The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

August 25, 2015

Life is the mechanism information uses to reproduce itself.

The Information is a practical history of information as a concept, from the early pioneers and hackers like Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, through the theoreticians Claude Shannon and Alan Turing. It surprised me to learn that the idea of information as such is a relatively modern invention. Gleick notes a humorous anecdote from the advent of the telegraph:

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.

It’s a funny story, but also indicative of just how epochal a change this was. A “message” had always been a physical thing—a piece of paper, a sign carved into wood, etc.—but now a message could be a bit of code sent through copper wire. The idea that a message’s content was a thing apart from it, that the physical thing merely embodied something invisible, information, had no precedent in history.

We now take this for granted, of course, and yet our induction into the mysteries of information may not yet be complete. Below the current of history, Gleick is always hinting at something deeper, an idea as disturbing as it is inevitable by the book’s end: that the universe belongs to information, and we are simply the vectors by which it reproduces itself. As Daniel Dennett once said,

A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.

Or, in another formulation from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, humans are merely the tools genes use to reproduce themselves. And genes are, at base, just information. Or in Gleick’s own words:

In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.

Compressed into a catchphrase with an almost binary singsong quality by physicist John Wheeler: “It from bit.”

John Archibald Wheeler, the last surviving collaborator of both Einstein and Bohr, put this manifesto in oracular monosyllables: “It from Bit.” Information gives rise to “every it—every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence … from bits. Why does nature appear quantized? Because information is quantized. The bit is the ultimate unsplittable particle.

As I said, our species may still be early in our journey toward understanding what information really is.