This is the 4th and final blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD. The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (III).
The printing press by making permanent records available to all had the potential to preserve so much information from the past that we might become so overwhelmed with it that we would suffer a memory loss – no longer sure as to what was the exact past as we can now see all of the variations and changes and mistakes of the past – nothing has been forgotten and so the past becomes buried under mounds of facts which we don’t know how to measure or weigh. Or it is possible that the new technologies in preserving more of the past make it more visible in detail to us, increasing our understanding of ourselves and of history?
“Another way to speak of the anxiety is in terms of the gap between information and knowledge. A barrage of data so often fails to tell us what we need to know. Knowledge, in turn, does not guarantee enlightenment or wisdom. (T. S. Eliot [d 1965] said that, too: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? …)’” (p 403)
Or as one clever wag said:
“The more we study, the more we learn.
The more we learn, the more we know.
The more we know, the more we forget.
So, why study?”
All of Gleick’s book is a study of information, whatever that is, it has become the basis of the technologies we use daily and are so dependent on – all of the computing of any sorts we do from cell phones, to GPS, to e-readers, to computers of every size. It is a fascinating look at the history of how our ideas of information have evolved through time.
“A ‘file’ was originally – in sixteenth-century England – a wire on which slips and bills and notes and letters could be strung for preservation and reference. Then came file folders, file drawers, and file cabinets; then the electronic namesakes of all these; and the inevitable irony. Once a piece of information is filed, it is statistically unlikely ever to be seen again by human eyes.” (p 410)
So the Word became flesh according to St. John, but in the modern world the word becomes filed existing in an electronic incarnation called the bit.
“It was once thought that a perfect language should have an exact one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings. There should be no ambiguity, no vagueness, no confusion. Our earthly Babel is a falling off from the lost speech of Eden: a catastrophe and a punishment.” But information theory and science says it ain’t so. “With or without God, there is no perfect language.” (p 418)
All information requires interpretation. It is the way of Christ who interprets Torah. It is God’s way. Any incarnation of the word requires interpretation. Christianity, if it is not so fearful, may come to realize that information theory tells us what we knew all along. Islam for its part will struggle with this much more for it does hold that there is the exact original of the Quran in heaven of which all earthly volumes are precise copies – though the Quran itself implies relying on a recited word, not one committed to print.
Babel was aimed at preventing humans from conspiring against heaven, not to prevent humans from understanding God who intended Babel to be a lesson.
But science in information theory sees itself moving in a particular direction. Dexter Palmer wrote:
“In a modern age without an Author looking down on us from heaven, language is not a thing of definite certainty, but infinite possibility; without the comforting illusion of meaningful order we have no choice but to stare into the face of meaningless disorder; without the feeling that meaning can be certain, we find ourselves overwhelmed by all things that words might mean.” (p 419)
This seems to assume that humans are isolated and alienated from each other, and from all others and from God – extreme individualism with no shared anything. But we share a world, and can share not only information but also understanding and meaning. We can interpret and debate because we can share meaning. Everything is not random. Humans do some things with intention and with intended meaning – in other words, we do communicate. It is also the nature of divine revelation, which is at the heart of Christian claims. The reality may be that there is a pattern to all that exists, but we simply lack the perspective – the God view – to see it. We are limited beings and do not like such limitations.
The English language according to Claude Shannon’s (d 2001) statistics has close to 75% redundancy. Certain letters follow other letters regularly, some combinations are totally rare. It is what enables Google to “read my mind” when I do a search as it “guesses” the next letter in my search. Randomness is not complete, order is both in the information and imposed on it. And Gleick can write a 526 page book about it which does convey meaning in written form to any who read his book. Even in the quantum world of unpredictability, there is a great amount of information conveyable to those who know how to read the signs.
Too bad that I read his book, and got my e-reader afterwards. His may be the last of its kind for me – I’ll look for “books” that are available on Kindle. It is a technology made possible by information theory.
“In the beginning was the Word…” And that word was not coterminous with printed letters, but as a spoken word had no physical form, no letters serving as bookends to contain it within certain symbols.
The word became print, but that never altered the Word which retains all of its divinity. Perhaps technology is freeing that Word once again so we will never mistakenly equate the Word with a written script, but rather will understand that the Word in its electronic manifestation (no incarnation, but an electronation?) will be much closer to its original revelation when God said, “let there be light.”