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I Profess Everything

Submitted by Tom Peters on March 10, 2011 - 9:04am

Approximately 22 years ago I had a memorable conversation with a university English professor.  One Friday afternoon we were bandying about the idea of faculty status for librarians – back then a hot topic at a particular university.

English Professor:  If librarians want to become professors, what do they profess? 
Librarian Me:  Rather than focus on a particular subject area (such as English literature, political science, or physics), we profess how information is created, found, accessed, used, organized, and archived by humans.

It was playful academic banter, but my memory of the exchange has lingered across the decades. 

Then, early on Monday morning, March 7, 2011, I noticed that James Gleick has a new book out:  The Information:  A History, a Theory, a Flood, published by Pantheon, an imprint of KnopfDoubleday. 

Something about this book immediately intrigued me.  I think it was that initial “The” in the title.  Why did Gleick decide to call his book “The Information” rather than just “Information” like we librarians -- professors of information -- usually do?  My curiosity was piqued. 

I tweeted about the book’s publication, checked my local library for a copy (audio version on order), and read a few reviews and reader comments.  In the afternoon I took the plunge, purchased (um, licensed) the Kindle version, and began reading the prologue.

This is an amazing book.  If you have any designs on being a professor of information, you should read this book slowly and thoughtfully.  The first few pages have awakened me from my dogmatic slumber concerning the meaning and role of information.  Here are a few nuggets from the prologue (with Kindle locations – sorry, my “real page” upgrade hasn’t arrived yet):

  • “Shannon’s theory made a bridge between information and uncertainty; between information and entropy; and between information and chaos. It led to compact discs and fax machines, computers and cyberspace, Moore’s law and all the world’s Silicon Alleys.” (Location 135)
  • “The body itself is an information processor. Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell. No wonder genetics bloomed along with information theory. DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level—an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being.” (Location 146)
  • “…evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. “.… If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” …. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment. (Location 150)
  • “John Archibald Wheeler… put this manifesto in oracular monosyllables: “It from Bit.” Information gives rise to “every it—every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself.”” (Location 171)
  • “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” (Location 215)

As Andrew Bullen would say, “Wow.”  It from Bit.  Love it.  The Information is the Universe.  Cosmic!  I profess everything!


Comments (1)

I want to read it! So far my

I want to read it! So far my take on the subject is that the fuel powering the information is consciousness. It from Bit from Wit, let's say. For a librarian, this means our field is not so much The Information as The Mind, or, as Librarian of Congress James Billington likes to put it, The Life of the Mind.