Monday, 4 December 2006

geekvision: seeing the world as information

I don’t know when it became commonplace to see the world as information. I’m sure the idea predates computers, probably by a few millennia. But I think it has only become popular—wildly popular—recently, maybe as recently as just the past few decades. Seeing the world as information is still not a majority thing, it’s a quirk reserved for the qwerty crowd: the geeks (nerds, not so much. Just the geeks). Back in the early 1800s, there was a vogue of information gathering beyond anything seen before—this was the age of the rise of the actuarial table, the science of statistics and of sociology. The scientist D’Alembert, upon entering a room on a visit abroad would whip out a pocket rule with which to gather measurements of paintings (subject and artist were apparently irrelevant). This is not the sort of “everything is information” I’m talking about, though. I mean that geeks today use the very concept of information as their primary metaphor for describing. I suspect that attempting to describe this concept of information will necessarily fail, and indeed will be misleading, because my description would be necessarily formal (I would cite Shannon, Church, Turing, and Godel), while the idea is purely intuitive and possibly not conscious. Oh, sometimes the concept floats to the surface—the study of heritable traits is about decoding DNA, finding out the information hidden in the genes. Indeed, this aspect of biology is so emphasized that most of us ignore development and morphology. But in general, I think, the information conceptual schema stays in the background.

Nevertheless, it has had a significant impact on our way of life. This is in part because of who geeks are and what they do. Geeks have had a pretty successful couple of decades lately. They’re rich and powerful even if they’re not obvious about it (though they’re getting pretty obvious now that they can replace their model space ships with real ones).

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