Tuesday April 5th, 2011

All Nations Communing

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
Pantheon, 544 pp., $29.95

In his new book, The Information, James Gleick sees three distinct phases in the enterprise of human communication. He illustrates the first, preliterate information systems with a beautiful description of African drumming languages, where signaling is inefficient, cumbersome, and yet bewitchingly florid and recursive, showing the way humans conveyed information for some 30,000 years. Sahel African drummers did not drum in compressed phonemes, but with beats that amounted to a loose musical correspondence to facts in the world. A drummer would not drum to his hunting son “Come back home,” but rather: “Make your feet come back the way they came/Plant your feet and legs (once again?)/In the village that belongs to us.”

Plato had his (non-writing, entirely oral) stand-in Socrates complain that written languages stifled creative memory. Plato saw the creation of scripts as amounting to “external characters not part of themselves (that is, people).” A wooden, rote “reminding” could not surpass the “exercise of memory which counted for true thought.” The use of texts would lead to categories, taxonomies, logic — something Plato saw as a radical, alien mode of thought amid the oral culture that still (several hundred years after Homer) surrounded him. He called preliterate cultures “the Multitude,” and extolled their ability to “lose themselves, and wander amid the multiplicities of multifarious things.”

Plato was quite wrong here, and it was a surprising observation for someone so concerned with progress and stability in Hellenic society. Humans needed an alphabet. Only writing, logic, its storage and retrieval are tools that help determine over time what is true or false, what is safe or perilous. “Truth can be discovered in words alone,” says Gleick, “apart from concrete experience.” You want your 767 crew punching in computerized avionics, not drumming to one another. (And while Grateful Dead drum solos held their fascination, I always took a book and a flashlight to get through them.)


Gleick sees the second stage of information history as virtually created by Claude Shannon, the MIT-trained boy wonder of Bell Labs, in the 1940s and ’50s. Shannon launched information theory, the science of maximally rapid retrieval and transmission of data, which in turn was defined as “something which changes probabilities and reduces uncertainties.” His accomplishment made it, in the words of cognition czar John R. Pierce, “hard to picture the world before Shannon.”

Shannon’s hypothesis was that electrical components — vacuum tubes and then transistors — could navigate mazes, first by trial and error, then by retention of solutions without the errors. Components were able to make “decisions” based on prior “knowledge,” answering Alan Turing’s inquiry “Can machines think?” in the affirmative. Through self-correction, the encoding device behaved like a man who comes to know a town, maneuvering its streets more quickly the longer he lives there, but not always remembering the path he took.

What Shannon was doing, with amazing ingenuity, was mapping one set of objects onto another: logical operations onto electrical circuits, algebraic functions onto machine instructions. And where a layman would see the fundamental problem of communication as making oneself understood — conveying meaning — Shannon saw it as “conveying at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.”

Shannon quite simply separated meaning from communication for logistical purposes. And while the message was not (for purposes of physical reduction) created but selected — like cards from a deck, or word combinations from a fixed code book — meaning still retained a role. Gleick explains that this was the most comprehensive theory of messaging ever devised, equivalent to what physicists had sought for years in a unified field theory:

Though semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem, this view of communication was all-encompassing: not only oral and written speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the theater and ballet, and in fact all human behavior. Nonhuman as well: why should not machines have messages to send?

He had created electrical nerve cells empty of messages, but which could select and transmit any content more rapidly than anything since the inception of speech. By understanding information as a selection among possible alternatives, he had mechanized communication, and the future simply involved more sophisticated instrumentation. That, of course, came with the semiconductor (again invented at Bell Labs), a wafer of silicon with the power of 60,000 transistors.


We all know what followed as the third history — the deluge of more information than anyone really wanted, embodied most famously now in the Internet. By the ’50s, when Shannon was designing a computing machine that corrected itself, the word Frankenstein popped up often, and a Wyoming newspaper editorial warned that “if computers weren’t switched off before lunch . . . [w]hat would happen to them is what happened to jackrabbits in Australia; Before you could multiply 701,945,240 by 879,030,546, every family in America would have a little computer of their own.”

With so much hardware and software to instruct it, data itself increases. Paradoxically, systems of data compression became waves of metastatic expansion. Positive thinkers saw the Web as a version of Yeats’ Spiritus Mundi (collective unconscious) or perhaps the global mind Whitman envisioned in his couplet: “[W]hat whispers are these, O lands, running ahead of you, passing under the seas/are all nations communing? Is there going to be but one heart to the globe?” Skeptics like this writer saw information glut more like Borges’ Library of Babel, containing “all knowledge shelved together with all falsehood,” pure and impure information creating a world of immobilizing abundance.

When Shannon penciled his outline of information systems in 1949, the transistor was just one year old. Now bits have turned to kilobytes, to gigabytes, and onward it goes. Facebook is the prime example of content gone insanely introspective, a berserk sort of Wikipedia of the under-occupied population learning that learning about each other might just be what keeps them under-occupied.

Lately I’ve crossed the field to the sanguine bleachers. Earlier this year, rolling my well-rehearsed eyes at Facebook’s onanism, I looked up at a hotel television at the AWP conference in the early days of the uprising in Egypt. Even though only a small portion of the country’s citizens could afford computers, and though the causes of the rebellion existed pre-PC, it was Internet linkage that reified solidarity, allowing so many to make courageous moves because others stood ready to back them up. Even if every 10 “friendings” is a waste of ether, these same gigabytes are at this moment letting a wind of freedom blow down some politically stifling street somewhere.

We’ve gone from Paul Revere’s lantern in the church tower to white boxes that blink and open and close on our laps. And this has to mean that if the right message is something, in Shannon’s words, “conveyed at one point either actually or approximately, [once] selected at another point,” there is no telling (says Gleick’s epilogue) how strong the effects of human collectedness can become. On the flat screen that night, I watched liberty ensue in Cairo, in the cradle of civilization, in the very month Gleick’s book was published. A despot looked out the window there, beheld the wave of the “information tide,” and trembled. And ran.

Richard Wirick lives in Santa Monica, California, where he practices law and writes. He is the author of Kicking In, a collection of stories, and One Hundred Siberian Postcards, a memoir about the adoption of his daughter.