Friday, March 18, 2011

All of the Information

You may be bemused by the knowledge that when Anne Hathaway is in the news, the stock of Berkshire Hathaway goes up. Well, that’s what an informal study says. A spurious correlation, you say? Tell that to the computers that hedge funds use to trade stocks: they’re designed to try out everything, no matter how implausible it is to the human mind. The benefit is that the computer figures out some interesting novel stuff that our blurry perceptions and controlling biases might have hidden from us. The problem is that sometimes you run into this:

By coincidence I chose today to read a review of James Gleick’s The Information, which is a nonfiction book whose title is the most intimidatingly apt one I can recall for a long while. As far as I can gather, the book deals with the “flood” of information gushing forth from the interactions of technology and culture. The review—by Freeman Dyson—concludes thusly:
The vision of the future as an infinite playground, with an unending sequence of mysteries to be understood by an unending sequence of players exploring an unending supply of information, is a glorious vision for scientists. Scientists find the vision attractive, since it gives them a purpose for their existence and an unending supply of jobs. The vision is less attractive to artists and writers and ordinary people. Ordinary people are more interested in friends and family than in science. Ordinary people may not welcome a future spent swimming in an unending flood of information. A darker view of the information-dominated universe was described in a famous story, “The Library of Babel,” by Jorge Luis Borges in 1941.3 Borges imagined his library, with an infinite array of books and shelves and mirrors, as a metaphor for the universe.

Gleick’s book has an epilogue entitled “The Return of Meaning,” expressing the concerns of people who feel alienated from the prevailing scientific culture. The enormous success of information theory came from Shannon’s decision to separate information from meaning. His central dogma, “Meaning is irrelevant,” declared that information could be handled with greater freedom if it was treated as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness. Information in such quantities reminds us of Borges’s library extending infinitely in all directions. It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.

I’m not sure that a future filled with information is an unattractive one for artists and writers, who after all are about as adaptable a class as any. If the culture isn’t consumed by a Malthusian/Hobbesian horrorworld, there will be artists, and some of them might even be interesting.

Artists should find a world confronted with accusations of meaninglessness particularly comforting, since they’ve been trying to answer that charge for ages now (are the teenagers the only ones who listen? It seems like that sometimes.). The trouble with a world flooded by information is the same trouble with a joke you don’t quite get: it seems like it should work perfectly, but it doesn’t, and it’s hard to determine whether it’s your fault or the joke’s.

It’s your fault when you allow the machines to take over all of your mental functions. Stories of trucks getting stuck in too-narrow British streets or driving into houses fifteen times in a year have become common. (They turned on their GPS systems and turned off their brains, apparently.) But that’s an extreme trouble of something that’s very handy, namely: people tend to be bad at remembering stuff; machines, on the other hand, are excellent at remembering things. Comparative advantage and all that. Mental ability may be just the latest thing we’ve invented a better device for, and it’s hard to foresee how we’ll evolve in response. I mean, look at runners, always complaining about calluses and cuts and what have you—do you really think our barefooted ancestors had these kind of problems? I don’t think so. If we’re to believe the science fiction stories, we’ll always have our creativity.

Or, at least, some of us will. It might seem like the joke’s fault that it’s only skimming the part of reality that can be converted into information, but then again we’ve had the same problems with the way words describe reality. Many people take them too literally, if people’s reactions to metaphorical stories is any indication. (Take for instance Orwell’s essay “Shooting An Elephant.” Orwell never shot an elephant, or if he did never shot that elephant. This deeply disappoints some people, as if the elephant was the point.) Information, like language, is just a representation of reality. Information’s advantage—and disadvantage, too—over information is that it is impersonal. But if that’s so, it’s just a tool: use it usefully.

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