled their ability to “[l]ose themselves, and wander amid the multiplicities of multifarious things.”

As is often the case, though, Plato was quite wrong, and it was a surprising observation for someone so concerned with progress and stability in Hellenic society. Humans needed an alphabet, defined by Gleick as a single symbol for one minimal sound. And while acts of abstraction can be given all kinds of license by mere sound, only writing, logic, its storage and retrieval are tools that make that act determinative of what is true or false, what is safe or perilious. “Truth can be discovered in words alone,” says Gleick, “apart from concrete experience.”  You want your Boeing 767 crew punching in computerized avionics, not drumming to one another. (And while Grateful Dead drum solos held their fascination, I always took a book and a flashlight to get through them.)

Gleick marks the second stage of information history as virtually created by Claude Shannon, the MIT–trained boy wonder of Bell Labs, in the 1940s and '50s. Shannon launched information theory, the science of maximally rapid retrieval and transmission of data, which in turn was defined as “something which changes probabilities and reduces uncertainties.” Now, said cognition czar John R. Pierce, it is “hard to picture the world before Shannon.” Shannon’s hypothesis was that electrical components -- vacuum tubes and then transistors – could navigate mazes, first by trial and error, then by retention of solutions without the errors. Components were able to make “decisions” based on prior “knowledge,” answering Alan Turing’s inquiry ‘Can machines think?’ in the affirmative. Through self-correction, the encoding device behaved like a man who knows a town, maneuvering its streets very quickly but not always remembering how he arrived at his destination.

What Shannon was doing, with amazing ingenuity, was mapping one set of objects onto another: logical operations onto electrical circuits, algebraic functions into machine instructions. And where a layman would see the fundamental problem of communication as making oneself understood -- conveying meaning -- Shannon saw it as “conveying at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” (This is from The Mathematical Theory Of Communication, written by Shannon and Warren Weaver.) Shannon quite simply separated meaning from communication for logistical purposes, and saw information as requiring coding in an abstract formula independent of its physical embodiment. And while the message was not (for purposes of physical reduction) created but selected -- cards from a deck, word combinations from a fixed code book -- “meaning” still retained a role. Gleick explains that this was the most comprehensive theory of messaging ever devised, equivalent to what physicists had sought for years in a “unified field theory”:

[Though semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem], this view of communication was all-encompassing: not only oral and written speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the theater and ballet, and in fact all human behavior. Nonhuman as well: why should not machines have messages to send?

He had created electrical nerve cells empty of messages, but which could select and transmit any content more rapidly than anything since the  inception of speech. By understanding information as a selection among possible alternatives, he had quantitized and mechanized communication, and the future simply involved more sophisticated instrumentation. That, of course, came with the semiconductor (again invented at Bell Labs), a wafer of silicon with the power of 60,000 transitors.


We all know what followed as the third history -- the deluge of more information than anyone really wanted, embodied most famously now in the Internet. By the 1950s, when Shannon was designing a computing machine that corrected itself, the word “Frankenstein” popped up often, and a Wyoming newspaper editorial warned that “[I]f computers weren’t switched off before lunch… What would happen to them is what happened to jackrabbits in Australia; Before you could multiply 701,945,240 by 879,030,546, every family in America would have a little computer of their own.” With so much hardware and software to instruct it, data itself increases. Paradoxically, systems of data compression became waves of metastatic expansion. Positive thinkers saw the Web as a version of Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi (collective unconscious) or perhaps the global mind Whitman envisioned in his couplet: “[W]hat whispers are these, O lands, running ahead of you, passing under the seas / are all nations communing? Is there going to be but one heart to the globe?” Skeptics like this writer saw information glut more like Borges’s “Library of Babel,” containing “all knowledge shelved together with all falsehood,” pure and impure information projecting its own world of immobilizing abundance.

When Shannon penciled his outline of information systems in 1949, the transistor was one year young. Now bits have turned to kilobytes, to gigabytes, and onward it goes. Facebook seems to be the prime example of content gone insanely introspective, a berserk sort of Wikipedia of the under-occupied population learning that learning about each other might just be what keeps them under-occupied.

Lately I’ve crossed the field to the sanguine bleachers. Just last month, rolling my well-rehearsed eyes at Facebook’s onanism, I looked up at a hotel television at the AWP conference in the early days (February 1-5) of the Egyptian Uprising (that’s what we're going to call it, right?). Even though a small portion of its citizens could afford computers, and though the causes of the rebellion existed pre-PC, it was internet linkage that reified solidarity, allowing so many to make courageous moves because others stood ready to back them up. Even if every ten “friendings” is a waste of ether, I have to believe this same resource -- bytes, gigabytes, now terabytes -- is at this moment letting a wind of freedom blow down some politically stifling street somewhere.

We’ve gone from Paul Revere’s lantern in the church tower to white boxes that blink and open and close on our laps. And this has to mean that if the right message is something, in Shannon’s words, “conveyed at one point either actually or approximately, [once] selected at another point,” there is no telling (says Gleick’s epilogue) how strong the effects of human collectedness can become. On the flat screen the night I watched liberty ensue in Cairo, in the cradle of civilization, in the very month this book was published. A despot looked out the window there, beheld the wave of the “information tide,” that blood-dimmed tide, and trembled. And ran.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
ISBN: 0375423729
544 Pages