Age of Information

James Gleick, the popular science writer, has a new book. It’s called The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood.

David Ulin reviewed it for the LA Times. Ulin plays a little trick on the reader. He quotes a section from the book: “‘The transmission of thought, the vital impulse of matter.’ The excitement was global but the effects were local. … Information that just two years earlier had taken days to arrive at its destination could now be there — anywhere — in seconds. This was not a doubling or tripling of transmission speed; it was a leap of many orders of magnitude. It was like the bursting of a dam whose presence had not even been known.”
What sounds like a description of our internet age is Gleick’s description of what happened after the telegraph was invented in the mid-nineteenth century.  A reminder that everything is not about us and our vain, self-reflective blog era. Clever.

But the really interesting bit of the review comes a bit further. We find out from Gleick, via Ulin, that in the middle of the 20th century, people invented the bit, the unit for measuring information. Then, says Ulin, “[f]or Gleick, as for all of us, this has become a fundamental concept, obvious now but utterly revolutionary in its time. The same might be said of the dictionary, which he describes as an early information system, or the double helix, which he portrays as the space where biology and information merge.

Gleick may be getting a little ahead of himself. He is writing a book on information, so everything becomes a form of information. Language and life itself! come to be underpinned by ‘information.’ On the other hand, I don’t hate the idea of the dictionary as an early information system. And I am aware that DNA is often described as the information how to build a cell.

Indeed, after reading that sentence, I not only thought of the dictionary as an information system, but as the double helix of language. Here is language parsed into its basic protein bits, on the left side we have a word, on the right we have the output of the meaning, and the whole thing is (usually) organized in two columns from A to Z. All one would have to do is make a 3D model, twist it around itself and voila! the double helix of language.

from Watson and Crick's 1953 paper first describing the structure of DNA

Ok, I like it…


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