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What I want to write about

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about writing something that argues that the history of information is way more discontinuous than we’ve thought. Usually, we trace info and computers from Turing and Claude Shannon back through Hollerith’s punch cards, back to Babbage, and maybe back to the Jacquard loom, which used punch cards to control the patterns being woven. But I think this reads the modern idea of information back into machines that were not information-based at all. The loom cards look like punch cards, but they’re not really information, any more than a gear is. Or a comb is, for that matter.

When we discovered atomic theory, we were able to claim that historic objects were made of atoms all along. But I don’t think it’s the same with information theory. Reading info back into historical objects feels more like what happened when the universe started to look like clockwork.

This matters to me because I think we’re beginning to emerge from the Information Age. The paradigm is just starting to break. So it’s a good time to wonder how we ever managed to conceive of ourselves and our world as made out of information. How did we become information?

So, I’m not sure how to approach this, but I’ve been having a lot of fun reading about Babbage (including the new Difference Engine construction, as well as Doron Swade’s account of the first one), Hollerith, Turing, Shannon, and the rest of the cast of characters. I’ve also been poking around in some disciplines that reconceived of themselves as being about information, especially genetics. Some great stuff has been written about this. (E.g., “Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code” by Lily Kay) Every conversation leads to another three books, and every book leads to another ten, so I’ve been reading fairly randomly and quite happily at this point. (No, I have not yet read “How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics,” by N. Katherine Hayles, but it sounds spot on.)

I’m greatly enjoying the poking and the prodding and the not understanding. [Tags: ]

18 Responses to “What I want to write about”

  1. The trend among futurologists seems to be to say we are entering (or in) the genetics age. And what is genetics if not information? And digital too!

  2. If you focus on “Information Age”-related literature, much of it traces back to and sometimes beyond the industrial revolution with much of the focus on managerial systems that predated machines and computers. The basic argument many put forth is that the movement into the Information Age was a natural evolution demanded by increasing complexity in our world. Much of the argument is economic and political (economists appear to have been the first to begin making rigorous arguments and examinations) with a ton of Marxism and analysis of capitalism’s influence on all of this. I’d be happy to send you some readings (culled from a class in which I am currently enrolled; the entire syllabus is at

  3. Kevin, thanks for the link to the syllabus. I have some books on my list about the role of business and politics in this. My usual temptation is to focus on the evolution of ideas more or less on their own, which is a false simplicity. So, I appreciate the push…

    AJ, I’m tending in the opposite direction: I want to know why and how we have managed to take it as obvious that DNA is information. That’s what “Who Wrote the Book of Life?” is about, btw.

  4. David, is the idea that we are information not a very old question that relates to idealism?

    You can look at the Shannon Entropy and mechanical entropy and find the same mathematical structure operating in both. You can connect mechanical entropy to quantum mechanics through Bose-Einstein and Fermi statistics, and you can also look at building up the mathematical scaffolding that can support quantum mechanics out of simple geometries by adding more structure iteratively, or the ability for those geometries to hold more information. Very quickly you can approach the kind of modern mathematical idealism espoused by thinkers like Roger Penrose, and described very nicely in his book ( “The Road To Reality”, which means one could say that the issue of provenance for thinking about our relationship to information stretches back to the pythagoreans.

    If you have started to get interested in genetics then an important contribution in this area was a book by Schrodinger called What is Life? in which he looked at the issue of hereditary from the perspective of what was physically possible, and made an early suggestion that a molecule like DNA might have something to do with it.ödinger)

  5. Ian, aren’t all questions old? ;)

    Of course there are precedents. But informationalization is not exactly idealism. Or, perhaps it’d be better closer to say that it’s a type of idealism. But it’s a peculiar form, in its pure formalism and (depending on how you take “information”) its symbolic nature: The holes in the card are an arbitrary code, designed to represent some state of affairs and designed to be manipulated by computers. It’s interesting to me how that has come to be taken as the stuff of life itself. So, between idealism and realism, yeah, it’s more like idealism.

    As for looking at the confluence of entropies: It’s something I keep trying to understand, but I am a poor humanities major and I lack the math sufficient even to understand the basic entropy equation. For me, the scariest part of this possible project is trying to understand Shannon, although I think that the definition of information quickly escaped his definitional control as it permeated our culture.

    I have a different Penrose book on my to-read list, right next to the Schrodinger book. There’s also apparently a bunch of Gamow I should be reading, although in all these cases, I’m likely to rely heavily on secondary sources :( In any case, thanks for the suggestions.

  6. Not that I really understand what you are writing about, but what immediately came to my mind was Jorn Bargers’ “Timeline of knowledge-representation”

    Probably unhelpful.

  7. Are you suggesting that information has to be man-made? If not, how is it possible to suggest that information (DNA) taken from one factory (cell) and placed in another factory (cell) gives that factory all the information needed to operate?

  8. First, we’re not entering the genetic age as we’ve been part of it for a time now. It’s not about the near future, as all of these things (genetic companies entering the market, etc) are happenning right now.

    Second, why wouldn’t DNA be some kind of information? Information, obviously, doesn’t have to be man-made.

    A philosopher is needed here. :)

  9. The question “Is info man-made?” gets at the issue, because it forces me to try to refine “man-made” (and not just because of the unintended no-girls-allowed implication). But this is really hard. It’s hard enough when we’ve wondered about the ontological status of mathematics. It’s hard when we ask if patterns “man-made.” No, because we can point at patterns that exist in nature. But, yes, because there are an indefinite number of possible patterns, depending on which attributes we decide to attend to, based on which ones our feeble wetware is able to attend to and which ones we care about. (One way to read the effect of some of the hallucinogenics is that they enable the emergence of patterns independent of our interest in them.) Nevertheless, patterns seem less constructed than saying, for example, “This tree is 6 meters high.” We might as well say that it’s six Alices high, or that a bridge is 364.4 smoots long. And information – as I am using the term – is even more constructed than measurements.

    So, I have no problem saying that an 1806 loom card was made of quanta, even though quanta are a 20th century discovery. I see no problem in saying that the loom card was 0.08 of an Alice long. But I think to say that it’s information just as a 1960s punch card was smudges a distinction worth maintaining.

    I would love to be crystal clear about what I mean, but I want to write about it precisely because I don’t know what I mean.

    AJ, there are ways to explain DNA without using the concept of information. Earlier explanations talked about templates. There was a lock and key metaphor. Even describing it as “code” or “text” are not exactly the same as describing it as information. But to be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t use info theory to talk about DNA. I’m instead wondering how we’ve come to accept that DNA _is_ information.

    Put differently, I don’t think we need information theory to explain the teethmarks I leave in an apple. I’m sure info theory applies — for one thing, it could help us understand the information lost in the transfer — but it’d be a mistake to think that biting into an apple is an act of information.

    I think. But I expect to learn otherwise.

  10. I’m a big fan of Shannon (hence my blog being, but I can see how information theory is reductionist to a fault. I’m reminded of Gian-Carlo Rota’s admonitions against the fallacy of presupposition. Still, as long as we can distinguish information from understanding, the Shanon / Turing perspective seems pretty damn nifty.

  11. Hayles essayed some of her starting points for _How We Became Posthuman_ in an essay on cybernetics in _Virtual Realities and Their Discontents_, an “old” anthology edited by Robert Markley. And I hope you have or will peruse Wiener’s _The human use of human beings_. So, let’s see, let’s see…there’s Bateson’s _Steps to an Ecology of Mind_, Erik Davis’s _Techgnosis_, not to mention Manuel de Landa’s strange books. All of these are somewhat off the mark but tangentially suggest that, in the humanities, structural linguistics and its progeny are part of the story, semiology arising as a kind of unified theory in literature, anthropology, etc. In connection with this, Lotman’s _Universe of Mind_ comes to mind.

  12. I was aware of the “sexist” connotation when I wrote “man-made” but I was in a hurry at the time – no slight intended.
    DNA is indeed a template, but it’s an interesting one. Since it is a self-replicating system, it contains all the information necessary to reproduce itself. It is therefore also information, in a kinda binary, Schrodinger-like way. Biology is so cool ;-)

  13. David said: “but it’d be a mistake to think that biting into an apple is an act of information.”

    I was going to suggest that maybe a good question would be along the lines of:

    how do people perceive X as an act of information?

    I think you’ve written about worn library catalog cards conveying information about the popularity of library books?

    The wearing on the cards maybe isn’t an act of information in terms of our current, computing-biased, view of information. But, if we can perceive information via the wear, isn’t it more or less a limiting bias to ignore that “analog” aspect of the catalog’s information system?

    I’d think something similar about the Jacquard loom punch cards. It is a stretch to see the looms as machines running on digital information. But, does that mean that the cards weren’t used as information in an information system?

    The information system of the loom cards may be something that we in the 21st century can’t see, e.g., the way someone raised today with online library catalogs may not perceive the information in the wear on 20th century paper catalog cards.

  14. Thanks for all the leads.

    Jay, Seeley-Brown and Duguid wrote about the metadata in the wear of catalog cards, and I think it’s a good example. Viewing the loom cards as info has value, but thinking that the cards _are_ info seems to me to be a misreading, Likewise, I’ve seen steam governors used as an example of info feedback loops; it might help to apply info theory to governors, but to think that they _are_ a feedback loop seems wrong to me.

    At some point I’m going to have to clarify what I mean by “info” and show that it’s not a purely idiosyncratic definition…

  15. David said: “At some point I’m going to have to clarify what I mean by ‘info’ and show that it’s not a purely idiosyncratic definition…”

    I doubt it’s purely idiosyncratic. But, it’s maybe a term of art where we web and computer folks might agree on a definition that wouldn’t be as broad or loose as in other contexts (of which 150 years ago should be considered an other context!).

    IMHO, web and computer folks tend to use “information” to mean the kind of stuff that directly translates into the data and data structures supported by computers to-date, e.g., text and binary files, documents, so-called metadata, etc.

    And, for example, in my experience, film photographers and audio engineers commonly talk about information in a broader way–to describe potentials in relationship to perceptible details.

    It sounds like, in your discussion, it’d be essential to define what it means for something to be:

    -not information
    -viewable as info
    -not viewable as info
    -a container of info
    -a container absent of info

  16. If you haven’t read Theodore Roszak’s book, “The Cult of Information,” I’d recommend it. It’s a little bit dated now, but he makes some very astute observations about the differences between “information,” “knowledge,” “wisdom,” “ideas” and “intelligence” — all of which today’s dominant paradigm tend to regard as synonyms or near-synonyms.

  17. information is a concept, as a concept. dna is a metaphor, as is a map (which is not the territory)

    history is a concept. you want to write a concept about a concept

    gregory bateson’s definition of information as any difference which makes a difference

    mystics have this down, they would not say the world is made of information, they would say the world is made of concepts, and the subject of your book seems to be about the progressive refining of concepts

    throw in consciousness, you have the book of the next quarter century

  18. Your ref to the jacquard loom reminded me of that wonderful bbc series by James Burke called Connections (and the sequal). And of a remark once by a Smithsonian curator who told me that Burke had over-simplified historical connections among technological innovations and discoveries in order to weave a compelling narrative.

    To the point you’re onto, tho, there’s the humanist/anthropological and cultural angle on this, which views information as a production of communication and cultural practice. Here Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks is fascinating. Foucault is huge of course (he claimed that practices and how we talk about them must be understood together — so technologies do what their accompanying discursive regimes make sense of). Postman, Poster, Ellul, are good reads.

    And if you take information to be a product of speech and its artifacts as belonging to cultural writing systems, there’s a huge amount of good stuff there too. (social media would = new writing systems. i dont buy it but it’s an approach.)

    I think the interesting thing here is that web is home to information and all manner of information management tools and systems. Now with social web it’s as if there’s a second layer of information — communication or mediated talk. My take on this is to view social media as means of production — of talk but also of course relationships, self-presentation, presence, even of proximity and asynchronous temporalities. Information comes out of production systems — so the social web layer of information could be analyzed, manipulated, recontextualized (as it is by web 2 tools and sites) and it may come out as second order web information (searchable, categorized, meta indexed etc) even though it was produced by a third order system (which is the human to human layer).

    Luhmann is great on second order systems, and his systems theory is immensely helpful in understanding how in a media environment (mass media), media are an observation of reality, so they are second order. Social media would be a third order system — people observing the second order mass media observation of the first order production of reality. His book The Reality of the Mass Media, and especially to your tastes I think, his book Theories of Distinction, are brilliant. Luhmann is growing in reputation worldwide as a bridge between cybernetics/systems theory and sociology. I have a 45 pager on social media and luhmann on my site: if you’re interested.

    there’s got to be a bridge between onotologies that manifest semantic and “information” meanings *and* socio-technical production systems (social web as mediated speech, or what a lot of folks call “conversation”).



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