Friday, January 19, 2007

Some Thoughts on Information - II

We got as far as Homer with our thinking about information.

The reason I picked Homer is because, to my simple mind, he marks the transition for an oral tradition of information passage to a written version. When written language developed exactly is hard to determine (for interested parties, go to to the Wikipedia entry on the History of Writing).While there are surely sagas, stories, information (such as that found in the Egyptian pyramids) that had been written (using various hieroglyphic and cuneiform languages) prior to ~1200 BC, in the Western tradition, we credit Cadmus with bringing the Phoenician alphabet from Tyre (bombed to smithereens by the Israelis last summer) to Greece and introducing the written word there (as described in “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” by Roberto Calasso.)

After this, information was written. At first cumbrous by hand, reaching its apogee in the scripting monks of the wee islands off the southern coast of Ireland (see “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill and, if you really want an experience, go see the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin). This was a learning experience for humans, translating the spoken, observational world and mapping it onto the written page. This is the essence of writing, a mapping process. Interestingly enough, it is exactly what DNA does when it maps information onto the milieu of the cell. (To let you know where I am driving in these spiels, DNA maps its information onto proteins that have specific, kinetic rates. The proteins have primary (i.e. amino acid structure), secondary (i.e. how the amino acids are arranged determined by the code), tertiary (how the protein folds in three dimensional space) and quaternary (the rate of the reaction that the enzyme performs. Much more about this later, if you are interested, later.)

So information important to human survival is mapped onto the page by writing. Then, after Gutenberg, by printing. (Project Gutenberg is interesting in its quest to get as many books as possible onto the digital library of the Internet).And in the late 20th century by the digitization into ones and zeros.

This reminds me a little of the Jorge Luis Borges’ tale where the king asks his cartographer to map the kingdom and he makes a small model. Next he asks him to make it larger. If you know Borges, you can figure out what happens next. Gradually the map (model) gets bigger until it encompasses the whole kingdom. What I mean is that the Internet is digitizing our lives, at some point entirely. We don’t need to travel to distant stars. We can just send all the information necessary in digital form and another civilization will reconstruct us. DNA and all.

Now where is this information localized. Growlery emphasized that Homer’s information space was across Greece, several hundred kilometers. I would certainly agree with this but would also add that the next big thing after with written word was the localization of information in libraries, particularly the Library at Alexandria. It must certainly rank right up there with the seven tragedies of the ancient world the destruction of that library in that this was the largest collection of texts (many on papyrus) ever assembled until that time. It may have reached as many as 500,000 scrolls. (Laura Croft has an encounter with the Library in one of the Tomb Raider adventures, I forget which.)

As an aside, Egypt has recently decided to open a library to commemorate the ancient library. Do we not find an intense irony here that the written word is now digitized so that, rather than a library, we could store this on a few CD’s, or DVD’s, or Blue Rays, or whatever? (The library I now use is eMedicine, Google and Wikipedia, although I have a home library of 2-3,000 books. I just like to sit amongst them. Cheap thrills.)

So, back to the thread. In spite of the exponential increase in information, much of it localized in books, then books in libraries, one has to ask how the single human progressed in this. Did all this information make life easier for the human, or, paradoxically more difficult. And, of course, how do we get and process this information.

Stay tuned.

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