Commonplace Books as a Source for Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

Common Place Book

There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when if you have occasion for any thing, you can’t use it, because you know not where it is laid.”

The flood of information is nothing new.

“In fact,” the Harvard historian Ann Blair writes in her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, “many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extent back for centuries.” Her book explores “the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management— the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation.” She calls them reference books.

Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating access to a mass of texts considered authoritative. Reference books have sometimes been mined for evidence about commonly held views on specific topics or the meanings of words, and some (encyclopedias especially) have been studied for the genre they formed.

[...]

No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new. Nonetheless, the basic methods we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books. Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.

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Florilegium and Common Places

One of the original methods to keep, share, and remix ideas was the florilegium, which were compilations of excerpts from other writings taken mostly from religion, philosophy, and sometimes classical texts. The word florilegium literally means a gathering of flowers — flos (flowers) and legere (to gather).

The leading Renaissance humanists, who experienced perhaps the first wave of information overload, were fans of common place books as a method of study and note-taking. Generally these notebooks were kept private and filled with the likes of the classical Roman authors such as Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca.

“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”

Arranged under ‘Heads’ and recorded as ‘common-places’ (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices.”

Regurgitation wasn’t the aim but rather combinatorial creativity as people were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone, in this case information, is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play.

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A move away from Memory

Yeo comments:

In all sorts of learning, and especially in the study of languages, the memory is the treasury or store-house but the judgment the disposer, which ranges in order whatever it hath drawn from memory: but left the memory should be oppressed or over-burden’d then by too many things, order and method are to be called into its assistance. So that when we extract any thing out of an author which is like to be of future use, we may be able to find it without any trouble. For it would be to little purpose to spend our time in the reading of books, if we could not apply what we read to our life.

Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory.

This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. … In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory.

While calling memory ‘the store-house of our ideas,’ John Locke recognized its limitations. On the one hand it was an incredible source of knowledge. Yet, on the other, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time it faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. In something the internet age would be proud of, Locke’s focus is retrieval, not recall. His system was a form of pre-industrial Google.

Locke saw commonplace books, not as a means to improve memory but as an aid to assist recollection of complex information gathered over years from multidisciplinary subjects. If only Farnam Street existed in his day.

Yoo writes:

Locke sometimes refers to his bad memory. This might seem to endorse the humanist conception of commonplace books as memory aids, but Locke does not believe that memory can be trained in ways that guarantee transfer across subjects and situations. This separates him from many of his near contemporaries for whom the commonplace book was still a stimulus in training memory to recall and recite selected quotations.

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Creativity

In his essay, Extraordinary Commonplaces, Robert Darnton comments on the practice at the time which was to copy pithy passages into notebooks, “adding observations made in the course of daily life.”

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. … The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.

Common place books are thus to be mined for information, not only on how people thought but also as a source of creativity. Darnton continues:

By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology — a process of knowing — at work below the surface

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The Art of Putting Things in Order

As for what to write in the common place books themselves, Le Clerc advised that we: (1) extract only those things which are “choice and excellent,” either for the substance or the expression; and (2) don’t write out too much and mark the place where we found it so we can come back to it:

At the entrance indeed upon any study, when the judgment is not sufficiently confirm’d, nor the stock of knowledge over large, so that the students are not very well acquainted with what is worth collecting, scarce anything is extracted, but what will be useful but for a little while, because as the judgment grows ripe, the things are despis’d which before were had in esteem. Yet it is of service to have collections of this kind, both that students may learn the art of putting things in order, as also the better retain what they read.

But here are two things carefully to be observed; the first is, that we extract only those things which are choice and excellent, either for the matter itself or else for the elegancy of the expression, and not what comes next; for that labour would abate our desire to go on with our readings; neither are we to think that all those things are to be writ out which are called … sentences. Those things alone are to be picked out, which we cannot so readily call to mind, or for which we should want proper words and expressions.

The second thing which I would have taken notice of, is, that you don’t write out too much, but only what is most worthy of observation, and to mark the place of the author from whence you extracted it, for otherwise it will cause the loss of too much time.

Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant.

The places we design to extract from are to be marked upon a piece of paper, that we may do it after we have read the book out; neither is it to be done just after the first reading of the book, but when we have read it a second time.

These things it’s likely may seem minute and trivial, but without ‘em great things cannot subsist; and these being neglected cause very great confusion both of memory and judgment, and that which above all things is most to be valued, loss of time.

Some who otherwise were men of most extraordinary parts, by the neglect of these things have committed great errors, which if they had been so happy as to have avoided, they would have been much more serviceable to the learned world, and so consequently to mankind.

And in good truth, they who despise such things, do it not so much from any greater share of wit that they have than their neighbours, as from what of judgment; whence it is that they do not well understand how useful things order and method are.

Locke also advised “to take notice of a place in an author, from whom I quote something, I make use of this method: before I write anything, I put the name of the author in my common-place book, and under that name the title of the treatise, the size of the volume, and the time and place of its edition, and the number of pages that the whole book contains.”

This number of pages serves me for the future to mark the particular treatise and the edition I made use of. I have no need to make the place, otherwise than in setting down the number of the page from whence I have drawn what I have wrote, just above the number of pages contained in the whole volume.

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The Notebooks of Paul Klee

"Ingres is said to have created an artistic order out of rest; I should like to create an order from feeling and, going still further, from motion."
“Ingres is said to have created an artistic order out of rest; I should like to create an order from feeling and, going still further, from motion.”

Paul Klee was a painter who wrote extensively about color theory. His lectures, Writings on Form and Design Theory, taught at the German Bauhaus school of art in the 1920s, were published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks. They are considered as important to modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting was for the Renaissance.

Giulio Carlo Argan, in the Preface to the first volume of Klee’s notebooks, writes:

The writings which compose Paul Klee’s theory of form production and pictorial form have the same importance and the same meaning for modern art as had Leonardo’s writings which composed his theory of painting for Renaissance art. Like the latter, they do not constitute a true and proper treatise, that is to say a collection of stylistic and technical rules, but are the result of an introspective analysis which the artist engages in during his work and in the light of the experience of reality which comes to him in the course of his work. This analysis which accompanies and controls the formation of a work of art is a necessary component of the artistic process, the aim and the finality of which are brought to light by it …

Herbert Read called the collection “the most complete presentation of the principles of design ever made by a modern artist – it constitutes the Principia Aesthetica of a new era of art, in which Klee occupies a position comparable to Newton’s in the realm of physics.”

And now, these astonishingly beautiful works of art are available online (Volume 1: The Thinking Eye (PDF, 23 Megabytes), Volume 2: The Nature of Nature (PDF, 43 MBS))

If you’re like me, prepare to spend the rest of your day in this treasure trove of amazingness.

Paul Klee 1
Paul Klee 2
Paul Klee 3
Paul Klee 4
Paul Klee 5
Paul Klee 6
Paul Klee 7

Still curious? The notebooks make an excellent addition to your budding art library.

Paul Graham: On Arguing With Idiots, Where Ideas Come From, and What Makes Good Programmers

Hackers_&_Painters

Paul Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor. His 2004 anthology Hackers and Painters explores the world and the people who inhabit it. He calls the book an “intellectual wild west,” and I agree.

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Ideas

When looking for where to find great ideas, we tend to end up in the combination space. Combining ideas from different disciplines creates new ideas. It’s repurposing something.

Graham, however, expands on this view and offers another source of new ideas as repurposing overlooked ideas.

Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable.

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Arguing with Idiots

What happens when you argue with an idiot? You become one.

Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.
The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts.

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What Makes Good Programmers?

Few people would have better insight into the hacker culture than Graham. He believes, and I agree, that an undercurrent of disobedience can lead to healthy outcomes. Organizations spend a great deal of money hiring these people only to annoy them with pointless bureaucracy.

Those in authority tend to be annoyed by hackers’ general attitude of disobedience. But that disobedience is a byproduct of the qualities that make them good programmers. They may laugh at the CEO when he talks in generic corporate newspeech, but they also laugh at someone who tells them a certain problem can’t be solved. Suppress one, and you suppress the other.

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Still Curious?

All of the essays in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age are worth reading and thinking about.

The Six Books Bill Gates Thinks You Should Read This Summer

Bill Gates Summer 2014 Reading List

Bill Gates is out with his annual summer reading list and, while shorter than last year’s, it’s nonetheless full of interesting reads.

I ended up ordering two of them, one of which is considered to be “the best business book I’ve ever read” by both Warren Buffett and Gates.

Gates writes “I read them all earlier this year and think each one is terrific. Only one, The Rosie Project, qualifies as a typical beach read. But all six are deeply informative and beautifully written.”

1. Business Adventures, by John Brooks.

Warren Buffett recommended this book to me back in 1991, and it’s still the best business book I’ve ever read. Even though Brooks wrote more than four decades ago, he offers sharp insights into timeless fundamentals of business, like the challenge of building a large organization, hiring people with the right skills, and listening to customers’ feedback. He is also a masterful storyteller, peppering his articles with compelling portraits of everyone from General Electric executives to the founder of Piggly Wiggly groceries. His article on the fate of the Ford Motor Company’s Edsel is a classic. Business Adventures is out of print in hardcover and paperback (not true, after a recommendation from Gates they ran another print, which is due out in Sept.), but you can now buy it in e-book form. And you can download chapter 5, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” free. I wish all business writing were half as good.

2. Stress Test, by Timothy F. Geithner.

The central irony of Stress Test is that a guy who was accused of being a lousy communicator as U.S. Treasury Secretary has penned a book that is such a good read. Geithner paints a compelling human portrait of what it was like to be fighting a global financial meltdown while at the same time fighting critics inside and outside the Administration as well as his own severe guilt over his near-total absence from his family. The politics of fighting financial crises will always be ugly. But it helps if the public knows a little more about the subject—what’s at stake, what the options are, what has worked in similar situations—so that the loud talkers resonate a bit less and the knowledgeable ones a bit more. …

3. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I read a lot about Teddy Roosevelt last year, around the time Melinda and I took our kids to the Panama Canal. He was instrumental in getting the canal built, and I’d assumed it was the highlight of his career. But it wasn’t. It’s a testament to the breadth and depth of Roosevelt’s accomplishments that the canal warrants only a handful of mentions in this biography. There’s just too much other fascinating material competing for space, from Roosevelt’s relationship with the press and his friendship with William Howard Taft (who was brilliant in his own right) to his efforts to fight corruption and reform the political system.

I’m especially interested in the central question that Goodwin raises: How does social change happen? Can it be driven by a single inspirational leader, or do other factors have to lay the groundwork first? Sometimes a single leader can make a big difference: In the field of global health, Jim Grant almost singlehandedly created a global constituency for children, sparking a movement to double vaccination rates and save millions of lives. But Roosevelt’s case was different. Although he tried to push through a number of political reforms earlier in his career, he wasn’t really successful until journalists at McClure’s and other publications had rallied public support for change.

I loved Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and highly recommend this one too.

4. The Rosie Project: A Novel, by Graeme Simsion.

Melinda picked up this novel earlier this year, and she loved it so much that she kept stopping to read passages to me. I started it myself at 11 p.m. one Saturday and stayed up with it until 3 the next morning. Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife. (Melinda thought I would appreciate the parts where he’s a little too obsessed with optimizing his schedule. She was right.) It’s a funny and profound book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends and hope to re-read it later this year. It is one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a long time.

5. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Climate change is a big problem—one of the biggest we’ll face this century—but it’s not the only environmental concern on the horizon. Humans are putting down massive amounts of pavement, moving species around the planet, over-fishing and acidifying the oceans, changing the chemical composition of rivers, and more. Natural scientists posit that there have been five extinction events in the Earth’s history (think of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs), and Kolbert makes a compelling case that human activity is leading to the sixth. Unlike a lot of people who write about the environment, Kolbert doesn’t resort to hype. She just lays out the facts and wraps them in memorable anecdotes. It’s a sobering but engaging and informative read.

6. Reinventing American Health Care: How the Affordable Care Act Will Improve Our Terribly Complex, Blatantly Unjust, Outrageously Expensive, Grossly Inefficient, Error Prone System, by Ezekiel J. Emanuel.

One of the architects of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) makes the case for why the U.S. health care system needed reform and how Obamacare sets out to fix the problems. Although he was deeply involved in its creation, Emanuel is good about making it clear when he’s educating you about the history of health care and when he’s advocating for his ideas. He calls out a few things he disagreed with in Obamacare, like the creation of a separate health-insurance exchange for small businesses. And unlike a lot of experts, he’s willing to make predictions about how health care will change in the coming years. …

And Gates also included a video explaining the reads

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

If you were to make a list of the best commencement addresses ever, you’d find this one from Steve Jobs up there with the likes of David Foster Wallace, Neil Gaiman, and Naval Adm. William H. McRaven.

[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Seneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity

Bees

“Combinatory play,” said Einstein, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Ruminating on the necessity of both reading and writing, so as not to confine ourselves to either, Seneca in one of his Epistles, advised that we gather ideas, sift them, and combine them into a new creation.

We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says,

Pack close the flowing honey,
And swell their cells with nectar sweet.

It is not certain whether the juice which they obtain from the flowers forms at once into honey, or whether they change that which they have gathered into this delicious object by blending something therewith and by a certain property of their breath. For some authorities believe that bees do not possess the art of making honey, but only of gathering it … Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation,— whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

But I must not be led astray into another subject than that which we are discussing. We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

Montaigne, perhaps echoing Seneca, reasoned that we must take knowledge and make it our own, Seneca comments:

We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power. Let us loyally welcome such foods and make them our own, so that something that is one may be formed out of many elements, just as one number is formed of several elements whenever, by our reckoning, lesser sums, each different from the others, are brought together. This is what our mind should do: it should hide away all the materials by which it has been aided, and bring to light only what it has made of them. Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

The Loeb Classic Library collection of Seneca’s Epistles in three volumes (1-65, 66-92, and 92-124), should be read by all in its entirety. Of course, if you don’t have time to read them all, you can read a heavily curated version of them.

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Claude Shannon: The Man Who Turned Paper Into Pixels

"The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning."— Claude Shannon (1948)
“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning.”— Claude Shannon (1948)

Claude Shannon is the most important man you’ve probably never heard of. If Alan Turing is to be considered the father of modern computing, then the American mathematician Claude Shannon is the architect of the Information Age.

The video, created by the British filmmaker Adam Westbrook, echoes the thoughts of Nassim Taleb that boosting the signal does not mean you remove the noise, in fact, just the opposite: you amplify it.

Any time you try to send a message from one place to another something always gets in the way. The original signal is always distorted. Where ever there is signal there is also noise.

So what do you do? Well, the best anyone could do back then was to boost the signal. But then all you do is boost the noise.

Thing is we were thinking about information all wrong. We were obsessed with what a message meant.

A Renoir and a receipt? They’re different, right? Was there a way to think of them in the same way? Like so many breakthroughs the answer came from an unexpected place. A brilliant mathematician with a flair for blackjack.

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The transistor was invented in 1948, at Bell Telephone Laboratories. This remarkable achievement, however, “was only the second most significant development of that year,” writes James Gleick in his fascinating book: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. The most important development of 1948 and what still underscores modern technology is the bit.

An invention even more profound and more fundamental came in a monograph spread across seventy-nine pages of The Bell System Technical Journal in July and October. No one bothered with a press release. It carried a title both simple and grand “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” and the message was hard to summarize. But it was a fulcrum around which the world began to turn. Like the transistor, this development also involved a neologism: the word bit, chosen in this case not by committee but by the lone author, a thirty-two-year -old named Claude Shannon. The bit now joined the inch, the pound, the quart, and the minute as a determinate quantity— a fundamental unit of measure.

But measuring what? “A unit for measuring information,” Shannon wrote, as though there were such a thing, measurable and quantifiable, as information.

[...]

Shannon’s theory made a bridge between information and uncertainty; between information and entropy; and between information and chaos. It led to compact discs and fax machines, computers and cyberspace, Moore’s law and all the world’s Silicon Alleys. Information processing was born, along with information storage and information retrieval. People began to name a successor to the Iron Age and the Steam Age.

Gleick also recounts the relationship between Turing and Shannon:

In 1943 the English mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing visited Bell Labs on a cryptographic mission and met Shannon sometimes over lunch, where they traded speculation on the future of artificial thinking machines. (“ Shannon wants to feed not just data to a Brain, but cultural things!” Turing exclaimed. “He wants to play music to it!”)

Commenting on vitality of information, Gleick writes:

(Information) pervades the sciences from top to bottom, transforming every branch of knowledge. Information theory began as a bridge from mathematics to electrical engineering and from there to computing. … Now even biology has become an information science, a subject of messages, instructions, and code. Genes encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out. Life spreads by networking. The body itself is an information processor. Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell. No wonder genetics bloomed along with information theory. DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level— an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being. “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life,’” declares the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. “It is information, words, instructions.… If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment.

The bit is the very core of the information age.

The bit is a fundamental particle of a different sort: not just tiny but abstract— a binary digit, a flip-flop, a yes-or-no. It is insubstantial, yet as scientists finally come to understand information, they wonder whether it may be primary: more fundamental than matter itself. They suggest that the bit is the irreducible kernel and that information forms the very core of existence.

In the words of John Archibald Wheeler, the last surviving collaborator of both Einstein and Bohr, information gives rise to “every it— every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself.”

This is another way of fathoming the paradox of the observer: that the outcome of an experiment is affected, or even determined, when it is observed. Not only is the observer observing, she is asking questions and making statements that must ultimately be expressed in discrete bits. “What we call reality,” Wheeler wrote coyly, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He added: “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.” The whole universe is thus seen as a computer —a cosmic information-processing machine.

The greatest gift of Prometheus to humanity was not fire after all: “Numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses’ arts, with which to hold all things in memory .”

Information technologies are both relative in the time they were created and absolute in terms of the significance. Gleick writes:

The alphabet was a founding technology of information. The telephone, the fax machine, the calculator, and, ultimately, the computer are only the latest innovations devised for saving, manipulating, and communicating knowledge. Our culture has absorbed a working vocabulary for these useful inventions. We speak of compressing data, aware that this is quite different from compressing a gas. We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma displays, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there. It pervaded our ancestors’ world, too, taking forms from solid to ethereal, granite gravestones and the whispers of courtiers. The punched card, the cash register, the nineteenth-century Difference Engine, the wires of telegraphy all played their parts in weaving the spiderweb of information to which we cling. Each new information technology, in its own time, set off blooms in storage and transmission. From the printing press came new species of information organizers: dictionaries, cyclopaedias, almanacs— compendiums of words, classifiers of facts, trees of knowledge. Hardly any information technology goes obsolete. Each new one throws its predecessors into relief. Thus Thomas Hobbes, in the seventeenth century, resisted his era’s new-media hype: “The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters is no great matter.” Up to a point, he was right. Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought. In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is a fascinating read.

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