Posts tagged ‘James Gleick’

January 6, 2012

Information Gap

The word information, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, dates back to the 14th century. So does the verb inform. The noun informant is a little more recent (1657), as is the adjective informative (1655). But other words that have ‘information’ in them are mostly brand new: information theory (1950), information retrieval (1950), information science (1960), informatics (1967), right down to infotainment (1980), infomercial (1981), and information superhighway (1983).

All of that is a piece of information available to anyone with a dictionary or a internet connection. I mention information and dictionaries in the same sentence again because ever since I wrote a very short post about James Gleick’s book The Information, I’ve been wanting to revisit the subject. In that post I tried to convey an ambivalence about the idea of information and the paradigm it belongs to. On the one hand, a dictionary is indeed a source of information. And I loved the idea (this is from the previous post on Gleick) of a dictionary thought of as the DNA map of language, a double helix of words and definitions opened to the eye. Further, DNA itself is thought of as the information how to build a cell, how to create life, making it seem almost as if it is information that is the basis of life.

However, that something can be thought of as something is not the same as it being something. Perhaps a dictionary can be thought of as a source of information, but can it be reduced to this? Meaning, a dictionary is probably more than just a source of information. (I don’t know enough biology to make a similar claim about DNA, but I strongly suspect that this is the case with DNA as well.)

Anyway, the opportunity to think about this again presented itself when I saw two youtube videos. Here is the first.

This is a video of pictures taken world wide throughout the year 2011. The good people over at triposo made it for our pleasure. In addition to this video, on their website they give stills and talk about why various parts of the globe light up at various times.

There is a problem.

[There are at least a couple, actually. But I’m going to leave aside the one where in a single image they talk about one part of the world, while another part is just as lit up.
For March 21st they mention why Iran is all lit up, but not why Spain and Portugal are. In fact Spain is more lit up in March than in November for All Souls Day, a Catholic holiday they mention on the site. But I think that’s less of a problem.]

On November 30th, the whole world just flashes. They don’t know why. Aside from January 1st no other day lights up the world as much. They sort of explain it away: “It’s a camera setting thing, we expect.” But this got me thinking. The information they gave is, although a wonderful presentation of a year in pictures, didn’t teach us anything. Most days and flashes we can ourselves explain because we know the dates of holidays and the vacationing habits of certain populations; the ones we can’t explain (November 30th), the flashes cannot either, nor the people who compiled the video.

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Here is the second video.

This is a Stanford University project called Mapping the Republic of Letters. They have a wonderful site all about the project here. The visualizations and graphics are just fantastic, I think. The idea of actually mapping this abstract ‘republic’ as if it were itself a country, also speaks to me intensely.

But thinking of the letters as information, as roadways that come to physically represent a country (in the way that, for example a map of roadways will concretize an abstract idea such as France, the country) – well, something is lost, no? Can it really be said that Voltaire was more of a citizen of the Republic of Letters if he wrote more of them than Rousseau? Is it not simply a case of having the means (Rousseau bounced around between residences much more than Voltaire), being a nicer person (Jean-Jacques was notoriously good at making enemies) and being better connected (Voltaire simply knew more people in higher places)?

And then also, do all letters carry equal weight? Do Voltaire’s five letters to his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, who would have also been an equal member in the RL, count the same as one letter to David Hume?

I guess I am wondering what the great thinkers who comprised the RL would have thought of our informational attempt at mapping them. Or what the 18th century thinkers who put together our reference books for the first time, dictionaries and encyclopedias would have thought of our reading them as information retrieval systems. While information mapping is wonderful and has undoubtedly been very useful, how much are we reading our own paradigms of the world back onto the past?

Remember, the word information is from the 14th century. How do we understand its meaning prior to our changing it to suit our own purposes?

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March 15, 2011

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…