How James Gleick's extraordinary book The Information relates to news stories
Originally published August, 2011, on the Share Wars blog
“Information implies surprise.”
One evening in 1955 American mathematician Claude Shannon walked to the bookshelf, pulled out a book and read an incomplete sentence to his wife. The sentence was “A small oblong reading lamp on the”, and the book was “Pickup on Noon Street” by Raymond Chandler.
His wife had to guess the next letters of the sentence in order. Give it a go. The first letter is difficult. Once you know it is a “d” things get easier.
What the guessing exercise teaches you is that English contains a lot of unnecessary letters. In fact, it’s mostly unnecessary – according to Shannon, 75 percent of letters you can do without. There’s a lot of redundancy built in. All letters are not equally likely in a sequence.
Shannon, his wife, and the incomplete sentence are one part of the puzzle that is James Gleick’s book “The Information”. It’s a chaotic ride, that book. Chapter follows chapter in a tumble of fascinating facts and apparently random detours that encompass African drumming, telegraphy, information theory, Wikipedia, the invention of the dictionary, genetics, memes, and the heat death of the universe. When you’re reading it’s not easy to know where he is going with all this stuff.
But The Information is valuable – mostly because of how it makes you think. The way Gleick tells it, Shannon, an American mathematician, gave birth to the digital information age. At the heart of Shannon’s radical reinterpretation of
the world was the invention of the quantum of information, the bit, and his insight that disorder equates to more information, not less.
If the conclusion seems slightly odd, it’s because Gleick is also trading on the difference between the scientific and everyday uses of the term “information”. What Gleick does in the book is point out that meaning exists in the space between complete regularity (no information) and complete randomness (maximum information).
Think about regularity in terms of a pattern – a regular pattern can be described as a template and the instruction to repeat. This is “order”, and it has a very low bit count. Anything random or arbitrary, on the other hand, costs a lot of bits to describe because by definition it contains no pattern and every element is a surprise. Disorder is rich in information.
This is the part of particular relevance to journalism and Share Wars.
Think about Gleick’s statement above: “Information implies surprise.”
If there is no element of the unexpected at all in a message, there is no information. Surprising elements in a story delight readers because surprise indicates the presence of real information. But the surprise has to be worked in with the regular to provide meaning.
My metaphorical takeout from this excursion: as readers we want stories that are “familiar but different”. What we should be looking for are structures that are comfortable or known containing elements that are unexpected. Stories that belong to a pattern but still tell us something we didn’t know and didn’t expect. This is why the “reversal” story, which we will describe in future Share Wars posts, is so delightful and so highly shared.
To return to the incomplete sentence from Pickup on Noon Street, a collection of four hard-boiled yarns from the golden years of noir: the lamp was sitting on a desk. Whether there is any greater significance to the sentence and the story that contained it I can let you know when my copy of Chandler’s collected stories arrives in the mail.