The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.

Kill All Normies

Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

By Angela Nagle

Have you been feeling too good lately?  When you look around at the world, does it seem too happy, safe, and congenial a place for your liking?  Would you like to feel more dismal about the state of your country, your fellow man?  Have you been trying to quit the Internet, looking to be driven offline, perhaps in despair?

Then, boy, do I have the book for you!  It’s not long, just a svelte 120 pages, but don’t worry!  There is enough disgusting human behavior in those 120 pages to fuel your misanthropy for the rest of your life.

Kill All NormiesKill All Normies‘ is Angela Nagle’s brief exploration of the once-fringe Internet subcultures which came to play significant roles in the 2016 United States presidential election.  Nagle frames these broadly as extensions of a broader culture war, starting in the 1960s, which saw the transgression against normal social mores as a goal, rather than as a tool, of social change.

More granularly, ‘Kill All Normies‘ is a summary history of the online evolutions of the alt-right and identitarian far left movements in the United States.  She covers personalities, fora (Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, &c), and specific events (Gamergate, Harambe).  She also explicates these phenomena within the cultural history of the United States, looks at how they relate to the political system in this country, and briefly discusses the critical texts which influenced them.  It is part history, part anthropology, part semiotics text.

And, from a humanist point of view, it’s gruesome.  If I didn’t think the end was nigh before I read this, I certainly do now.  Nagle covers, cursorily, the Manosphere, the Alt-Right and ethno-nationalism, Trump’s toxic Twitter army, Tumblr’s witch-hunty call-out culture, and the porny, hostile, insular world of 4chan.  I challenge anyone to read about those cultural infestations and still feel good about us as a species.

Angela Nagle
Angela Nagle

Nagle, it should be said, does not treat all these things as morally equivalent, and a denizen of, say, the Manosphere might take issue with her relative treatments (if he deigned to read books written by ‘holes’, that is).  She has a point of view, and she’s pretty upfront about it.  When she thinks something is revolting, she says so.  She openly deplores misogyny, racist rhetoric and attacks, threats, suicide encouragement, and homophobia.  She identifies as a feminist.

For all that, though, she is more even-handed than one might have expected her to be.  She faults both the left and the right for viciousness in the culture war.  She devotes an entire chapter to campus witch hunts from the left.

“At first, self-righteously or snarkily denouncing others for racism, sexism or homophobia was the most instantaneous and certain way to achieve social media fame.  Something about public social media platforms, it turned out, was conducive to the vanity of morally righteous politics and the irresistible draw of the culture wars.  But soon the secret was out and everyone was doing it.  The value of the currency of virtue that those who had made their social media culture capital on was in danger of being suddenly devalued.  As a result, I believe, a culture of purging had to take place, largely targeting those in competition for this precious currency.  Thus, the attacks increasingly focused on other liberals and leftists often with seemingly pristine progressive credentials, instead of those who engaged in any actual racism.” (p. 77)

“I often think the brain drain out of the left during this period because of the Tumblrization of left politics has done damage that will prove long-lasting.” (p. 80)

That Nagle has enormous contempt for this kind of hysterical, self-cannibalizing virtue-signaling is clear.  What is equally clear (in fact, explicit) is that she considers “actual racism” and misogyny much more dangerous.

“The alt-light figures that became celebrities during this period made their careers exposing the absurdities of online identity politics and the culture of lightly thrown claims of misogyny, racism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia and so on.  However, offine, only one side saw their guy take the office of US president and only one side has in their midst faux-ironic Sieg Heil saluting, open white segregationists and genuinely hate-filled, occasionally murderous, misogynists and racists.” (p. 9)

I was at least passingly familiar almost all of the cultural phenomena Nagle references, and, when I wasn’t, she gives enough of a sketch that I was able to place the reference in context.  I also have some experience reading criticism, and so I was able to grapple with some of the unwieldy and vague critical concepts that Nagle handles pretty casually.  In general, though, ‘Kill All Normies’ favors breadth over depth, and readers who don’t have a passing familiarity with famous Twitter flame wars or Nietzsche might find the pacing of the text a little difficult to follow.

Another problem is that Nagle writes like a journalist.  She’s great when it comes to shorter, declarative sentences, but when she’s handling more complicated material, she over-clauses and under-punctuates, which can make it hard to trace her antecedents and follow her argument.  ‘Kill All Normies’ is a book you’ll read for content, not for style (although some of her dry asides are really great, like this:

“The left’s best critic of this disease of the left had just died and dancing on his grave was a woman who once blogged about baking bread using her own vaginal yeast as a feminist act.” (p. 117)

Or this:

“The Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement is a straight male separatist group whose members have chosen (ahem) to avoid romantic relationships with women in protest against a culture destroyed by feminism” (p. 94))

But content is a excellent reason to read, and this is important material.  I appreciated ‘Kill All Normies’ mainly for two reasons:

  1.  Though I have managed to glean much of this information myself over the years, by being a relatively plugged-in person, I have not seen so much of it collected in one place, or organized at all well.  This is a reasonable, if not comprehensive, glossary of the culture wars raging around us all the time, and now that they have impinged on our political lives so dramatically, it is time to start thinking about them as a single phenomenon.
  2. I am, though leftist myself, happy to see Nagle approach the fringes of the left and the right as though they might be understand as part of single cultural battle.  Because we in the trenches think of ourselves as value-driven, we don’t tend to step back and look at trends of the battlefield itself, the way our weapons influence their weapons and vice versa.  Nagle’s book does this, and it was helpful to me.  I think her criticisms of both sides were fair, and proportionate to their sins.

However, appreciating a book and enjoying a book are two different things.  I learned something from ‘Kill All Normies‘, but it also ruined my week.  It is, at its heart, an exploration of a facet of my culture, a side of humanity in my time, which I find demoralizing: rancid, mean-spirited, venomous, and evil.  Even though it is a short text, an minute spent among the sort of bottom-dwellers who sent Anita Sarkeesian rape threats during Gamergate is like a year among the morally normal.  And one of the very frightening lessons of ‘Kill All Normies’ is that there are more people inhabiting the vile fringes of both sides than I, and perhaps you, had expected.

So it’s not a cheerful read.  It will probably make you feel worse about the world, about the people around you.  It’s the sort of book that makes you more suspicious, less trusting, and, in that way, perhaps a less good person for having read it.  This is not the fault of the author, obviously, but a logical result of the information that she is presenting.  And I believe that it is always better to confront the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and if that upset us, well, bummer.  So I would recommend reading ‘Kill All Normies‘, especially if you are interested in understanding the cultural or political moment a little better.

But brace yourself, ’cause it’s ugly.