Getting the 4-1-1

I recently read James Gleick’s book Information: a history, a theory, a flood. It’s a fascinating account of our varying relationships to information. For a long time, we were only set on getting as much of it as we could; then a theory of information developed in the 20th century (principally by Claude Shannon); and now we are drowning in the stuff. But the question that has been bothering me is : what is it?

It’s not that Gleick ignores the question. It’s just that he’s a journalist, and so his aim is to tell a string of interesting stories. Along the way he mentions the physicist John Wheeler’s view that, ultimately, information is the stuff of the universe – in a slogan, “It from Bit.” But what could it possibly mean to say that everything is composed of information? I can understand a hunk of matter or energy or a field somehow having information. Stuff can have a structure which allows us to extract information from it. But what could it possibly mean for the stuff to be information?

So what is information? I’ve gone from reading Gleick’s book to reading Greene’s The Hidden Reality, which also discusses the idea, and supports Gleick’s account that Wheeler thought information may be everything. There’s a lot more studying I need to do, but right now it seems to me that there are two ways of understanding information. The first is purely objective, having to do with being able to quantify and summarize a thing’s structure, regardless of its usefulness for human beings. On this account, the harder it is to exactly summarize an entity’s features, and transmit it exactly to someone else, the less information it contains. So an unending sequence of “01234567890123456789…” doesn’t contain a lot of information, since even though the sequence is infinite, it can be fully summarized as “0123456789, repeat without end.” On the other hand, a random sequence like “73885629199…” is packed with information, since you can’t adequately summarize its exact features without actually giving it. But this view seems counter-intuitive. Consider this message:

“It is a truth that the group identified as the enemy will in the future do something that can be accurately described as attacking at a time that can be described in complete accuracy as dawn.”

That, according to this first view, contains a lot more information than “The enemy will attack at dawn,” since you would have to transmit a longer sequence in order for another person to reproduce it accurately. Wrong.

The second way of looking at information requires humans to enter the picture and sort out what’s useful and relevant or interesting from what isn’t. In this case, the sequence “314159265…” has a lot more information than our earlier “73885629199…”, since it describes pi, while the second sequence isn’t useful for anything. But bringing in subjective human evaluations sort of makes the science of information less sciency.

Also entering into this mess is the notion of entropy, or lack of order, which also seems to me to draw upon both objective and subjective measures. But I’ve read enough now to believe that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I need to read more, and some other books are on their way to me.

OK, now that I’ve admitted I don’t really know what information is, what could it mean to say that everything is made of it? Here’s the best stab I have at it, courtesy of Greene’s book. Imagine making a computer simulation of the universe. This simulation would have to include a representation of you doing what you are doing now. That virtual you, in the program, and the virtual everything surrounding that virtual you, exists in the computer program. That is to say that the virtual you and the virtual everything are ultimately bits of information – perhaps being processed by some physical, colossal supercomputer, but that isn’t relevant, since information isn’t tied to particular structures, and nothing would be different in the virtual world if it were running on some other kind of system. It’s the data, and the processing of the data that counts. Now if you really are the virtual you, and everything around you is the virtual everything, then indeed everything is composed of information.

Sounds loopy, but apparently that is one of the ideas being bandied about by those crazy physicists. It is impossible for me to think about any of this without going back to Aristotle, and his account of form. He didn’t go so far as to say that everything is form, but he knew it was what we need to focus on when we want to understand things; the underlying stuff or matter doesn’t really matter much, except as a carrier of form. I’m surprised, sort of, that neither Gleick nor Greene make anything of this. But only “sort of” surprised, since they’re anxious to point out how new all of this is.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to Getting the 4-1-1

  1. Here is where I get really lost on epistemology.

    So my knee jerk reaction is that information is subjectively defined as something that is useful toward an Aristotelean human end (utility, happiness, joy, etc).

    In this way, I see economics (price theory) as an information engine. What do we get from relative prices. How does that impact our allocation of our resources in fulfilling our human ends. I like McDonald’s Big Mac more than Burger King’s Whopper. However, the Whopper is on sale for $1 and the Big Mac is $1.99. I don’t like the Big Mac twice as much, ergo I buy a Whopper.

    However, I get that there are other versions of the story. Prices, even according to Bentham, don’t communicate all relevant information. So, where else do we turn.

    Science is a an information engine, we routinize our observations in our best Baconian attempts to sort things into categories. We use Descartes to study the magnitudes of these (less category, more field).

    Political Science takes things which are not provided in the market and are not subject to Cartesian rationality and aggregates them in the public discourse. We call this a science because we think that there are better and worse ways to generate good information. The science part is to convince people that certain types of rules work better than others.
    (Tim Besley is great on this approach:

    So, is this like what you are trying to pin down as the definition of information?

    In all these cases the data — observations of wind, sun, temp, latitude, etc mean nothing without a human end. In my Big Mac example, I can only justify the Whopper purchase with the information that my food budget is limited, or faces opportunity costs (something else I get utility from besides food).


  2. Huenemann says:

    Hi, Michael – all of what you say is certainly relevant and sounds to me on the mark. What puzzles me is the attempt to measure quantity of information in the way you’d measure how many beans are in a bag. Claude Shannon himself declared that meaning is irrelevant to information; it’s all quantitative and formal in nature. But I just can’t see how to avoid elementary counterexamples with that approach. If information just can’t be defined except by pulling in human assessments, then the great big “It from Bit” metaphysical idea won’t fly.


  3. Zak Cunningham says:

    I think the thesis “everything is (made of) information” can be read rather productively as the the thesis that “some thing is only insofar as it is in relation to some other thing.” While I disagree with the idea that defining information needs to incorporate some element of human ends (don’t animals and plants get information from their environment? isn’t a star sending out light and radiation into the depths of space a sort of broadcasting of information?), that idea does have a kernel of truth in it I think, namely that information ultimately always has to do with the transferral of information. On this level, the information (which is only insofar as it is transferred) is, in terms of the everyday ways we use these words, equivalent to energy.

    It is in this sense of using the everyday meaning that I think your note that “I can understand a hunk of matter or energy or a field somehow having information” goes south, so to speak. Aside from my knee-jerk Heideggerian reaction of how “metaphysical” that sounds, the problem is that I think there really are two sense of the word “information” we’re talking about here: information in the everyday sense (which is what leads to this notion that some kind of “human end” must be involved) and information in this more scientific sense. In the former case you are right to talk about things “having” information (as long as, in my view, you make the Hegelian point that that information does not exist (in the form you acquire it in) until after observing the “hunk of matter”–in other words, things “have” information only in that, in the Hegelese, that “having” is a presupposition we posit in the process of gathering information), but in the latter things more literally *are* their information, that is, they only exist insofar as they are in relation to (they are transferring information to) some other thing. Perhaps one way to define this distinction is to describe the first kind of information as meaningful information (under the presumption that meaning only exists for some living thing, if not a subject, etc) whereas the second kind is nonmeaningful–as long as one doesn’t make the illegitimate logical jump from “nonmeaningful” to “insignificant.”

    to cite a quantum mechanics example, there is the difference between “virtual” and “actual” particles. Virtual particles are pairs of particles (election and positron, proton and anti-proton, etc) which pop in and out of existence in pure vacuums. Theoretically, from the position of “matter/energy cannot be created or destroyed,” the fact that virtual particles only come in pairs explains how they can “pop in and out of existence”: insofar as the virtual particle which “pops in” does so in tandem with its anti-particle, no matter/energy has “actually” been created (isn’t quantum mechanics mind boggling?). However, it is possible for virtual particles to become “actual” ones: by being put into relation with an actual particle (in Copenhagen Interpretation terms, by being (directly) observed–literally, by hitting a virtual particle with real/actual particle; this is “direct” as opposed to other forms of observing vacuums which can detect energy fluctuations caused by virtual particles without observing the virtual particles directly (again, if you observe a virtual particle directly, it isn’t virtual anymore)).

    i dunno if any of this made sense, but i hope it was at least thought provoking 🙂


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