Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Bit Bomb: The True Nature of Information

From Aeon:

It took a polymath to pin down the true nature of ‘information’. His answer was both a revelation and a return
Just what is information? For such an intuitive idea, its precise nature proved remarkably hard to pin down. For centuries, it seemed to hover somewhere in a half-world between the visible and the unseen, the physical and the evanescent, the enduring medium and its fleeting message. It haunted the ancients as much as it did Claude Shannon and his Bell Labs colleagues in New York and New Jersey, who were trying to engirdle the world with wires and telecoms cables in the mid-20th century.
Shannon – mathematician, American, jazz fanatic, juggling enthusiast – is the founder of information theory, and the architect of our digital world. It was Shannon’s paper ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ (1948) that introduced the bit, an objective measure of how much information a message contains. It was Shannon who explained that every communications system – from telegraphs to television, and ultimately DNA to the internet – has the same basic structure. And it was Shannon who showed that any message could be compressed and transmitted via a binary code of 0s and 1s, with near-perfect accuracy, a notion that was previously pegged as hopelessly utopian. As one of Shannon’s colleagues marvelled: ‘How he got that insight, how he even came to believe such a thing, I don’t know.’

These discoveries were scientific triumphs. But in another way, they brought the thinking about information full-circle. Before it was the province of natural scientists, ‘information’ was a concept explored by poets, orators and philosophers. And while Shannon was a mathematician and engineer by training, he shared with these early investigators a fascination with language.

In the Aeneid, for example, the Roman poet Virgil describes the vast cave inhabited by the god Vulcan and his worker-drones the Cyclopes, in which the lightning bolt of Jupiter is informatum – forged or given shape beneath their hammers. To in-form meant to give a shape to matter, to fit it to an ideal type; informatio was the shape given. It’s in this sense that Cicero spoke of the arts by which young people are ‘informed in their humanity’, and in which the Church Father Tertullian calls Moses populi informator, the shaper of the people.

From the Middle Ages onwards, this form-giving aspect of information slowly gave way, and it acquired a different, more earthy complexion. For the medieval scholastics, it became a quintessentially human act; information was about the manipulation of matter already on Earth, as distinct from the singular creativity of the Creator Himself. Thomas Aquinas said that the intellect and the virtues – but also the senses – needed to be informed, enriched, stimulated. The scientific revolution went on to cement these perceptible and grounded features of information, in preference to its more divine and form-giving aspects. When we read Francis Bacon on ‘the informations of the senses’, or hear John Locke claim that ‘our senses inform us’, we feel like we’re on familiar ground. As the scholar John Durham Peters wrote in 1988: ‘Under the tutelage of empiricism, information gradually moved from structure to stuff, from form to substance, from intellectual order to sensory impulses.’

It was as the study of the senses that a dedicated science of information finally began to stir. While Lord Kelvin was timing the speed of telegraph signals in the 1850s – using mechanisms rigged with magnets, mirrors, metal coils and cocoon silk – Hermann von Helmholtz was electrifying frog muscles to test the firing of animal nerves. And as information became electric, the object of study became the boundary between the hard world of physics and the elusive nature of the messages carried in wires.

In the first half of the 20th century, the torch passed to Bell Labs in the United States, the pioneering communications company that traced its origins to Alexander Graham Bell. Shannon joined in 1941, to work on fire control and cryptography during the Second World War. Outside of wartime, most of the Labs’ engineers and scientists were tasked with taking care of the US’ transcontinental telephone and telegraph network. But the lines were coming under strain as the human appetite for interaction pushed the Bell system to go further and faster, and to transmit messages of ever-higher quality. A fundamental challenge for communication-at-a-distance was ‘noise’, unintended fluctuations that could distort the quality of the signal at some point between the sender and receiver. Conventional wisdom held that transmitting information was like transmitting power, and so the best solution was essentially to shout more loudly – accepting noise as a fact of life, and expensively and precariously pumping out a more powerful signal....MORE
"How Information Got Re-Invented"