Information Glut

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” - Gertrude Stein

If there is a common theme in society (and science) today, it is information. Information drives our culture, our technologies and our daily lives. Information in the form of DNA, the “informational molecule” at the heart of our genetic heritage, drives the very action of our cellular machinery. Our days revolve around information: news, tweets and e-mails consisting of words and letters that carry meaning. (Often different meanings for different people.) We constantly strive for more and new information, in school, in the workplace, in the laboratory. New information lies at the heart of every laboratory experiment, every research project and every newscast. Does this molecule make cervical cancer cells more susceptible to programmed cell death? Yes or No? Does this anti-smoking message lower teenagers’ willingness to smoke with their friends? Yes or No? Will it rain today? Yes or No?  How certain are we that it will rain?

We receive, store, process and communicate information every minute of every day. We are constantly exchanging information with each other and our environment. But have you ever paused to consider what information actually is? When I speak of “information”, you might think of technology or the details of a police investigation. You might think of words such as knowledge, intelligence, news, report and data. You might think of facts, or perhaps the process of communication itself. You might think of organization as opposed to chaos. Perhaps you think of choices: Yes or No, heads or tails, 0 or 1.

Actually, it seems that information has been defined in many ways throughout the years. The nature of information appears to be constantly evolving while yet remaining a fixed force at the center of our lives. Information has been defined as “a sequence of symbols that can be interpreted as a message.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines information as both “the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence” and “knowledge obtained from investigation.” Information is the “attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects.” We often quantify information in bits. The bit is the fundamental “particle” of information that takes on a value of 0 or 1. Claude Shannon, father of information theory, used the bit as a measure of entropy, or uncertainty. Information is essentially the result of decreased uncertainly, or a change in entropy. Entropy is “a measurement of how much information is NOT available when we don’t know the outcome of an information source.” That information source could be a coin, for example.

Who would have thought that the word “information” itself was so complicated? My musings about information started this week as I cracked open James Gleick’s “The Information.” I’m intrigued that a concept as unassuming as the word information is today could have come to revolutionize human culture and consciousness. While signals, messages and information have been with us since the dawn of life (what is RNA but information packaged in nucleotides?), it would certainly appear that information and technology overwhelm us today to an unprecedented degree. But what does information mean to us today, and how has it affected our knowledge of the world? What does the pursuit of information look like? When did it start and how does it affect our lives today? I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Gleick’s book, and writing a few musings on information myself.

“Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.” - Daniel J. Boorstin

What does information mean to you?