Monday 11 April 2011

John Naughton interviews James Gleick

John Naughton interviews James Gleick about his book Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.

Gleick doesn't mention semiotics anywhere in the book. (I've got the Kindle version so I can do a search and be sure about that.)

This must have been a deliberate decision (since much of his source material would have talked about it), yet semioticians are interested in the relationship between signs and meaning? Maybe semiotics is just not in fashion?

Well, if it'd been me interviewing Gleick, that's what I would have asked him about!

Amplify’d from
James Gleick: 'Information poses as many challenges as opportunities'
Acclaimed science writer James Gleick talks about data, meaning and knowledge – and his new book, The Information
JN: Although Shannon's theory was a great breakthrough, his insistence on separating information from meaning must have alienated many people. Was a desire to bridge the two one of the reasons you embarked on the project?
JG: Actually, that hadn't occurred to me at first. My plan from the outset was to look at the origins and the influence of what we now call information theory, believing, as I do, that it underpins so much of our information hardware and our information networks and, yes, our information age.
But as you note, information is not knowledge. We are more painfully aware of that now than ever. In explaining Shannon's work I kept having to emphasise his point about the irrelevance of meaning; yet we know full well that meaning is what we really care about. This loomed larger and larger. There's a hilarious moment in 1950 in a New York hotel meeting room when Shannon tries to explain "information" to anthropologists and psychologists such as Margaret Mead and Lawrence Frank, and they're a little outraged. Where are the humans in this picture? Where are our brains? If it's just wires and transistors, who cares?
And surely this is precisely our problem, now that information is cheap and plentiful and ubiquitous. I was heartened when I came across a comment by philosopher and historian Jean-Pierre Dupuy: "It was inevitable that meaning would force its way back in." I made that the epigraph for my final chapter. This is our challenge, surely.

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