How We Know

Posting to NGC4LIB

Concerning an article in the March 10, 2011 NY Review of Books: “How We Know” by Freeman Dyson (reviewing the book: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood / James Gleick. Pantheon.

This is a very interesting article; I guess I’m going to have to buy yet another book(!), but a couple of points jump out at me:

“Telescopes and spacecraft have evolved slowly, but cameras and optical data processors have evolved fast. Modern sky-survey projects collect data from huge areas of sky and produce databases with accurate information about billions of objects. Astronomers without access to large instruments can make discoveries by mining the databases instead of observing the sky. [my emphasis–JW] Big databases have caused similar revolutions in other sciences such as biochemistry and ecology.”

and the final part:

“The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness. Information in such quantities reminds us of Borges’s library extending infinitely in all directions. It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.”

My own opinion is that any library selector has known this for a long, long time. They, more than anyone else (probably) have seen the immensity of the “information universe”. That is their job after all: to take “the best” (however that is defined) from the totality. But it is nevertheless the selector who is supposed to have one of the best ideas of that “totality”. I suspect that the reason why the amount of information/noninformation/disinformation is growing so outrageously today is mainly because what in the past would have been thrown away as trash is now being retained. I wonder how much of this incredible sea of so-called “information” are those pictures of young, drunken students in mid-debauch, or an almost infinite number of exact reproductions of videos of out and out pornography, IM chats that consist almost exclusively of “ummm” “er, …” “what the ….!”, thousands of blog posts that repeat links to the same items, and other things that would be much better discarded. Just imagine all of those Twitter messages that are being saved at the Library of Congress! In this regard, I am reminded of Seneca in his “On the shortness of life”, where he discussed similar concerns:

“It would be tedious to mention all the different men who have spent the whole of their life over chess or ball or the practice of baking their bodies in the sun. They are not unoccupied whose pleasures are made a busy occupation. For instance, no one will have any doubt that those are laborious triflers who spend their time on useless literary problems, of whom even among the Romans there is now a great number. It was once a foible confined to the Greeks to inquire into what number of rowers Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, whether moreover they belong to the same author, and various other matters of this stamp, which, if you keep them to yourself, in no way pleasure your secret soul, and, if you publish them, make you seem more of a bore than a scholar. But now this vain passion for learning useless things has assailed the Romans also. In the last few days I heard someone telling who was the first Roman general to do this or that; Duilius was the first who won a naval battle, Curius Dentatus was the first who had elephants led in his triumph.”

and then goes on:

“…does it serve any useful purpose to know that Pompey was the first to exhibit the slaughter of eighteen elephants in the Circus, pitting criminals against them in a mimic battle? He, a leader of the state and one who, according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds!”

Just because data can be saved does not mean that it is transformed into “information” or that it should be saved. Seneca’s discussion here reminds me of “Buffy studies” and all kinds of similar endeavors.

It seems that instead of a quest for some indefinable “meaning”, the subtext of the NYRB article is actually a cry for selection. How the selection will occur, either manually or by automated means or a combination, remains to be seen.