What is information anyway?

By Jeff

We all know that we “live in the information age.”  And most of us have probably heard that the amount of information in the world is doubling  every few years, or some such thing.  Well, I have to say, as an information professional, I’m always a bit confused by these types of statistics.  I mean, what is information anyway?  As I write this blog entry, I know that it will be “information” soon.  But, before I wrote this sentence, I typed three other versions and deleted them.  Do those lost sentences count as information?  It’s all quite debatable and it sort of  reminds me of the old “if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” conundrum.

Anyway, I recently finished a book that, while it does not ultimately answer the question “what is information anyway,” it does dive very deep into information theory.  The Information:  a History, a Theory, a Flood, by James Gleick takes a very complicated topic and makes it quite digestible for just about anyone (at least anyone who is at least mildly interested in this subject).  Gleick accomplished this same feat a couple of decades ago with his book Chaos:  Making a New Science.

Top ten interesting things I learned from Gleick’s The Information (in no particular order):

  • African Talking  Drums were so intricate and sent such complicated messages that early Western explorers could not possibly have understood their “code.”  For example, instead of “Come back home,” a drummer might say,

Make your feet come back the way they went,
make your legs come back the way they went,
plant your feet and your legs below,
in the village which belongs to us.

  • On this planet, there has only been one alphabet.  All written alphabets alive and dead (but still being discovered) descend from the same original ancestor from around 1500 BC.
  • Early in the 20th century farmers and ranchers started their own telephone cooperatives using the barbed wire fences that were already in place for their original purpose.
  • Without the telegraph there would be no scientific field called Meteorology.  It took instantaneous information transmission from one city to another city for scientists to begin forecasting  weather events.  As Gleick puts it, ” The telegraph enabled people to think of weather as a widespread and interconnected affair, rather than an assortment of local surprises.”
  • The struggle of too much information being transmitted over wires is not new to the computer age.  The term ‘bandwidth” was created in the hey day of the telegraph.
  • Claude Shannon, who is basically the hero of Gleick’s book, is a new figure to me.  He was a Bell Labs mathematician, writer, inventor and “the father of information theory.”  Let’s just say that just about everything I read about him I found interesting and there was way too much to list here.
  • Shannon was the first to use word bit as the smallest unit of measure of information.  At that time though, it wasn’t just for computers or information theory, but in everyday life as “just a bit of information.”  Any time there are only two possible answers  and then one is given – “yes or no,” “heads or tails,”  “1 or 0”  – you have a bit of information.   Thus, Paul Revere’s mythic ride allowed for just a bit :  “one if by land, two if by sea.”
  • While I had heard Samuel Butler’s answer to a famous joke,  “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg,” I’d never read the rest of his quite serious discussion on the matter which ends by telling us the reason we don’t see it otherwise is because “the egg does not cackle when it has laid the hen.”
  • Bertrand Russell discovered a paradox concerning the least amount of syllables one can use in the english language to describe any given number.  For example, the numbers 1-6 all require one syllable and 7 is the smallest number that requires 2 syllables, while 11 requires 3, and so on.  The number 121 (6 syllables) can be expressed more succinctly as “eleven squared” (4 syllables).  Here’s the paradox, the number 111, 777 (or,  one hundred and eleven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven – that’s 19 syllables) is a number that can be expressed as “the least integer not nameable in fewer than nineteen syllables,” which is only 18 syllables – sorry I love stuff like this.
  • How’s this for a book title:  A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes?  With 2,500 entries, this was the first dictionary in the English language, written in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey.

While I may have been taught  some of this once a long time ago (I took a history of information sources, so I must have learned about Cawdrey once), Gleick’s books puts it all together so thoroughly and succinctly, that I cannot recommend this fun book enough.

7 thoughts on “What is information anyway?

  1. I love this stuff, too, Jeff. It reminds us how little we really know, especially about knowledge. 🙂 Thanks for sharing it – and I’m off to find the book.


  2. Fascinating stuff, Jeff!

    I love it when I’m reminded about how brilliant and resourceful our ancestors were, although seeing their remarkable accomplishments makes me feel lazy and more than a little bit slow.

    I’m going to read “The Information” as soon as Loretta is done with it!


    • Luke, I’m delighted to learn you enjoy science. “The Information” is only 526 pages of scientific jargon, so I should be able to knock that out in a couple of days. Now the problem lies with transportation. What with the gas crunch, it has been decided to augment our courier service with pack mules. Unfortunately, all the local mules are out on missions, so I have the onerous task of selecting a substitute. I’m going with the miniature burro. Hopefully I should have the book fitted and ready to transport by Thursday. But you know how burros love to play around, stop for a drink, that kind of thing. If you don’t have the book in hand by, say, mid-October, I would recommend you check the mountain passes up there, just to make sure the little fellow isn’t stuck in the snow. Good reading!


      • “I collect animal miniatures and I usually find one or two at most flea markets.”

        Is that where you found your miniature burro? How very resourceful — I’m guessing you were a Brownie at one time?


  3. Holy Cow, Loretta! I wish you were on TV — I’d watch!

    Please be good to your Brain. It’s a real treasure.


    • That’s funny – I thought of this more as a brainless activity! 🙂 (Didn’t mean to hijack your post, Jeff, but I’m really enjoying the book.)


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