Just a little A+B=Hmm for the weekend. First, Freeman Dyson reviews James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood , which begins with a drum language once used by Kele speakers in the Congo:
Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones. Each Kele word is spoken by the drums as a sequence of low and high beats. In passing from human Kele to drum language, all the information contained in vowels and consonants is lost. In a European language, the consonants and vowels contain all the information, and if this information were dropped there would be nothing left. But in a tonal language like Kele, some information is carried in the tones and survives the transition from human speaker to drums. The fraction of information that survives in a drum word is small, and the words spoken by the drums are correspondingly ambiguous. A single sequence of tones may have hundreds of meanings depending on the missing vowels and consonants. The drum language must resolve the ambiguity of the individual words by adding more words. When enough redundant words are added, the meaning of the message becomes unique…
The story of the drum language illustrates the central dogma of information theory. The central dogma says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message.
Then there’s Devin Friedman’s “The Viral Me,” which looks skeptically but pretty honestly at both startup incubator Y Combinator and the broader sphere of social media. (This is a little older, but I’d have missed it if John Pavlus hadn’t tweeted about it today.)
One of YC’s big successes in the past year is a company called DailyBooth. It’s like Twitter—it’s a platform for communication, you can “follow” people, and people can “follow” you—but instead of typing 140 characters, you just take pictures of yourself. Here I am in my room in my pajamas. Here I am at Starbucks. Here I am in my new sweater. Here I am in my room again in my pajamas. (It seems like, as often as not, a DailyBooth picture is of someone in his bedroom in pajamas.) That’s the whole thing. There’s no pretext that you have information you need to get across or a really good joke. It’s a thingy that, you might argue, reduces the psychological physics of the social layer to its simplest equation: I’m alive right now; I’m a person; look at me.
DailyBooth is a good way to see one of the central paradoxes of the social layer. People engage in this stuff, I think, for the affirmation. To prove that they exist. But in effect, the collection and aggregation of all those photos, all those bits of unique self-expression from, literally, 500 million people (and Zuck says that a billion is basically a fait accompli) actually nullifies humanity. True, the smallest detail of your life might be amplified and spread instantly across what is the simplest and most effective distribution network ever invented. But more likely is that detail being almost instantly buried by the incredible volume of other people’s smallest details.
But why? At this point, it’s a cliché to say that adding too much information makes all the information we have meaningless. It’s the paradox of more that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Blink: we will usually say that it’s better to have more information, but we don’t really believe it. We really believe in efficiency, in le mot juste, in exactly what we need to know something in a limited amount of time without getting confused.
I won’t say this is a Western way of thinking, because that’s a cliché, too — but compared to the drum language, it’s a very alphabetic way to think. And we have to recognize that in social media, the system of information is not, or is not purely, alphabetic. It’s also an accumulation of photos, tones, pings, a message shuffling back and forth between stations with a simple transmission: ‘I am here,” waiting for the return signal, “I am here.” And if you haven’t learned to listen for that tonal information, if you haven’t guessed that redundancy might be the key to the meaning, then it might just seem like noise.
But (Freeman Dyson paraphrasing founder of information theory Claude Shannon):
Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.
Two more things. First — isn’t it funny that in the months since Friedman’s article came out, we’ve had a string of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East in which social media played a non-negligible part — where the general consensus seems to have become that social media became important precisely because citizens were able to signal to each other, in an extremely minimal way, that they knew things were bad, that the government was dishonest, that something needed to change? That, while some organizers were doubtlessly using a range of media to transmit very complex information back and forth to one another, masses of people were suddenly emboldened by that simple ping: “I’m alive right now; I’m a person; look at me”?
Second — I’m re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I plowed through in college, and not very well, because somebody told me it was kind of like James Joyce but with more about mathematics, and I was all screw these kids playing tennis, I’m going to read some Raymond Carver. And ten years later, I’m just built to understand it so much better than I was then. Through the sheer force of biography alone, but for every other reason too.
Anyways, one of Wallace’s little linguistic ticks, which kinda nagged me when I just wanted to get my Carver on, where twice or more in his long sentences he’ll like, repeat the same piece of information, usually just to clarify the referent of a pronoun or to specify who or what he’s talking about, but in a very ostentatious way, and frequently just for its own sake.
Here’s an example (perhaps not the best but the best I can find) about a tennis drill called “Side-to-Sides” (all emphasis mine, all footnotes dropped):
The cardiovascular finale is Side-to-Sides, conceived by van der Meer in the B.S. ’60s and demonic in its simplicity. Again split into fours on eight courts. For the top 18’s, prorector R. Dunkel at net with an armful of balls and more in a hopper beside him, hitting fungoes, one to the forehand corner and then one to the backhand corner and then farther out to the forehand corner and so on. And on. Hal Incandenza is expected at least to get a racquet on each ball; for Stice and Wayne the expectations are higher. A very unpleasant drill fatigue-wise, and for Hal also ankle-wise, what with all the stopping and reversing. Hal wears two bandages over a left ankle he shaves way more often than his upper lip. Over the bandages goes an Air-Stirrup inflatable ankle brace that’s very lightweight but looks a bit like a medieval torture-implement. It was ina stop-and-reverse move much like Side-to-Sides that Hal tore all the soft left-ankle tissue he then owned, at fifteen, in his ankle, at Atlanta’s Easter Bowl, in the third round, which he was losing anyway. Dunkel goes fairly easy on Hal, at least on the first two go-arounds, because of the ankle. Hal’s going to be seeded in at least the top 4 of the WhataBurger Inv. in a couple weeks, and woe to the prorector who lets Hal get hurt the way Hal let some of his Little Buddies get hurt yesterday.
So Wallace has already signaled that this is going to be a paragraph about repetition to exhaustion or even injury before he even does it. You could say he needs to keep clarifying and repeating these things because his sentences are so convoluted that otherwise you couldn’t follow them, but 1) his syntax is pretty clear and 2) it’s not like he’s a freak about specifying everything. He doesn’t even spell out “invitational,” let alone give any other proper noun the same first name + last name treatment he offers Hal Incandenza, who’s the main character in the story, Hal is, so we’re not likely to forget who’s being spoken about here. You could say from a literary standpoint that the repetition of the ankle mirrors the repetition of the drill, Hal’s pain in his ankle, and his and the prorector’s worry about the ankle. But it’s also just Wallace — who understands all of this, by the way, better than we do: communication, information, redundancy, efficiency, purity, the dangers of too much information, and especially the fear of being alone and the need to find connection with other human beings — creating a structure that allows him to ping his reader, saying “I am here”… and waiting for his reader to respond in kind, “I’m alive right now; I’m a person; look at me.”