Some Information Theory

It helps, when thinking about digital technology differently, to look at a
bit of theory. In this case I want to highlight some theory about information
and how we use it in western culture.Although we may use digital technology
to do lots of different things, the most basic and culture-shocking thing we
first do is usually to re-arrange our own information flow, whether that information
is relate to work, personal business, or whatever. Also, since what we normally
think of as “information” is subjected to the most rules and conventions
in our culture (compared to other forms of data that we might choose to digitize),
then it is instructive to look at how digitization is affecting this form of


The three information ages.

Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman have argued, in their book Information
, that we are not, as commonly described, at the beginning of “the”
information age but that we are near the beginning of the third information
age since the rise of western civilization. Their argument is powerful and persuasive
and I recommend the book to anyone. However, for our purposes at least a summary
is necessary to understand some of theory behind my own arguments.


Before the written alphabet there was, of course, “oral tradition”.
However, we view oral Homeric culture with a bias. In our age we “abstract”
information from the “flow of experience” so we assume oral tradition
was about using memory as containers of experience. Hobart & Schiffman suggest
this is mistaken, there was no “information” as such in these cultures.
Oral events were a “commemoration”, and they were not separated from
the experience (Information Ages pg.15). Oral epics were participatory. The
audience became the characters and there was no abstraction. Therefore, there
was no critical distance between the story and the audience and there was no
thinking! Alphabetic literacy freed the audience from this directness, and what
was written could be seen as an object, and not just felt.


The first information age was the Classical Age, marked by the invention
of the written alphabet. Writing emerged as an extension of accounting techniques
involving tokens & emblems. Information came along after this. Hobart &
Schiffman here admit that the idea of a developing civilization with accounting
but without information is counterintuitive (pg.38 ).


Written language began when a semitic people called Akkadians had infiltrated
Sumeria and thus required Sumerians to use Sumerian script to render Akkadian
names and language. “Whereas Sumerian is an agglutinative language… (Akkadian) denotes syntactic relationships… by declining nouns and conjugating verbs…(pg.44)”.
This is a critical step in the transition from speech as pure information containers
to writing as the technology of communication.


However, it was the Greeks who, once they adopted this written alphabet, invented
“information” and revolutionized thought for the next 1500 years.
The genius of the Greek’s adoption of alphabet is that “the adaptation
of Phoenicion signs for the transcription of spoken Greek marks the final divorce
between writing and its pictographic origins (pg.68).” The Greeks got started
down this road by using this new alphabet not for accounting (for which it had
been invented) but for writing down rules and laws (Burke & Orenstein: The
Axemaker’s Gift, pg.68).


Almost the entire body of Greek philosophy is built upon this development
of thought and information. In fact “…Aristotle’s philosophy stands as
the culmination of the first information age, for it seeks to define and systematize
the mental objects that had been wrought by literacy”‘ (Hobart & Schiffman
pg. 78). Aristotle used language to extract concepts from intuition and ultimately
gain knowledge. Two further quotes from Information Ages neatly
sum up the importance of this development of Greek philosophy: “By explicitly
transforming intuitive extracts into concepts, we create information.( pg.81)”
and, “Philosophy thus functions to circumscribe the information born of


The second Information Age was called the The Modern Age of Numeracy.
Gutenberg’s printing press caused an explosion in the availability of information
and eventually gave rise to the development of modern mathematics & physics.
These relied on analysis, first used in mathematics, epitomized by Calculus,
and then extended to other sciences. It became the ‘age of knowledge’. In brief,
here is how.


The rennaisance humanistic viewpoint was not sufficient to handle the explosion
of information that came along after 1500. By then the printing press had been
around for 50 years and the amount of books increased hugely. Rene Descartes
was instrumental in finding a new way of thinking. He devised “clear and
distinct ideas” as a foundation for his philosophy. Subsequently, his choice
of mathematical analysis led to our modern distinction between science and philosophy
(which in Descarte’s time were not separate).


Descartes’ (and others’) development of mathematics depended on a greatly enhanced
“numeracy”. The difference between cardinal and ordinal numbers is
important to understanding rise of numeracy. Numerical placeholding (or positional
counting) has been called “the most successful intellecual innovation ever
made on our planet” (Hobart & Schiffman pg. 122). Invented in India
in the 3rd millenium BC., it came to Europe through Moslems starting in 14th
century. By the 18th century this method of written numbers was the standard
and incorporated all the symbols & notation we use today. It allowed for
the full use of our modern abstract mathematics which became an information
technology of its own and thus allowing the second information age.


It’s difficult for us, at this point in history, to appreciate how different
this information tool was and how much it changed the ability to analyse physical
(and mathematical) problems. Descartes’ achievements “enabled one to move
back and forth between the worlds of space and algebraicized number”(Hobart
& Schiffman132). His formulas and mathematics referred to the relations
between things, rather than to things themselves. Thus mathematical equations
were the only way to fully analyze and describe the range and diversity of information
that became available during the rise of modern science.


Calculus, which was separately developed in the late seventeenth century by
Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, allowed analysis of infinitesimally small
rates of change (down to the limit of contemporary measuring instruments), thus
resulting in the popular oxymoron ‘insantaneous rate of change’. By going beyond
the static measurements of traditional mathematics and allowing the capture
in numbers of a “fleeting instant” it caused the separation between
what we can conceive and what we can imagine.


In Hobart and Schiffman’s words, “by the mid-eighteenth century, the mathematical
achievements of Newton, Leibniz and a host of others had yielded the two critical
components of the analytical vision and of the modern information age: formulas
and algorithms. (pg. 160)”


Another, parallel, stream of scientific development during the development
of the modern age was the re-classification of knowledge and phenomenon according
to this same emerging scientific (and numeric) thought. Denis Diderot and Jean
Le Rond d’Alembert edited their Encyclopedia in 1751-1772. Its contents were
“… bound together with mathematical ‘chains of reasons.(Hobart &
Schiffman, 148)” The bedrock of the Encyclopedia was its new classification
of knowledge based upon mathematics, not the taxonomy of previous ages.


We are now somewhere near the start of the third informaton age: The Computer
. Beginning with the development of symbolic logic by both George Boole
and Augustus de Morgan in the mid-ninteenth century there has been a steady
ersosion of the hegemony of modern numeracy. With early twentieth century analogue
computers as a kind of “halfway step”, the further development of
logic and calculating machines crested with the work of Alan Turing. Turing’s
universal computer design included a very important idea: “no essential
distinction between numbers and operations on numbers” (Hobart &Schiffman
215). This means binary digits express three distinct features: binary numbers,
boolean logic, and instruction sequence [ the program]. These three features
are still the essential elements of the operations of today’s computers.


A full discussion of the current state of information theory as it is manifested
in today’s computers is far beyond the scope of this essay. (However, some further
discussion of Information Play may be interesting to some readers.)


Although we do not know the extent and direction that the new information age
will take us, there are a few things we can say for sure. It takes generations
to really see the full affects of each new age. Although it is easy to see that
new technology allows us to do different things than we have done before, it
is not easy to see which are the things that will take us into the new age and
which are the things that are based upon the information idioms of the previous
age. Much of the purpose of the Digital Cobbler is to help us gain a mindset
to make this critical distinction.


>> Another Theoretical Perspective