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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
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“When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“It is not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain. It is not even the distribution of knowledge. It is the interconnectedness.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought. In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“We all behave like Maxwell’s demon. Organisms organize. In everyday experience lies the reason sober physicists across two centuries kept this cartoon fantasy alive. We sort the mail, build sand castles, solve jigsaw puzzles, separate wheat from chaff, rearrange chess pieces, collect stamps, alphabetize books, create symmetry, compose sonnets and sonatas, and put our rooms in order, and all this we do requires no great energy, as long as we can apply intelligence. We propagate structure (not just we humans but we who are alive). We disturb the tendency toward equilibrium. It would be absurd to attempt a thermodynamic accounting for such processes, but it is not absurd to say we are reducing entropy, piece by piece. Bit by bit. The original demon, discerning one molecules at a time, distinguishing fast from slow, and operating his little gateway, is sometimes described as “superintelligent,” but compared to a real organism it is an idiot savant. Not only do living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways - miracles of pattern and structure. It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Forgetting used to be a failing, a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“The universe is computing its own destiny.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“For the purposes of science, information had to mean something special. Three centuries earlier, the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague—force, mass, motion, and even time—and gave them new meanings. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just as soft and inclusive a term as information. For Aristotelians, motion covered a far-flung family of phenomena: a peach ripening, a stone falling, a child growing, a body decaying. That was too rich. Most varieties of motion had to be tossed out before Newton’s laws could apply and the Scientific Revolution could succeed. In the nineteenth century, energy began to undergo a similar transformation: natural philosophers adapted a word meaning vigor or intensity. They mathematicized it, giving energy its fundamental place in the physicists’ view of nature.

It was the same with information. A rite of purification became necessary.

And then, when it was made simple, distilled, counted in bits, information was found to be everywhere.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment .... The gene has its cultural analog, too: the meme. In cultural evolution, a meme is a replicator and propagator — an idea, a fashion, a chain letter, or a conspiracy theory. On a bad day, a meme is a virus.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Vengeful conquerors burn books as if the enemy's souls reside there, too.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“We have met the Devil of Information Overload and his impish underlings, the computer virus, the busy signal, the dead link, and the PowerPoint presentation.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“With words we begin to leave traces behind us like breadcrumbs: memories in symbols for others to follow. Ants deploy their pheromones, trails of chemical information; Theseus unwound Ariadne's thread. Now people leave paper trails.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Redundancy—inefficient by definition—serves as the antidote to confusion.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague—force, mass, motion, and even time—and gave them new meanings. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just as soft and inclusive a term as information.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in this universe.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Memes can replicate with impressive virulence while leaving swaths of collateral damage—patent medicines and psychic surgery, astrology and satanism, racist myths, superstitions, and (a special case) computer viruses. In a way, these are the most interesting—the memes that thrive to their hosts’ detriment, such as the idea that suicide bombers will find their reward in heaven.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“The history of life is written in terms of negative entropy.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Where, then, is any particular gene—say, the gene for long legs in humans? This is a little like asking where is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E minor. Is it in the original handwritten score? The printed sheet music? Any one performance—or perhaps the sum of all performances, historical and potential, real and imagined? The quavers and crotchets inked on paper are not the music. Music is not a series of pressure waves sounding through the air; nor grooves etched in vinyl or pits burned in CDs; nor even the neuronal symphonies stirred up in the brain of the listener. The music is the information. Likewise, the base pairs of DNA are not genes. They encode genes. Genes themselves are made of bits.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“The macromolecules of organic life embody information in an intricate structure. A single hemoglobin molecule comprises four chains of polypeptides, two with 141 amino acids and two with 146, in strict linear sequence, bonded and folded together. Atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and iron could mingle randomly for the lifetime of the universe and be no more likely to form hemoglobin than the proverbial chimpanzees to type the works of Shakespeare. Their genesis requires energy; they are built up from simpler, less patterned parts, and the law of entropy applies. For earthly life, the energy comes as photons from the sun. The information comes via evolution.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Logic might be imagined to exist independent of writing—syllogisms can be spoken as well as written—but it did not. Speech is too fleeting to allow for analysis. Logic descended from the written word, in Greece as well as India and China, where it developed independently. Logic turns the act of abstraction into a tool for determining what is true and what is false: truth can be discovered in words alone, apart from concrete experience. Logic takes its form in chains: sequences whose members connect one to another. Conclusions follow from premises. These require a degree of constancy. They have no power unless people can examine and evaluate them. In contrast, an oral narrative proceeds by accretion, the words passing by in a line of parade past the viewing stand, briefly present and then gone, interacting with one another via memory and association.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“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. (Eliot said that, too: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”) It is an ancient observation, but one that seemed to bear restating when information became plentiful—particularly in a world where all bits are created equal and information is divorced from meaning. The humanist and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford, for example, restated it in 1970: “Unfortunately, ‘information retrieving,’ however swift, is no substitute for discovering by direct personal inspection knowledge whose very existence one had possibly never been aware of, and following it at one’s own pace through the further ramification of relevant literature.” He begged for a return to “moral self-discipline.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Gregor Mendel’s years of research with green and yellow peas showed that such a thing must exist. Colors and other traits vary depending on many factors, such as temperature and soil content, but something is preserved whole; it does not blend or diffuse; it must be quantized. Mendel had discovered the gene, though he did not name it. For him it was more an algebraic convenience than a physical entity.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“For Wiener, entropy was a measure of disorder; for Shannon, of uncertainty. Fundamentally, as they were realizing, these were the same.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Monod proposed an analogy: Just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an “abstract kingdom” rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this kingdom? Ideas. Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role. Ideas have “spreading power,” he noted—“infectivity, as it were”—and some more than others. An example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people. The American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry had put forward a similar notion several years earlier, arguing that ideas are “just as real” as the neurons they inhabit. Ideas have power, he said.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“In the name of speed, Morse and Vail had realized that they could save strokes by reserving the shorter sequences of dots and dashes for the most common letters. But which letters would be used most often? Little was known about the alphabet’s statistics. In search of data on the letters’ relative frequencies, Vail was inspired to visit the local newspaper office in Morristown, New Jersey, and look over the type cases. He found a stock of twelve thousand E’s, nine thousand T’s, and only two hundred Z’s. He and Morse rearranged the alphabet accordingly. They had originally used dash-dash-dot to represent T, the second most common letter; now they promoted T to a single dash, thus saving telegraph operators uncountable billions of key taps in the world to come. Long afterward, information theorists calculated that they had come within 15 percent of an optimal arrangement for telegraphing English text.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“So the second law is merely probabilistic. Statistically, everything tends toward maximum entropy.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“Like Ada Lovelace, Turing was a programmer, looking inward to the step-by-step logic of his own mind. He imagined himself as a computer. He distilled mental procedures into their smallest constituent parts, the atoms of information processing.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“It may sound ridiculous to say that Bell and his successors were the fathers of modern commercial architecture—of the skyscraper. But wait a minute. Take the Singer Building, the Flatiron Building, the Broad Exchange, the Trinity, or any of the giant office buildings. How many messages do you suppose go in and out of those buildings every day? Suppose there was no telephone and every message had to be carried by a personal messenger? How much room do you think the necessary elevators would leave for offices? Such structures would be an economic impossibility.”
John J. Carty, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
“We are swimming upstream against a great torrent of disorganization, which tends to reduce everything to the heat death of equilibrium and sameness.… This heat death in physics has a counterpart in the ethics of Kierkegaard, who pointed out that we live in a chaotic moral universe. In this, our main obligation is to establish arbitrary enclaves of order and system.… Like the Red Queen, we cannot stay where we are without running as fast as we can.”
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

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