Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Information (2)

In the early pages of The Information, Gleick writes a good deal about communication: African talking drums, for instance, and telegraphy. Someone wants to say something to another person, perhaps a distant person; how can that be accomplished? Only over much time, Gleick (implicitly) argues, does it become clear that the problem is one of information. And, it turns out, many other problems are problems of information also:

What English speakers call “computer science” Europeans have known as informatique, informatica, and Informatik. Now even biology has become an information science, a subject of messages, instructions, and code. Genes encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out. Life spreads by networking. The body itself is an information processor. Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell. No wonder genetics bloomed along with information theory. 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. “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life,’” declares the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. “It is information, words, instructions. . . . If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”

Then, in a curious turn, near the end of the book Gleick starts talking again about communication. The protagonist of The Information, insofar as it has one, is clearly Claude Shannon, the most important figure in modern history that hardly anyone has heard of, because it was Shannon who defined information and isolated it from other terms with which it is often confused. But Gleick seems to be contemplating near the end of the book the price we pay, or can pay, for Shannon’s world-changing insights: “The birth of information theory came with its ruthless sacrifice of meaning—the very quality that gives information its value and its purpose. Introducing The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Shannon had to be blunt. He simply declared meaning to be ‘irrelevant to the engineering problem.’ Forget human psychology; abandon subjectivity.” None of that matters to “the engineering problem.”
This seems to make Gleick uncomfortable, but in ways that he never quite sorts out. I think I will want to return to this point.


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