The word “bit” was used as a term of measuring information in 1948, coined by 32-year-old mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon in The Bell System Technical Journal. “The bit now joined the inch, the pound, the quart and the minute as a determinate quantity…as though there were such a thing, measurable and quantifiable as information,” James Gleick read from the prologue of his book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.
Facing a crowd at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Gleick examined the conceptualization of information from alphabets to the telegraph and DNA. In a time when people feel inundated by information, Gleick also dismissed the notion that our anxiety is historically unique.
Bits of Morality
“Can morality be qualified in terms of bits?” An audience member asked. “I would say it’s orthogonal,” Gleick responded with deliberation.
For the non-mathematical, “orthogonal” means perpendicular, or statistically independent. But Gleick suspected that the question was driving at something deeper. “Can art be reduced to bits? Can anything we care about be reduced to bits?” Gleick continued the line of thought.
“Claude Shannon emphasized that it had to do with meaning,” Gleick explained. At first, information theory-a branch of applied mathematics and electrical engineering that attempts to quantify information-only interested engineering circles. In the 1950s information theory became exciting to the public. People like Margaret Meade gathered in salons, asking questions about quantifying morality. Gleick posited: “When Shannon said meaning is irrelevant they said…meaning is all we care about.”
Margaret Meade wasn’t the only one paying attention. Information theory became part of every day language, bleeding into public consciousness. Gleick contends that it currently infiltrates all of the major sciences, including evolution and biology.
“There’s no way to avoid it,” he said, describing the process of protein building and genetic codes.
Information theory piqued Gleick’s curiosity 20 years ago when he was researching his book Chaos. “I’ve been working on this book for a long time and thinking about it for even longer,” he admitted. He began to see how information theory was endemic to current technology. “The implications are real…It’s worth understanding how it underlies everything we use,” Gleick said.
(Gleick briefly noted that along with the mathematics of information theory, he became interested in human language redundancies. His methodical, calculated responses to questions were perhaps indicative of this fascination.)
“As the role of information grows beyond anyone’s reckoning, it grows to be too much,” Gleick read from his book, The Information. ” ‘TMI,’ people now say. We have information fatigue anxiety, and glut.”
Gleick contemplated the changing sources of information in his opening description of a New York Times article called “How the Internet Tried to Kill Me” by Zick Rubin. Rubin discovered that a Wikia article listed him as dead, when he was very much alive. This led to a comedy of exchanges and Wiki “edit wars.” Turns out, a published book of biographies was the origin of the misinformation.
“All of those years knowledge seemed to be fixed….he didn’t even know about the book. It was there for 10 years.” Gleick pondered how only ubiquitous, easily accessible knowledge matters anymore. “It seems to me that the book tried to kill him and the internet brought him back to life,” he quipped.
Gleick believes that our modern sense of tech overload is “an illusion.” Everyone has always had to deal with censoring out superfluous or erroneous information. “Every new information technology has brought the same complaint,” he said. He referenced mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, who complained there were too many books and it would be the death of philosophy.
“There was a genuine sense of despair about that, which is not to make light of our current sense of despair. It’s all the more true now.” But Gleick predicted with optimism: “We as individuals will find ways to cope.”
See event photos here.
See full video here.
Read an excerpt of The Information here.
Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon
*Photos by Aaron Salcido