Information seems such a central word today, it is hard to imagine it has not always been subject of scientific inquiry. Still it was not until the 1950ies scientific information theory developed, although it would soon penetrate many other sciences including such fundamental ones as biology and particle physics. As Donna Haraway remarked, until the eighties information was the dominant metaphor for most sciences only to be replaced by the network since then. In The Information Gleick traces the science of information from its birth through its golden years, in a compelling, exiting popular science text.
The book has a more or less chronological structure, featuring chapters about tribal long-distance communication with ‘talking drums’, writing, automatic calculation, telegraphy, telephony, entropy, computing, DNA, random numbers, quantum computers and the Internet. In particular in the first chapters of the book it highlights the enduring intercourse of technology and intellectual progress that is so characteristic of information theory. Writing, telegraphy, telephony and computing are all technologies, and these inspired human thinking by offering metaphors for understanding the world and proposing challenges which needed a solution based on theory. In a bit more cursory way, Gleick also talks about the impact of these technologies on society. Gleicks real interest is theory though, so societal changes are more a context from which he explains intellectual progress.
‘The information’ is in many ways a coming of age novel. In its childhood, information theory might have needed information technologies to support and sustain its development, nowadays information theory can stand on its own feed and in turns support many other fields. As the book progresses, it topics become more and more fundamental an abstract. Gleick discusses information as the opposite of entropy in physics, he discusses several incarnations of Gōdel’s proof that formal systems like mathematics must be inconsistent, and their application to the calculation of random numbers. And he starts discussing the utility of information theory in other fields. First and foremost genetics but also quantum mechanics culminating in a vivid discussion of nascent field of quantum computing.
In the last two chapters Gleick returns to the everyday reality, by discussing Internet and Wikipedia, but there is something offbeat to this part of the book. Although, in particular the chapter about Wikipedia, is well researched and exiting to read, the connection with information theory is lost in this chapter. I am not sure if Gleick intended it this way but the heroes journey of information theory ends in quantum computing. These wrap up chapters show the birth of the new hero theory: network theory. The 21st century is about networks as much as the second part of the 20ieth century, the era of telecommunication and computers was all about code.
Although the golden age of information theory may be behind us, I consider the information a must-read for anyone working in a field related to information, communication or computing, which is many us. And if network theory becomes mature enough, soon enough for a treatment like this, I surely hope Gleick picks it up.
My review of Donna Haraway’s Apes, Simians and Cyborgs is good entry into her ideas about the (mis)use of information theory in Biology.
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This is the last post in a short series examining the benefits and drawbacks of thinking about the world in terms of ‘networks’ . Earlier on, I gave an introduction to mathematical network theory, I discussed the network as a way of explaining the world and I discussed social media as model for social networks. In this post I focus on the ‘flat’ and ‘democratic’ image that networks carry .
Why is it that people tend to regard networks as nonhierarchical? Mathematical network theory is perfectly suited to describe hierarchies as networks and even if hierarchy is not a defining property of the network, in most social networks a handful of people have much more influence or power than most. One reason networks are seen as flat may be the other big idea that is inspired, in part, by the Internet: self-organization.
The idea of self-organization predates the Internet, but it gained much traction lately. There turn out to be phenomena in the world that have an amazing complexity considering they emerged without a master plan or a leader giving orders. Bird flocks, termite hills and (most likely) the human brain are well known examples. If these can come out of networks of animals each just exhibiting their own behavioral patterns, or just from networks of cells, why not self-organize as human beings? Look at how well democracy works. Look at Wikipedia. All we have to do is to create (better) networks and order and common good will magically emerge.
The Achilles’ heel of this reasoning is of course that the examples of self-organization which are used as a source of inspiration are, in fact, sophisticated systems which evolved over many years. Yes, fairly simple, properly networked, behaviors can create complex phenomena benefiting the species creating them. But this only works if these are carefully tuned networks of simple behavior. Self-organization may be occurring in all networks, but the result will more often than not be uncertain rather than favorable for all. Take traffic jams, these are form of self-organization too.
What do we know about the effects of increasing connectivity in a network? Two opposing dynamics appear to be at play. First, in networks with a high connectivity, the Internet as perfect example, there is a strong winner-takes-all dynamic. Before Internet we would find a bookstore on every corner, but in the online world only a handful of players like Amazon can survive. In the less connected word every bookshop could preserve its own clientele in the neighborhood, because the switching costs to a bookshop farther away did not outweigh the benefits for most consumers. Increasing connectivity lowers the switching costs, increasing the action radius of the shops and the competition too. As a result bigger shops survive. So Google dominates search, Amazon dominates online retail. Similar things happen with increased connectivity in the real world. Better roads lead amenities too disappear in villages, because of increased connectivity to the city. The winner-takes-all dynamic thus leads to a centralization in networks, rather than a decentralization, like many proponent of self-organisation like to believe.
There is, however, an opposing dynamic, which Chris Anderson described in his book The Long Tail. The winner-takes-all dynamic creates a high head (few players take all the traffic), but Anderson pointed our attention to what is happening at the other end of the curve. Lets look at those who sell rare goods in small quantities. Increased connectivity allows shops that would not sell enough in the less connected world because they serve such a niche market to gain the audience they need to be sustainable. Artists may be able to make a living out of selling their artwork thanks to the Internet because they can reach out to a bigger potential audience. Grocery shops may disappear in villages, but an expensive restaurant, for which people are willing to travel to the village may now survive.
The winner-takes-all and the long-tail dynamic are this two sides of the same, increased connectivity, coin. In my post thinking internet and thinking I included the following quote from Brian Eno.
“I notice that everything the Net displaces, reapears somewhere else in a modified form. For example, musicians used to tour to promote their records, but since records stopped making much money due to illegal downloads, they now make records to promote their tours. Bookstores with staff who know about books, and record stores with staff who know about music, are becoming more common.”(Brian Eno)
This comment may very much be an illustration of the interplay between the two connectivity dynamics. Increased network connectivity leads to centralization and increased power when we look at who controls the commodities. Well connected networks are typically more hierarchical than less connected networks. But increased connectivity leads to decentralization and diversification when we look at the niches instead.
Interestingly, the biggest players on the net Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia have found ways to make use of both dynamics. They managed to become the first stop for internet users, partly by aggregating much of what happens in the niches. It is fine to take those players as a source of inspiration, of the potential benefits of networks. But they do not show networks are flat or democratic (quite the contrary) and they are not examples of the wonders of self-organization. For that we better stick to termites.
An nice book about self-organisation is turtles termites and traffics jams by Mitchel Resnick. An advocate of human self-organisation is James Surowiecki who’s book The Wisdom of the Crowds turned into a best seller.
This post is part of a series. The first post deals with mathematical network theory, the second with networks as an explanation of everything and the third with social media as a proxy for understanding social networks.
The Brian Eno quote in this blog was taken from my post “Thinking Internet and Thinking”, which deals with great minds anwers to the question how internet affects our thinking. I discussed several applications of network theory to marketing in my posts “Modeling the connected customer” and “The Traveling Influence Problem”.
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Tags: Amazon, Brian Eno, Chris Anderson, Google, Hierarchy, long tail, Network Centrality, Network Theory, Networks, Self-Organisation, Wikipedia, Wisdom of Crowds
A review of the book: A Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander
In the Timeless Way of Building (first published in 1979), Cristopher Alexander exposes his theory of the use of pattern languages in architecture. The idea of pattern languages has not only been influential in architecture but also in other fields such as software architecture, education, and interaction design. I found this reason enough to revisit the writings that started it all.
I would not be surprised if many who started reading the timeless way for similar reasons as I had, have put it away after reading just a few pages. At first reading the book comes across as an almost religious text. Alexander introduces “the quality that cannot be named” as the highest ideal in building, which can be reached through “a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves (…) if we will only let it”. The core of the book is divided in three parts the quality, the gate, the way. It is full of little summaries, often in the form of rules or maxims. These style choices are not my taste, but luckily, in-between all this idealistic chatter, Alexander does unfold an interesting and quite practical theory of design, which is worth considering.
In the first part of the book, Alexander tries to define the quality that cannot be named. He observes some places are nicer to be in than others and tries to define a single quality which sets these places apart from others. The quality can be described as a freedom from inner contradictions, the feeling of being whole, or alive, as a kind of freedom, as comfortable, as egoless and eternal. Some places have this quality, while others lack the quality. The quality can be recognized from patterns of events that keep on happening in the place, which give the place its unique character. These patterns of events, in turn, are interlocked with the patterns in space which have co-evolved with the activities. These observations, lead Alexander to two interrelated quests. First he tries to define a process of building that allows for this co-evolution and second he wants to develop a way to capture the best practices in building that sets such placed with a high living quality apart.
In the second part of the book, which I found the most interesting; Alexander sets out to explain the idea of a pattern language which forms the core of his theory. According to Alexander, people have always used pattern languages implicitly in their building practice, but modern architecture has lost touch with this way of building, hence his attempt to make it explicit. Patterns are a particular way to capture the essence of a good building practice. They describe a relationship between elements in space. One example is the rule of thumb that a living room should have windows on both sides. Patterns, are not descriptions of concrete buildings, but they are an abstraction of a building practice focusing on those part that are invariantly present in all buildings with a certain quality. Moreover a pattern solves a problem, or more specific, it relieves a tension between opposing forces. Patterns are culturally dependent, although some are more universally applied than others.
A pattern language is a network of patterns. This network has a partial hierarchy, A garden growing wild, can have tree places, which could consist of fruit trees, and so on; different hierarchical paths are possible through the network, so one might arrive at using fruit trees, through different paths. While the patterns form the words of the design language, the network defines the grammar, or at least the collocations of patterns. Using the pattern language is subsequently a process of differentiating space. A designer starts with the first pattern, and then works down the network slowly detailing the space until the design is complete. Although this process quite straightforward, and -perhaps- easy to learn it gives much creative freedom, as the designer can chose patterns, shape them according to the needs of the whole.
In the last part of the book Alexander discusses how a pattern language can be used in real projects. Working from a shared pattern language ordinary people can design, buildings and neighborhoods. Alexander discusses for example the case of the site of a clinic which is designed in a co-creative process by the later users of the clinic as one example. This part is illustrative in the workings of a pattern language, but it is also the part where Alexander returns to his idealistic and egalitarian agenda. He castigates modern architecture, argues building should be in the hands of the people, not of architects. Buildings need not to be drawn on paper, but can be built from marks on the ground, using a pattern language. Although there is something to these ideas, I guess, a more modest tone would have been appropriate. The practices Alexander preaches here are so far off of modern practice, that they need stronger arguments than he provides in the book.
There are several strong ideas in the Timeless Way. Alexander puts emphasis on utility, or use over aesthetics as main function in architecture. The ideas of patterns as a way to consolidate best practices is strong, and his celebration the tacit knowledge in craftsmanship and culture may be a dearly needed sound in modern society and education. It is less clear to what extent Alexander’s program to explicate patterns really fits this idea though. Alexander explicitly positions the practice of explicating patterns as an intermediate step. He believes patterns originate from the building and living culture of a community and explicating them is merely an antidote to the perils of modern building industry. Positioning patterns as an intermediate step, however, raises the question how a transition to the ideal state ought to occur. This question is never answered in the book.
The idea of a pattern language as a design language is certainly strong. Language forms a strong metaphor to understand what design is. The pattern language appears accessible as well, as it turns out to be useful means in a participatory design project described in the last part of the book (Alexander shares ideas, ideals and practices with the Scandinavian School of participatory design, which emergerd in the same period). On the other hand, composing a language out of a pattern network alone seems to be a poor solution. It seems to me a full-fledged design language needs to integrate more types of knowledge than explicated best practices and principles.
A more general critique is Alexanders tendency to present the pattern language as a solution to all problems. The book, already riddled with references to the Tao, pursuing the quality that cannot be named as the single ideal to strive for, feels religious enough without offering the pattern language as a salvation for all possible problems in building practice. More than as a theorist, Christopher Alexander speaks to us as a believer. If you can handle this, you’ll find in him a fine design theorist too, but I recon this will take a handful of blasphemy from your side.
Earlier bookreviews on this site include reviews of Lakoff and Johnsons “Metaphors We Live By“, Donna Harraway’s “Simians Cyborgs and Women” and the Edge booklet “Is internet chaning the way you think?“
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Tags: Book Review, Christopher Alexander, Design Language, Design Patterns, Design Theory, Pattern Language, Timless way of builing
I guess I spend too much time on the web – me too. For several years a cute little book called “Is the internet changing the way you think?” has been lingering in my closet, waiting to be picked and read. But I just never managed to grab and read it, until now. Each year the Edge organization asks a group of great thinkers in the world a question. The responses, in the form of short essays are published on the web and in paperback. “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think”, was the edge question of 2010. The book is a marvelous collage of perspectives on the internet and our minds. Although it is not a completely timeless question, if you missed to pick up the book back then, I can still warmly recommend it. Of course I couldn’t resist a little theme hunting and sharing some of the gems I found, so here we go.
“What kind of dumb question is that” (Andy Clark)
Unsurprisingly, many authors claim internet doesn’t change the way we think at all. The genetic infrastructure of our thinking has been there since we were primates and this will not change by an overnight “revolution” such as the net. But, even if the machinery is the same, our information diets are changing and this can have dramatic effects. Just think of suddenly feeding oranges to a potato cutter. In an earlier post I wrote about how our cognitive biases might be amplified by search. In the book, Mark Pagel and Daniel Haun rise similar concerns: our social brains are fit to reason about small groups and Pagel speculates. Because its connectivity and scale, this small group social reasoning turns into public fear and conspiracy theories on the web. Although these authors are fairly pessimistic about the effect of the web, they do not assume our brains or thinking habits to change because of our information habits. What our brains throw out depends, like with the patatocutter, on what we feed it, but unlike the case of the patatocutter it may actually change its habits cutting habits too. In his brilliant essay “what kind of dumb question is that” Andy Clark claims that the internet changes what we think and as a result also how we think.
“What is important for thought about the internet is not the content, it is the activity of being a searcher, with the worlds store of knowledge and images at your fingertips” (Lee Smolin)
One theme in the book is the symbiosis (or absence of it) between information seeking and thinking. Saying we went from an information scarcity to an information abundance may seem like stating the obvious, but many authors in the book still remember the times in which they had spent weeks to down an article from a remote library, a practice which is now obsolete. The mind loves information, however, and some authors worry about the current profusion of this brain candy. Esther Dyson, for example, who likening the web to food wonders whether there is enough nutrition in all this high calorie information bits. Others like Nicholas Carr complain about the attention scattering effect of this trip in the candy store. But some authors think the information abundance is a positive thing such as Richard Foreman, who sketches a symbiosis of search, information and thinking and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who summarizes this idea neatly in the title of his essay: When I am on the Web I Start to Think. The internet as instigator of great thinking, or as great distracter; maybe the debate is settled in George Dysons essay who compares the way Kayaks are built to the way canoes are build. Kayaks are built by creating a frame from little pieces of wood found on the beach, and covering it with a waterproof skin while canoes are created by taking a large tree and removing material until only the canoe is left. We were Kayak builders once and need to learn to build canoes
. “The internet hasn’t changed the way I think but it has increased the number of people who’s thoughts are in my head” (Eva Wisten)
The third major theme emerges when edge authors shift from discussing the internet as an information medium to discussing it as a communication medium. Framed this way, the question changes into “what the internet is doing to our collective thinking?”. In many essays the net is praised as “the big leveler”. Through the net is possible to connect with a wider range of people who can contribute to the intellectual enterprise. To put it in the words of Stuart Pimm: “When knowledge is everywhere, so are the thinkers”. While some authors stress the nets ability to support unexpected connections between ideas (internet as the large information collider) others are more skeptical. As we follow the same information highways our collective information intake may become more homogeneous rather than more diverse. We may all have the thoughts of more people in our heads, but much of they are the same lot of thoughts.
So how does the internet change our thinking? One shouldn’t pick up an Edge book for a final answer on the question it is posing. A lot has changed and it is hard to say whether this is generally a good thing. But even if the internet has set about a revolution that changes our individual and collective thought patterns, in my view the result will be remarkably close to what it used to be. At least this is how it appears to play out in economy – I don’t see how our minds would differ. So as a final thought:
“I notice that everything the Net displaces, reapears somewhere else in a modified form. For example, musicians used to tour to promote their revords, but since records stopped making much money due to illegal downloads, they now make records to promote their tours. Bookstores with staff who know about books, and record stores with staff who know about music, are becoming more common.”(Brian Eno)
Most of the Edge essays can be found online. When I could find them I have linked them in this post. My earlier posts Photo’s Everywhere, Collateral Damage of the Robots Race (on the Web) , Cognitive Bias in the Global Information Subway and Evaluating the Netgen Argument, are thematically related to this one.
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