From Rothschild to Gold, Gleick Maps Info Evolution: Interview

James Gleick
Author James Gleick, author of "The Information." Photographer: Phyllis Rose/Random House via Bloomberg

“It from Bit,” said physicist John Wheeler, who viewed information as the basic principle of existence, underlying everything from quarks to the space-time continuum. He’s just one of the great thinkers crowding the pages of James Gleick’s latest book, “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.”

Beginning with 5,000 year old cuneiform records of barley sales, Gleick takes a look at how we process and think about information, and how information theory is changing everything from genetics to quantum mechanics to economics.

We spoke in his light-filled aerie overlooking Lincoln Center.

Lundborg: So there’s no quick definition of information?

Gleick: The Oxford English Dictionary has just revised and updated its entry on information and it now runs almost ten thousand words.

Scientists have a definition of information that they created beginning in 1948.

Lundborg: If there’s a central figure in your book, it’s Claude Shannon, who wrote “The Mathematical Theory of Communication.”

Gleick: He was an engineer and mathematician at Bell Labs who created what we now call information theory. He had a technical definition, with an equation that goes with it.

Heads or Tails

Lundborg: Essentially, he reduced information to a binary digit, or “bit,” which represents one of two choices, heads or tails, one or zero.

Gleick: The guiding paradox of my book is that even though this definition lays the groundwork for the modern world and the theory, it’s not really satisfactory to us because the whole point of a scientific view of information was to think of it as something without meaning.

Lundborg: So are we doing anything differently now that we have a theory?

Gleick: We are much more sophisticated about information than our ancestors. We are aware that information is really what the world runs on, the vital principle. Our jokes are funnier than 100 years ago.

We’ve become very smart consumers of information -- we’re aware of all kinds of meta things, all kinds of self-referentiality. What’s important is to develop the necessary skills to sort out what’s valuable from what’s garbage.

Lundborg: As you point out, “When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.”

Who Will Listen?

Gleick: We’re all both consumers and purveyors of information. The challenge is not finding ways to say what you want to say, but finding people to listen.

Lundborg: You say, “Economics is recognizing itself as an information science, now that money itself is completing a developmental arc from matter to bits.” So whole disciplines are evolving?

Gleick: Money itself is an information technology. If you take a dollar bill, it’s just a token, an indicator that I have a claim on some amount of value.

People used to think it was worth something in itself because it was made of gold. Even now, we sometimes naively continue to have the illusion that a gold coin has value because gold is somehow precious.

Lundborg: Look at the rising price!

Gleick: Aside from the industrial uses, the dominant source of value for gold is something entirely psychological, because people agree that it stands for something.

It’s really a form of mass hysteria.

Wall Street Villainy

Lundborg: Do you think Wall Street ran into the recent crisis because of the growing level of financial abstraction?

Gleick: The villainy in the financial sector over the last decade has expressed itself in an increasing abstraction of financial instruments. But it’s not the abstraction in itself. What’s to blame is the lack of regulation and lack of sense in the way it was all handled.

Money has to be an abstract thing. But it all got very meta, too many steps removed from the real thing, and too many games were played.

Lundborg: Capitalists have always jumped on faster info: The Rothschilds used carrier pigeons and later financiers loved the telegraph.

Gleick: In the history of technologies for transmitting information, it was always apparent that there was a lot of money to be made by getting information from one place to another faster than your competitors could do it.

It provides a window into the future.

Lundborg: What surprised you the most during your research?

Telegraphing Info

Gleick: There were a lot of little surprises. When I started I expected the telephone to be a much more important story than the telegraph.

But it was the telegraph that made more profound changes in the way people thought about the role information has in their lives and in the culture. It taught the first big lessons of the information age.

Just like the Internet, there was hype and excitement, as well as fear and the recognition of possible dangers that we see today.

Lundborg: Your epilogue is entitled: “The Return of Meaning.”

Gleick: I realized information theory in itself was not going to be satisfactory. It wasn’t going to give us enough of a sense of what information really is for us humans, for the very reason that meaning had to be drained from the definition and meaning is exactly what we need today.

It’s also a recognition that all the wonderful things we get from being able to communicate instantaneously with all corners of the globe have to be balanced by some preservation of our own individual creativity.

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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