“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)
“When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.” Information is something we are all curious about but how accurately can we predict the future if we fail to understand the past? This is part of what noted science writer James Gleick explores in 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.
The “history” explores African drum languages, writing and lexicography, the story of Morse code, the telegraph and telephone, and brings us into computing with our desire to increase the efficiency with which we communicate language. The “theory” touches on Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, and Alan Turing among others who laid the foundation. The “flood” explains how biology uses genetics as a mechanism for information exchange and self-replicating memes.
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. 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. “Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer,” remarked Marshall McLuhan in 1967. He wrote this an instant too soon, in the first dawn of computation and cyberspace.
We can see now that information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle. It 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. What English speakers call “computer science” Europeans have known as informatique, informatica, and Informatik. 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.
In an interview with PW Gleick answers the deceptively simple question: What is information?
My first inclination is to define information by listing all the forms it takes—words, music, visual images, and all the ways we store and transmit our knowledge of the world. But in 1948 engineers came up with a more technical definition. At its most fundamental, information is a binary choice. In other words, a single bit of information is one yes-or-no choice. This is a very powerful concept that has made a lot of modern technology possible. But as empowering as this definition is, it is also desiccating, because it strips away any notion of meaning, usefulness, knowledge, or wisdom. By the technical definition, all information has a certain value, regardless of whether the message it conveys is true or false. A message could be complete nonsense, for example, and still take 1,000 bits. So while the technical definition has helped us become powerful users of information, it also instantly put us on thin ice, because everything we care about involves meaning, truth, and, ultimately, something like wisdom. And as we now flood the world with information, it becomes harder and harder to find meaning. That paradox is the final tension in my book.
In the age of print, scarcity was the issue. In the digital age, it is abundance. What are the implications of that shift?
There are two keys to cope with the information flood: searching and filtering. Think about how many times you are having a conversation with a group of people, and the most interesting feature of the conversation is some dispute over something you can’t quite remember. Now, any one of us has the power to pull out their iPhone and do a Google search—it’s just a matter of who is going to be rude enough to do it first [laughs]. We are now like gods in our ability to search for and find information.
But where we remain all too mortal is in our ability to process it, to make sense of it, and to filter and find the information we want. That’s where the real challenges lie. Take, for example, writing a nonfiction book. The tools at my disposal now compared to just 10 years ago are extraordinary. A sentence that once might have required a day of library work now might require no more than a few minutes on the Internet. That is a good thing. Information is everywhere, and facts are astoundingly accessible. But it’s also a challenge, because authors today must pay more attention than ever to where we add value. And I can tell you this, the value we add is not in the few minutes of work it takes to dig up some factoid, because any reader can now dig up the same factoid in the same few minutes.
In The Information, Gleick neatly captures today’s reality. “We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground,” he writes. “But it has always been there.”
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.
Segall worked closely with Steve Jobs as an ad agency creative director for NeXT and Apple and was a member of the team that created the legendary ‘Think Different’ campaign. Oh, and he’s also the guy responsible for the “i” that found itself in Apple product names like the the iPad and iPhone.
Segall compares the difference between working with Apple and working with other companies like Dell and Intel and the contrast is shocking. Apple might be the biggest corporation in the world but it’s certainly not the most bureaucratic.
Here are some of my highlights from the book.
Why is it that only a small handful of companies are able to produce truly great marketing campaigns?
One major reason is that most big organizations are simply awful at thinking small. They’re unable to streamline complicated processes. Even when they successfully identify their challenges, develop strategies, and create great work that brings them to life, their processes choke the life out of that work. They inflict endless meetings and multiple approvals upon what should be a simpler way of working.
What you ask for and what you allow …
Companies that don’t have a leader with Steve’s passion tend to see marketing in more clinical terms. For them, marketing is just another spoke in the wheel, an organization within the organization. Chief marketers in these companies typically demand brilliant creativity but support processes that make it difficult. They seem to think that if they demand greatness, it will somehow land on their desk.
If process is king …
When process is king, ideas will never be. It takes only Common Sense to recognize that the more layers you add to a process, the more watered down the final work will become.
Most companies have an inability to focus …
Many companies can’t stop themselves from responding to every opportunity, trying to please every customer and close every sale — when in fact they would be better served by making their product lineup logical and easier to navigate. They seem to forget that trying to please everyone is a good way to please no one.
Powerpoint is a poor method of communication …
It drove Steve batty to see in twenty slides what could be spoken in three sentences. He valued his time way too much for that. He preferred straight talk and raw content to a slick presentation. In fact, a slick presentation would only make him suspect that you were fluffing up the few facts you really had. It meant that you’d devoted valuable time to the wrapping of your idea rather than thinking through the content itself. … Few people who attend an overblown, hard-to-digest presentation return to their offices eager to set the world on fire. Most prefer to head for the nearest bar. This is not the way to inspire people to greatness. This is simply checking off boxes to make sure every last fact is on the table. It serves the purpose of the presenters, but not the attendees.
Did Jobs listen to the experts?
This is not to say that Steve’s skepticism led him to ignore his experts’ advice. It just means that he would consider their advice in context of other evidence, his larger goals for the company, and common sense.
Understanding Media contained the simple prophecy that electronic media of the twentieth century—at the time consisting of telephone, radio, movies, television, but also including newer technologies like the Kindle, the Internet, the iPad—were breaking the traditional limitations of text over our thoughts and senses. Thanks to McLuhan’s ability to turn a phrase, Understanding Media is a work more talked about than read. At the core of the book is a phrase that most have heard: “The medium is the message.”
“What’s been forgotten,” argues author Nicolas Carr in The Shallows, “is that McLuhan was not just acknowledging, and celebrating, the transformative power of new communication technology. He was also sounding a warning about the threat that power poses—and the risk of being oblivious to that threat.
“The electric technology is within the gates,” McLuhan wrote, “and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed.”
“McLuhan understood,” Carr continues “that whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information—the content—it carries.” With new mediums for communications come standard arguments. Enthusiasts praise the new content the technology allows, interpreting new methods as a way to reduce the friction of information sharing. This, they argue, is good for democracy. Skeptics, on the other hand, condemn the content and see any assault against existing mediums as an effort to dumb down our culture.
Both, however, miss McLuhan’s point that in the long run the content of a medium—be it a television, radio, the internet, or even a kindle—matters less than the medium itself in influencing us (whether we realize it or not).
Carr argues “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals” and collectively as a society.
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather they “alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”
In Understanding, McLuhan proffered “A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” We see this today as newspapers transition to a digital world and how the medium—the internet—remakes the papers to fit its own standards. Not only have newspapers moved from physical to virtual but now they are hyperlinked, chunked, and embedded within noise. If he were alive (and healthy) McLuhan would argue these changes impact the way we understand the content.
McLuhan foresaw how all mass media would eventually be used for commercialization and consumerism: “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.”
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Here is a clip from a 1968 CBC show featuring a popular debate between Norman Mailer and McLuhan.
Before you decide if McLuhan was a genius or crackpot you should know that McLuhan suffered from a few cerebral traumas—including multiple strokes. One stroke was so bad he was given his last rites. Only a few months before the debate with Mailer, a tumor the size of an apple was removed from his brain. McLuhan’s stardom—and some argue his mind—started fading shortly after this video.
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Perhaps nothing demonstrates McLuhan’s brilliance as well as his craziness as this 1969 interview with playboy. In the excerpt below, McLuhan describes his vision of cloud computing—he was well ahead of his time, keep in mind we’re talking 1969. Carr sums up this interview brilliantly: As is typical of McLuhan, there’s brilliance here, but there’s also a whole lot of bad craziness. At least I hope it’s bad craziness.
MCLUHAN: Automation and cybernation can play an essential role in smoothing the transition to the new society.
MCLUHAN: The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness. Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.
PLAYBOY: How do you program an entire society – beneficially or otherwise?
MCLUHAN: There’s nothing at all difficult about putting computers in the position where they will be able to conduct carefully orchestrated programing of the sensory life of whole populations. I know it sounds rather science-fictional, but if you understood cybernetics you’d realize we could do it today. The computer could program the media to determine the given messages a people should hear in terms of their over-all needs, creating a total media experience absorbed and patterned by all the senses. We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. By such orchestrated interplay of all media, whole cultures could now be programed in order to improve and stabilize their emotional climate, just as we are beginning to learn how to maintain equilibrium among the world’s competing economies [ha! -Rough Type].
PLAYBOY: How does such environmental programing, however enlightened in intent, differ from Pavlovian brainwashing?
MCLUHAN: Your question reflects the usual panic of people confronted with unexplored technologies. I’m not saying such panic isn’t justified, or that such environmental programing couldn’t be brainwashing, or far worse – merely that such reactions are useless and distracting. Though I think the programing of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically, I don’t want to be in the position of a Hiroshima physicist extolling the potential of nuclear energy in the first days of August 1945. But an understanding of media’s effects constitutes a civil defense against media fallout.
The alarm of so many people, however, at the prospect of corporate programing’s creation of a complete service environment on this planet is rather like fearing that a municipal lighting system will deprive the individual of the right to adjust each light to his own favorite level of intensity. Computer technology can – and doubtless will – program entire environments to fulfill the social needs and sensory preferences of communities and nations. The content of that programing, however, depends on the nature of future societies – but that is in our own hands.
PLAYBOY: Is it really in our hands – or, by seeming to advocate the use of computers to manipulate the future of entire cultures, aren’t you actually encouraging man to abdicate control over his destiny?
MCLUHAN: First of all – and I’m sorry to have to repeat this disclaimer – I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends. Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn’t stop them, so why waste my time lamenting? As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, “I accept the Universe”: “She’d better.” I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress.
The point to remember here is that whenever we use or perceive any technological extension of ourselves, we necessarily embrace it. Whenever we watch a TV screen or read a book, we are absorbing these extensions of ourselves into our individual system and experiencing an automatic “closure” or displacement of perception; we can’t escape this perpetual embrace of our daily technology unless we escape the technology itself and flee to a hermit’s cave. By consistently embracing all these technologies, we inevitably relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. Thus, in order to make use of them at all, we must serve them as we do gods. The Eskimo is a servomechanism of his kayak, the cowboy of his horse, the businessman of his clock, the cyberneticist – and soon the entire world – of his computer. In other words, to the spoils belongs the victor …
The machine world reciprocates man’s devotion by rewarding him with goods and services and bounty. Man’s relationship with his machinery is thus inherently symbiotic. This has always been the case; it’s only in the electric age that man has an opportunity to recognize this marriage to his own technology. Electric technology is a qualitative extension of this age-old man-machine relationship; 20th Century man’s relationship to the computer is not by nature very different from prehistoric man’s relationship to his boat or to his wheel – with the important difference that all previous technologies or extensions of man were partial and fragmentary, whereas the electric is total and inclusive. Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull and his nerves outside his skin; new technology breeds new man. A recent cartoon portrayed a little boy telling his nonplused mother: “I’m going to be a computer when I grow up.” Humor is often prophecy.