When the Information Age Was Young and Innocent
If we were fish, we would think of information as our water. We are in it all the time. We take it in and we breathe it out.
We swim in the Information Age, so deeply immersed in data, facts, emotions, and memories that they have become transparent to us. The world has been deeply changed by this. It is the fault, or due to the brilliance, of one man.
“Steve Jobs!” the smartest kid in the class might call out. But no, not Steve Jobs.
“Bill Gates!” No, not Gates.
“William Shockley, father of the semiconductor which led to the transistor in 1951!”
You’re getting closer, I’d say, if I were the instructor standing before this imaginary class, but you have to go farther back in time, I’d say, to a period when the ideas for containing the ideas did not yet exist. I’d wait a few more moments for the answer. Maybe some kid in the back would say quietly, “Claude Shannon.”
Yes. Claude Shannon. Somebody you’ve probably never heard about. Before the silicon chip, before the PC, before the iPhone, Claude Shannon expressed the ideas that made computers possible. His sweeping insights stand behind every email you’ve sent, every video you’ve watched, and every webpage you’ve ever loaded in your browser. Fake news, real revolutions, the information explosion, democracy on the brink, the acceleration of human evolution to its destruction or to a greater consciousness — we owe all of this to Shannon’s 1937 study of electrical switches that were either off or on, binary switches that could express logical statements. When scientists added layer upon layer of complexity to those switches, they became computers.
In their entertaining and informative biography A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, available at Amazon and other booksellers, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman help readers draw a line from Shannon’s ideas to the future we enjoy now, a future which seemingly has muscled the present out of the picture so that it could arrive early. The connection between Shannon and our accelerated world of communications makes sense. Shannon worked at Bell Labs, the Apple or Google of its day, where, in the words of Jon Gertner, the future was conceived and designed.
Shannon did practical, timely work, such as the cryptography behind an encrypted transatlantic phone line that connected Roosevelt and Churchill. But his 1984 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” Shannon gave us the tools to think about information that brought us to where we are now.
Just where are we now? Drawing a straight line from Shannon’s elegant architecture of information to the messy world of social media sets you on a rocky road.
We are, as James Gleick has written, drowning in information, badly in need of filters, and overwhelmed by our devices. Instructively, and even counter-intuitively, Claude Shannon was a digital thinker who was also profoundly analog in life. He liked designing, building, and riding unicycles. He devoted years to the study of juggling. He hand-carved a flagpole from a tree on his property. He built a robotic maze-solving mouse. He was curious. He was a tinkerer of the sort we don’t meet much any more. It seems to have balanced his life in a way that our lives lack.
Shannon’s abstract, intellectual children grew up to inhabit the real world. Some of them became awkward adolescents. Others became monsters. Facebook is an engine of misinformation that Mark Zuckerberg vows to fix. Twitter is an artillery of hate that guns down truth. Shannon was certainly familiar with World War II propaganda, but could he have seen that information itself could become weaponized, not because it was true or false, but simply because there could be so much of it? What was theoretical in his day now draws blood. Who is responsible for that? Not Shannon, of course. How much longer can Facebook, Twitter, and Google continue to say “oh, we’re just the pipes information travels in,” and walk away from their responsibilities? They are not just pipes. They cannot continue to occupy space between being public utilities and news organizations, reaping the benefits of both while assuming the responsibilities of neither.
Can we look back to Shannon’s bright era of serious playfulness and understand how our darker world works? A maze-solving mouse now seems like an impossibly innocent creation. Let’s not lose that innocence and sense of discovery, I say. We need kids and adults in the room.
Platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter can’t allow their good intentions to become weaponized. They can’t ignore hate speech in the name of making a buck. There was a glimmer of hope on this front recently when Facebook’s Zuckerberg announced the company’s financial results and said,“I’ve directed our teams to invest so much in security — on top of the other investments we’re making — that it will significantly impact our profitability going forward.” He was mad at Russian operatives for using his platform to mess with our election and he intends to prevent it from happening again.
Given the complexity of the Information Age, I wish Zuck luck. It is unfair to draw a straight line from the dawn of information theory to the social consequences of the Information Age, but there is a line to be drawn, however crooked it may be. We have to ask how did we get here? Looking to Claude Shannon’s work for answers is a good way to start.
As Soni and Goodman considered why they needed to write this book, they wrote: “We began with a nagging sense that there is something harmful in using without understanding, or at least trying to understand. We began with the idea that there is something ungrateful and grasping in enjoying our bounty of information without bothering to understand how it got here.”