First Thoughts

In The Information, James Gleick argues

“Information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle….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” (Gleick, 197).

As we launch our semester of investigating the implications of this understanding of information, what thoughts do you have as you make contact with these preliminary concepts? Does this way of looking at energy, biology, social organization, science, literature and other arts—in a word, life— as information challenge ways that you’ve seen things before? Do you have any questions or ideas you want to explore at this point?

15 Replies to “First Thoughts”

  1. Envisioning the world as being a complex web of information systems is certainly a unique perspective, and one that I had not previously considered. This quote by James Gleick is thought-provoking and it leads me to dissociate in a way. Reading it and picturing the world as he describes it is a way to take a step back from the world and analyze it almost as an unbiased third-party. As I write this, I’m sitting across from a girl who is working on her homework while consulting notes on her phone. In this room, there is a profound amount of information. There is an entire world of information on my laptop and her phone, in the posters and flyers on the walls, in her homework assignment, and probably other places that I haven’t even thought of. Thinking about the amount of information just in that one room makes it almost impossible to imagine the amount of information in the world. Is it possible to come even close to grappling with such a remarkably high amount of information?

  2. My first thought when reading this for the first time is that, information can actually be measured as a tangible thing and not something that is arbitrary. I think it is important to note that in the early years of studying information in this particular way, scientists were already starting to speculate on the future of AI. As we all know, there is AI in many fields of work in today’s society and it raises the question of the pros and cons of it. Claude Shannon was attempting to create a theory that bridged the gap between information and uncertainty because information is what our world runs on. As said in the excerpt above, “DNA is the quintessential information molecule”, and this causes information to be looked at as a science and more than just messages being exchanged between people. I really did not think of information in this way before because we are conditioned in a way to become so consumed in our five senses that we are closed off to the uncommon way of thinking.

    1. The last sentence of your comment was really interesting to me. I love the idea that we’ve been conditioned to think of information, and the rest of the world, in terms of our five senses. This is, I think, what makes it so difficult to consider information in such abstract terms. I wonder how we can remove ourselves from our preconceived notions and begin to experience information in a completely novice way.

      1. I find interesting that you mentioned the way we have been conditioned to think about looking at as a science instead of mere messages being exchanges. I agree, we have been trained to think in a simple minded way not questioning what is in front of us. I would like to see how we move on from that mindset into a more curious one.

  3. How much information is actually present in our world?

    It is astonishing to think that the invention of a tiny electronic semiconductor helped scientist and physicist partly understand the language of information and electricity. Although, with the inventions of computers and more advanced technology today, scientists have still not determined how much information is really present in our world. Will they ever, if our world is seen as a computer with an extraordinary amount of information being produced daily? Furthermore, I thought is was interesting how the quote above by James Gleick, mentioned Richard Dawkins who said “what lies at the heart of every living thing is not….’ a spark of life,’ ” “it is information.” When humans think of the biological makeup of the body, we think of organs, oxygen, or life, but I do not believe we think of information. I believe information may be discussed when we are talking about the brain or DNA. Finally, discussed in Gleick’s prologue by Werner Lowenstein, “the information circle becomes the unit of life.” Is this true?

    1. The final point in your response brings up an interesting question. Is everything in life measured by “the information circle?” I think that some scientists would think that everything in life can be measured by information, since every living thing is composed of a genetic code, and everything we say or read is an exchange of information. As Kate said in her response, information is around us everywhere, and at all times. It would make sense to admit that the “information circle” could become the “unit of life” and I think some would argue that information is not just becoming the unit of life, but that information always has measured life, as evident by the fact that all living things are made up of information and codes.

  4. I have never deeply thought before how much we process information around us, and how information is everywhere. Just like Gleick has stated above information is how the world functions and is built even though it may not seem like it, we are always processing and receiving information given to us in our life. The way of looking at energy, biology, social organization, science, literature and other arts as information does challenge the way you seen them because now we have to take in every detail and look deeper into things to truly understand what it is and what it means. We live our life constantly taking in information and storing it in our life, and it is crazy to think of how much information we receive in a single day.

    1. I agree that it is so maddening to think of how much information we are handed every single day. The information we receive is also about a wide range of topics. Friends, facts, opinions, history, science. The list goes on and on. Imagine how much information one is fed in their entire lifetime?

  5. This new way of thinking is a change of view because I have not thought about information this way before. You are constantly getting information from everything you cannot escape it. When Gleick argues that memory resides in every cell not just in the brain it challenges the way people think about transmitting information. Instead of your brain being the only thing that can hold memories your cells can retain and send information too. Gleick points out that without this constant sharing of information evolution would not be possible, but people do not even realize how much information is shared with them in one day.

    1. While reading your response I also think it is interesting that we do not understand how much information is shared daily. Our world is seen as a computer which stores our information and the information that has been produced thousands of years ago. As you mentioned this information will be produced constantly and for years to come making it impossible for us to escape it.

  6. “what, exactly, did the Bell System carry, counted in what units?” “Perhaps it was just electricity.” (Gleick 5)
    I think this quote is looking too far into the system and how it works, to think a signal being transmitted is merely carrying electricity. In the most basic form, that’s true — but that’s like saying when we talk we are only blowing air. While this is true for most people it is objectively not true for any intelligent being who can comprehend that the “electricity” is a message with meaning. Purpose or not, there is still meaning. Well, most of the time.

  7. As someone who has primarily studied humanities, this way of thinking about life did challenge what I have been used to thinking. I always thought of life in the same sense as the “spark of life” mentality. This was extremely interesting to me as it opened my eyes to a more scientific way of thought. I know can understand that humans really are not that different from the technology we make. Though people can debate and have different opinions on what a soul is, or what makes someone a human person, everyone can recognize the fact that we are made up of information. It was surprising to me how much information we actually contain in our genetic makeup. I never really considered that information was so abundant around us. I always thought of it in books, or technology, or media, but Gleick helped me to realize that information is naturally occurring everywhere around us.

  8. While reading this quote I realized that I have never thought about how similar our brains way of processing thoughts is to a computer processing information. Comparing biology to technology is hard to do and there does not seem to be an obvious connection. But looking at biology as information you see the connection easily. How our genes are just holding information about our bodies , and everything we do involves communication between our brains and the rest of ourselves. For example, when picking up a pencil our brain is communicating to our hand what physical motion to do and and our eyes are communicating information on the location of the pencil. This makes you realize that everything we do involves information. Also that we are constantly receiving new information and processing it without even noticing most of the time.

  9. Exploring the complexity of information has allowed us as a community to come a long way. Through it we have been able to explore before unknown fields. It has helped us move forward towards new inventions and better versions of known information. Information is what feeds everything in this world. it permits us to have although not tangible but reliable data that can be used in different fields. Information is the core of humanity. Everything we know comes from it and without it nothing would be whole.

  10. The perspective that Gleick brings forth is certainly a vast one. The word information can refer to so many things that it is hard to fully grasp it. Without information, what do we have? It really is the core of human existence. Without information, we would not be constantly improving and evolving. It is also very unsettling, yet so interesting that each individual human being has six billion unique strands of DNA. I cannot even wrap my mind around that number once, never-mind the amount of individual DNA strands are in a family, a state, the whole world.

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