These are notes while tearing through James Gleick's The Information, a characteristically comprehensive and fascinating book. I'm cranky, he's not. I'm pretty sure that most any reader would struggle to get their head around this survey, but I seem to want to push back on some of it. Like, especially, the conflation of "brain" with "mind" and the elision of any truly unitary definition for "Information." To be silly about it, our usage of that term seems plainly chaotic. (I know I own and have read that book, but where oh where did it go? Entropy is a bitch!)
I order my living space because it pleases me. The actual work of ordering pleases me, though it might be considered a chore. I also enjoyed the Sisyphean task of owning a wooden boat that was older than I was, because the work against entropy was tangible and, for me, intrinsically enjoyable. I enjoyed the blooming beauty, but of course most of all, I enjoyed the sailing.
Ultimately, and naturally, the entropic "forces" embodied in my boat overwhelmed me, and I was forced to give it away. No actually, it was the entropic forces that I faced in my life. Scrambling for money, having to move, facing decreasing time for anything but driving, and no daylight for myself.
The boat was fine. My work was true. But nobody really shared my enthusiasms anymore, or perhaps, rather, if they did they would prefer to build from scratch. That would be inevitably less frustrating and probably more satisfying than to keep up with an old boat.
But I could never afford to build a new one, either in time or money, which were and are related, of course. And giving away a perfectly good boat was far more satisfying than to have to quantify the use-value I gained from sailing it. There is entropy to emotion only when always wanting something new. A law of nature, that.
Like all other "forces," emotion orders reality only in concert with all the other facts of life. By itself, emotion can lead as easily to destruction as to positive building up.
Now ordering my living space should decrease its entropy, and yet I am building no potential for either usable energy - the way that entropy differentials should allow in physics - nor for the living space to come alive, in the way that information preservation might, say, in the form of genes. But I am enacting, at least, the proper direction for entropy while living. My living space and I endure together, or neither at all. It feels very important that I enjoy my space, so that I may live out my days.
I am constructing part of what I require to stay alive myself. All of it is somehow fungible with money. I seem to crave tiny spaces to live in. First my boat and then my more recently abandoned tiny home. I love the combination of freedom with the manageability of my living space. "Free to loving home," would be interestingly recursive, right, if I were to give this one away? But this time my tiny home is worth something. During the pandemic, lots of people want to carry their space with them. Astronauts on Earth.
In my life, I have quit rather quickly those money-making jobs which felt like a kind of wage slavery. My quitting inevitably involved a director wanting to direct me, rather than to trust me to direct myself. And I have enjoyed rather lengthy tenures whenever I found a job, no matter how arduous - and some were absurdly so - where I could be fairly autonomous.
This is, of course, a measure of my privilege, as is my nice living space. I am at liberty to quit, even while I may convince myself that I am willing to die if necessary, rather than to allow myself to do meaningless chores. Even though I would never risk my life for country. Even though I love my country. I don't trust her. She lies.
According to Information Theory . . .
It would seem (this is but a passing footnote in the book) that one might have to expend some information in order to get work done. There is a trade-off. The only way that I can think of to interpret this is that information must be transmitted, in some sense, before it is useful. I find a muddle between information theory and communication theory.
I'm pretty sure, but far from certain, that the muddle is that information is thought to reside in the occult spaces of the mind, and that the mind is thought to be coincident with the brain, and so the supposition is that information has to be communicated before it means anything. That's where backward comes in.
It would seem that I'm hardly the first person to be confused. Big Big Names have gotten information entropy backwards, apparently for the same reasons I have. It just doesn't seem right that order should be taxed as entropy. The definition depends on something like interpretation, which depends in turn on what random means.
To Maxwell and others "It seemed impossible to talk about order and disorder without involving an agent or an observer - without talking about the mind" [Gleick's words]. I get that there must be an entropy differential, analogous to the one that work comes from physically. And that ordered information, in the logarithmic extreme, is stillness and death; sameness operator and receiver. All zeros or all ones carry no information, and yet they are ordered.
Time itself depends on chance, or "the accidents of life," as Richard Feynman liked to say: "Well, you see that all there is to it is that the irreversibility is caused by the general accidents of life."
It turns out that finding random is almost as tricky as finding pattern, which also has a complicated meaning in the mathematical abstract. Everything is translated to number space and then random is defined by that condition that a number be calculable; meaning that it can be represented by a formula which would have fewer information bits than the number itself.
It's still hardly clear to me that the definitions for work IRL (in real life) have anything to do with these technical, formal usages for both entropy and work. There must be some math behind it.
Yes, OK, I can see why transmitted information might be needed in trade for energy, to keep various conservation laws intact. In a closed quantum system (is that an oxymoron?) information can neither be created or destroyed, just like energy in a closed thermodynamic system. It got a little dicey for a moment there with information disappearing into black holes, according to Stephen Hawking, who later corrected himself before he died.
Now things are turning, just a little bit, on a theory of information transfer, communication. Definitions for information start to scintillate, just like waves and particles do. Nothing can be pinned down.
In some form, energy is always required for life. Living things transform some of that energy into something both mechanical and durable in a direction away from physical entropy. Just now, we seem to be still in the throes of trying to determine if digital information processing can be turned into a realistic imitation of life. We remain obsessed with intelligence as the form of life we prefer. God knows why! Look where it has gotten us!
But life is, naturally, composed in a matrix. Genetic code, or any code, has no meaning without the complex ground for its realization. Words require literate readers. Computer codes require computers. Abstraction requires a mind. And of course, genetics are a blueprint for nothing without the proper ground of other life.
Intelligent life, awash in meaningful symbols - in code - must incorporate the highest information content of any structure in the known cosmos, which would mean that it is the most disordered, terms of information. It has the highest entropy. It is the most surprising thing. I'm still having a hard time getting my head around this. How can the most surprising thing - intelligent life - also be the most disordered? Where is the transaction between informational entropy and physical entropy? When does the communication happen?
Well, paradox is always part of any equation. That's been proven. Godel.
There is some fungibility between information and energy, which depends on [intelligent?] life for its realization. The closest we may ever come to perpetual motion might be our sun, and it too has a limited and predictable life-span; except it's not alive.
Intelligence only comes into play after there has been a near eternity of coding. Intelligence comes after words, which come after life, which takes the crystalline eternal structure of cosmos at its highest entropy and turns it's normal path toward decay in the opposite direction. Living eddies in the physical flow.
Time is an invention, according to a John Wheeler quote, like probability, "concept[s] invented by humans." Well, I say, concepts can't be invented, they can only be discovered. How recalcitrant of me!
By the time that we are awash in words, we require a different way to make energy fungible with information. We call this money. I put my money down that theory of any sort cannot come even close to describing humanity!
In an ideal world, money would be denominated in energy. Money already is mostly denominated in energy, mitigated by enthusiasm, but in our ideal world it would be factored according to sustainability, which means according to what a mess monetizing (queer word, that little neologism) might make of our earthly home. Our earthly home is, quite naturally, alive and requires certain ordered conditions for its overall survival, however limited that life-span might be. There shall be other earths, anon. Just not real soon.
In the near term we should try obvious things, like realizing a humane mass-transit system, where you smartphone would call something to your door (autonomous or driven hardly matters in the short term. Neither does single-rider or group), line up your transfers while dissolving waiting and optimizing transit time to be faster than private cars. Trivial, if we did but have the collective will.
Of course there must be a tax on wealth, and it must be calibrated to how much of the commons is allowed to private use of the taxpayer. That would include the commons of predicting our collective behaviors, of course, and not just air and water and wild space. That tax shall be used for governance, and of course Bratton is correct that when the very air we breathe becomes dangerous, then the government can and must mandate our participation in protecting our immunological commons.
But government must also build infrastructure, and provide guidance about the forms the infrastructure takes. This becomes our collective home.
Good governance must prevent the squandering of human resources by educating all equitably and richly. In a world where money is defined properly, a private automobile would be abomination, as would a private yacht. Airplanes would be simply unnecessary. A balance would be struck between voluntary and guided. All of this could be available to us on the morrow, if we were to get our definitions straight.
For now, we must proceed according to approximations, and make the not unreasonable assumption that our actual facts are moving in the direction of this ideal. Our math shall be crude. Our identities only approximate. But there can be no question that profligate use of energy is in approximate identity with the sudden shift from entropy of information to entropic chaos embodied by the disembodying bomb. Twas purest intelligence built it. Dragging the sun's power down to earth in a far too literal fashion! I mean, we must do it far more literally and a lot more slowly. We must curb our enthusiasms for a while.
In any case, it's not so hard to imagine that money might represent a kind of enthusiasm for the schematic of information. If my home is truly beautiful, regardless of how much money it may have cost me, it may be quite valuable in some sense, at least to me. But alas, as with my sailboat, the value is always limited by fungibility. Things must come to resemble money as interchangeable parts of the economy. A house is not a portable work of art, and in any case each household wants to make its own. But houses have rapidly become only fungible space.
Perhaps someday the tiny fungible houses will appreciate in price faster than the gaudy expressions of personality which all look the same. Ticky tacky. But when, anyhow, did even space become fungible? Families once lived in the same space across generations.
A hoard of money must symbolize increasingly low states of entropy. The sameness one coin to the next is by definition. A string of zeros. A string of ones. Money's value is in its differential, as is always the case with entropy, But as with information, money is worth nothing unless and until it is deployed by [intelligent?] life.
Somehow, there is no question in my mind that upon launch, a mega-yacht loses value faster, even in proportion to its cost, than even an automobile does upon being driven from the showroom. It is such a particular and peculiar embodied want. And the wealth required is so utterly singular. Anyone singularly wealthy would, well, rather commission their own.
Now with space shots, there may be some better fungibility, given that the craft is almost and merely symbolic - a code, in a way - for the complex matrix of advanced technology that it depends on for its usability. And unlike the yacht, its thrill is brief, if intense. No wonder Bezos' is a phallus.
Our collective objective now must be the preservation of the earth. In combination with economics as we mean it, and comfort as we have come to expect it, and derision of labor as we mean by slavery [wage slavery, sex slavery, literal slavery] we don't seem to be approaching our objective at all.
Indeed it begins to look as though there will ultimately be a global conflagration, in minuscule imitation of the sun, that will reduce life to its beginnings in the greatest trade-off between energy and information since the beginning of time.
I believe that's how any exponential curve works. Stored energy builds until it blows. In our case, we are organizing our living space according to a dangerous differential of money, built on the manipulation of enthusiasms into baubles of mechanical production. That's what unsustainability means.
We fear, don't we? that if we were to spread the wealth, then our industry - that thing which distinguishes us as intelligent life - would be destroyed as well. As though we would not want anything at all, because we would not want, and the economy would collapse.
These are all plays on words. And yet emotion is real, and money is real, and both are spent in relation to the intensity of desire. The question becomes, what might suffice, for each of us, to return the earth to homeostasis? How many will you ignore in pursuing your individual desires? Each of us is but an atom, while the whole is boiling hot. There is a formula for how the probability functions build on exponents to explosion.
How much is sufficient? Sometimes it seems as though nobody noticed when we jumped the great divide into abstraction. Once upon a time, numbers were used to enumerate things. To count. Quantities of actual things easily turned into some primitive form of money. Counters. Counters turned back into things like coin and gold.
I have stored this many bushels, and have expended the dung of this many sheep, some of whom have become food themselves, some who provide clothing and blankets, and some to replace those that die. I am more than sufficed. And you? What might you want?
When people speak of evolution, they hardly ever talk of the matrix which holds the other part of the genetic code. There is no meaning to the code without the entire history of life which came before. Readers of genetic code arrive at it from mathematics, which is a purely disembodied sort of logic. There is no metaphor there, as there must be in physics if it wishes to deal with the real.
My very self is composed of many more gene pools than those that my kind lays claim to.
And now money too, like a perfect circle, is thought to be somehow eternal and disembodied and without connection to life or to emotion, which is absurd on its face. Name your price! Everything is fungible. I'll throw in a perfect circle for free, with each transaction. It's out of this world! Express your code in my matrix! I have what you need! Fast turnover.
Any complete Theory of Information would have to distinguish between the thing and its bits; the embodiment and its template. And there is no complete template for anything in our cosmos. There are only things and their variations upon accident.
What is a matrix, you ask? Well, the existence of a matrix in which a code is embedded is what distinguishes natural encodings like language, genes, and perhaps even mechanical schematics from abstracted encodings such as math/numbers, encoded logic and computer code. The distinction is both crass and subtle at once.
It was the age in which genes were first named and then discovered and finally sequenced which allowed the disappearance of the matrix from our minds. It was a masculine age, when, for instance, Watson and Crick overwrote Rosalind Franklin.
Indeed, information theory is entirely mixed up. Information must be defined as the static configuration of conceptual reality. Perceptual reality is in constant motion. If it weren't, it would be conceptual. In just the way that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed in a closed thermodynamic system, neither can information be created or destroyed in quantum reality.
Shannon entropy applies only to the transmission or communication of information. Communication of information may be analogous to the work which can be accomplished by the transfer of energy. Information similarly flows according to a differential. Instead of work, in this case something like meaning is accomplished. Code is nothing without matrix and meaning both. (The 'medium is the message' one better?)
Of course, before information can flow, it must be encoded. Entropy thus applies to the code, rather than to the information. The code is abstracted from whatever matrix the information was a part of; the matrix in this case being the constellation of concepts which rendered the information meaningful, in just the way that words without a language are meaningless.
No wonder anti-entropy and entropy have been confused and confusing when applied to information. It would seem, in other words, that ordering my living space would be to decrease its entropy. It would further seem that there is no easy way to speak of transmitting or otherwise sending that order by any process of encoding, other than, perhaps, by way of video. But video abstracts. You can't live in it.
Only abstracted information may be in motion, and to abstract is to encode. Emotion is engaged by concepts in relative motion. That's what abstraction implies. Math operates now only on code, and as we all know, math is entirely removed from emotion, except, perhaps, in the lonely person of the mathematician, whose mind has already adapted to Turing machine reality. Math is exciting only at the peak, which is, by very definition of that sort of excitement, a very lonely place.
We think that information is transmitted in just the way that energy is conveyed. It is not. Information is a function of the mind, which is not coterminous with the brain. While we may talk about perceptual information being transmitted - perceived - by the brain, there is no reproduction in the brain of that object. What is reproduced - in the mind - is an abstracted version of the perception which always remains the percept - outside of the brain - and not the conceptual generalization which is the mind's province.
The "encoding" of perceptual transmission is a function of the receiver and not of the object. In a similar way, work is accomplished by differentials in entropy by a transfer of heat, which is related to no concept of sender and receiver. Perception is an act of conceptualization, if it is to become a useful part of memory. Memory is useful only for comparisons with present perceptual reality. Concepts are not abstracted until they are encoded. They are otherwise very real and very emotionally present.
That's what mind means. Concepts are no more in the mind than percepts. The mind matches them. Brain relates to mind, perhaps, as word relates to meaning. Words are external. Shared. Brains are all largely alike as well. They mostly do the same thing.
Watts cannot be a definition for work, any more than a page of gibberish can be called information. It may have an information entropy of a jillion, because it is a monkey typing, but it contains no meaning. In the same way, energy transformed may not equate to work. An explosion is simply the rendering of order into gibberish.
Work must be defined in relation to meaning, as must information. No work is accomplished in the demolition of a bridge, unless that was the object of the harvesting of the energy. The simple moving of an object may be work, if entropy is decreased, or it may be the natural increase of entropy, in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics.
Money, especially money, must not be abstracted from the matrix of actual life. Plays with money must always be suspected as salvos against the planet, and taxed to the players' limit of survival. Money also is a form of life, but abstracted money is a cancer. A viral vector for disease.
A single gene is not a code for anything. Only when, as James Gleick notes in this masterful Information, only when all copies of a particular gene are considered as one, which is to say a gene that endures for eons, only then may one consider that gene a code. It has been abstracted not just from the matrix of all life, but from any and all particular organisms. The abstracted gene was never alive. It was always code. It became code when it became legion, across time.
And so is copying a form of transmission? Why yes, of course, it must be. It moves. And it defines time. Like gravity, there is a direction to evolution, and it is love. Gleick is subtly wrong when he says that the music is the information. He's forgotten the receiver. The "information" must be realized and transmitted before it can be music, in a direction opposite to encoding. It is the making real of code which might cause the rapture to ensue.
And, of course, the rapture is upon us, since the alternative - the destruction of our matrix - is quite literally unthinkable. There is no figure without its ground.
The most dangerous concept with which the West has infected the rest of the planet is the "idea." Ideas are thought to be disembodied, while also housed in the brain. But the brain is not the mind, and the mind extends through all perceptions and conceptions that are without the brain.
Memes then cannot be distinguished from their embodiment, any more than thoughts can be disassociated from words. Gleick makes the point that a hula hoop is not a meme. It is, rather, the idea of a hula hoop, of which the thing is one specific embodiment. I think he is quite wrong. It's not the ideal wheel which is the actual meme of a wheel. It is the one that works.
And, of course, Bratton is wrong when he insists that digital reality cannot be excluded from the processes of life. But of course it can. By definition, digital is already abstracted. Its begins with code. It is the actual embodiment, when made real in the form of video, music, or words (among infinite other things) of that impossible abstraction; the idea.
That is, of course, what makes digital dangerous. QAnon is a cult of memes, trivially produced by some idiot savant trickster, who styles himself "Q." Bitcoin embodies purest evil, not only because of the diabolical nature of bitcoin mining and its squandering of energy, but for its utter abstraction from anything that might be represented by money. We allow it only because we have no idea what money really is. A medium of exchange.
Our entire economy seems to have become a trade in individualistic memes. Sex sells. And so do quirky and sometimes perfect gestures. And then we consider them to be international threats to our national security, because they will do the same corruption that Google or Facebook already do to our body politic, but they will do it for some other culture's reasons. As though we had reasons of our own.
But it's the secrets, the hacking, the entree to our banking spaces. As if there were enough of the proper kind of trustworthy human actors to assure the security of your transactions by way of the Internet. The brain as mind is a thought stopping cliché. A semantic stopsign, in the usage of that geek rapturist, Eliezer Yudkowsky. It is also a cliché to say that computers think (and that brains compute).
Life requires a matrix, and that matrix is built with other life. There is no calculating - no expression of genes or memes - except in the cliche-ridden (and according to Robert J. Lifton, brainwashed) minds of idealist abstract thinkers and in their fevered machines. We otherwise must count.
I guess it's just too trite and obvious that words are the memes of language, and that what we are so fascinated by are the metaphorical viruses. The chain letters and phrases like "jump the shark." Chain letters never make it into "the language" while 'jump the shark' actually does. But the viral memes are dangerous, and only innocents can continue to use Facebook to connect with other free-thinkers, subversives, radicals and liberals.
Again, Bratton is right. It's not our precious privacy that's being invaded. It's thought and language itself, and all because we thought that digital technology was just another morally neutral tool. No one disputes the amorality of COVID-19, but it's still bad. At least as bad as radioactive fallout. Digital tools can be useful, but not when they are allowed to run free in our economy.
I straighten up my living space constantly. It bothers me when things aren't square, except that I absolutely adore the feng shui of my off kilter apartment. I don't clean quite as constantly, perhaps relying overmuch on my deficient human nose. But I can be certain that when I wipe a surface - the toilet tank top, for instance - dirt that was utterly invisible will appear. And it will be hard to rinse away from the cloth that did reveal it.
The real now is the invisible. Not just the virus, whose revenge Bratton riffs on. But also genes, and electricity and ethernet and Internet streams. The invisible is what composes and controls our lives. The invisible is a conceptual realm, and so it must feel natural that concepts should be invisible inside our heads. And that concepts are ontologically equivalent to viruses or electricity, and that, expressed, they might have some use.
But even conceptual reality must be perceived and felt if it is to be believed. We can deny the reality of the virus, or call it a hoax for purposes of power, but it will still kill us. Ideas will still move us, but not when they remain locked up into fictions of individuality.
There is a different possibility, of course. We may come together in sanity, having trued our words even across vast cultural gaps, and we may learn to preserve our precious commons. Pure abstraction, which is also real, might help us with that. But we cannot live in our abstractions. We cannot construct our matrix. We must co-evolve together. That is the real. No revenge. It just simply is.