how to survive the flood

matrix of numbersBlessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her
is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire
can compare with her.

(Proverbs 3:13-15 ESV)

The other day, a student asked me where Argentina was.

This wouldn’t be unusual if I were talking to fourth graders, but this was a college junior trying to choose a cross-cultural trip to complete her college requirements.

I’m taking a group there in May 2012, so I explained that it was in South America and that unlike other South American countries, people in Argentina were much more aware of their European roots.

“It feels very European,” I explained.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to go there,” she said. “I’ve already been to Europe and I want to go some place new.”

Clearly, she was merely processing information. An “on” switch—it’s in South America. An “off” switch—I’ve already been to Europe.

This is the modern mind at work, digital processing gone awry.

I think Claude Shannon would have understood this.

He published a paper in 1948 entitled “The Mathematical Theory of Communication.” And he gave the idea of information shape and form, making it much less subjective than our understanding of, say, beauty.

So bear with me. This gets technical for a minute. He said the amount of information in a message is inversely proportional to its probability. In other words, it’s not information if it’s not new. In fact, the more surprising a message is, the more information it contains.

This surprise, however small, is what he calls a “bit.” And information, he said, is about bits. Is this new? Think yes or no, zero or one, on or off.

If this interests you, John Horgan’s recent review of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood gives more insight into Shannon’s theory which touches on so much of modern technology.

But my concern is what do we do in the face of so many bits? What is the relationship between information and wisdom? How do we handle the flood of “information,” especially if we are simply addicted to surprise?

Frankly, never have we known so much and understood so little. There is so much information we can manage the pieces but fail to see the patterns.

I’m not blaming Shannon for this. He was merely looking for a way to explain what he saw. He helped break code during the World Wars and studied thermostats at Bell Labs. His theory is full of feedback loops and other terms borrowed from electrical engineering.

But at some level these terms are just metaphors. Communication can not be reduced to a stream of information. It exists in an ocean of meaning. And power.

Shannon knew this. He makes much of meaning as he tries to explain his observations.

But I’m sure this student didn’t. She was merely turning switches off and on, drifting along in a stream, unwilling or unable to seize the oars.

The problem is much older than we know. There is nothing new under the sun. That’s why ancient Hebrew writings personified wisdom and justly so:

Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.

This is not a search for bits but a search for significance. It is a love affair with the words of God that keep us and guard us.

How else can we survive the flood?

2 thoughts on “how to survive the flood”

  1. Back in my salad days, when the grad school mileu teemed with excitement and possibility, and Shannon and Weaver were provoking questions about the nature and meaning of communication, and psychology was telling us not just beauty but meaning itself was in the eye of the beholder, along came a Canadian guru who told us free will was an illusion and the medium itself was the massage. (Curiously, the media changed his precise term – massage – to a word more to their liking – message.)
    Is communication more than bits… is it also the medium… the content… and the context… the sender… receiver… noise along the way… in the head of the sender and therfore impossible to accurately covey… in the head of the receiver and therefore impossible to ever discern inside that “black box”… is it “out there” somewhere pure and pristene waiting to be perceived by heretofore imperfect receivers both mechanical and human… can we ever know it? What is knowing, anyway? Ask the Shadow.
    Said the White Rabbit… “A word means precisely what I intend it to mean.” Clear? I didn’t think so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s