5Qs with James Gleick

James Gleick ’76 wrote for The Crimson and published a book earlier this year titled “The Information: A History, a ...
By Rebecca F. Elliott

James Gleick ’76 wrote for The Crimson and published a book earlier this year titled “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.” The book discusses the development of information before the present Information Age. Gleick spoke with FM about the development of his information theory, the distinction between information and knowledge, and what he sees as the future of information.

Fifteen Minutes: Did you begin to plant the seeds of your information theory while at Harvard? What originally sparked your interest in this line of thinking?

James Gleick: I never heard anything about it when I was at Harvard. I was an English major combined with linguistics. I was kind of avoiding science courses, so I didn’t know anything about it. I first heard about information theory when I was working on my first book, “Chaos.” I bought Claude E. Shannon’s little book, “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” and I have been thinking about it ever since—thinking about the connections between this intellectual theory and the world we live in, which is so riddled with information to the extent that it’s a cliché: The Information Age.

FM: What, if anything, do you see as the difference between information and knowledge?

JG: Information became a scientific word with a definition. It became a quantitative thing that we measure in bits. Electrical engineers proved theorems about it and worked out ways of compressing it, handling error correction and transmitting information through noisy circuits. Because of all that, the concept of information has become much more interesting and all-inclusive. It used to be just a word that meant instructions or news, maybe facts. And then it started to mean all kinds of stuff. Anything that you could put into writing, anything that you could convert into sound, such as music, is a form of information in this modern sense of information that we’re all familiar with. And so are images because they can be digitized as bits and emailed to your friends and shown on your phone. Suddenly information is everything in the world. Our bodies are composed of information. DNA is nothing if not information. It’s not a coincidence that we call it the genetic code. It’s not even a metaphor. It’s literally a code about messages and instructions. A side effect of engineers and mathematicians taking over this vague term information is they needed to talk about it as a thing for which meaning was irrelevant. When you’re measuring the length of a message, or manipulating it in various ways, you’re looking at the bits in the message. It doesn’t matter what the message means. The message could be true, or it could be false, or it could be nonsense. If it’s a picture, it could be a beautiful picture or it could be an ugly picture. That’s beside the point. None of that enters into the engineering issues. And that idea of information divorced from meaning suddenly may sound all too familiar, because here we are living in a world where we’re bombarded by information, and a lot of it is not particularly meaningful. It’s not the information we need. And so we remind ourselves that information and knowledge are different things. Knowledge is the information we value, the information that corresponds to something in the world, the information that is real. T.S. Eliot said, and I’m paraphrasing, that information is not knowledge, and he also said that knowledge is not wisdom.

FM: What do you think wisdom is?

JG: Oh, I’m not wise enough to know yet. I hope I’ll live long enough to find out.

FM: Also, is more information always a good thing?

JG: No, definitely not. We know it’s not. We talk about information overload  and information fatigue. That’s one of the things that the information age has brought us: the knowledge that more information isn’t necessarily a good thing. And in part that’s because of what we were talking about, because of the separation between information and knowledge—the divorce of information and meaning. But it’s also just the nature of the world we live in and the world of people. When you’re able to listen to 10,000 people offering different opinions about something, they’re not all going to be right, and they’re not all going to be worth listening to, and it’s going to be a challenge to sort them out. But that was just as true when we were only able to listen to 10 people. So I certainly don’t think that more information is necessarily a bad thing. I just don’t think it’s automatically good.

FM: You said in an interview with Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, that “information is the thing that we care most about.” Why is this?

JG: Occasionally if you’re really hungry, you could care about food. We certainly care about sex. I don’t mean that information has replaced these fundamental things. Information is what defines us. It’s what makes us humans, in my view. And it’s always been that way. The name of our species is Homo sapiens, so we always collectively defined ourselves in terms of information. It’s only now that we have this vocabulary. We didn’t used to call it information. Sapiens, I suppose is translated more as ‘knowing.’ We want to know things and we want to communicate with our fellow creatures.