The problem for which Claude Shannon was struggling to come up with a solution was the same one any of us face in a college course, perhaps more than at any other time in our lives, and it’s the same problem I find myself struggling with today: how to manage the overwhelming flow of information. Aaron Swartz helped to develop Markdown and the RSS 1.0 specification, both of which allowed people to manage information more easily. I use RSS a lot to keep track of the “new news every day” to which Gleick referred using Robert Burton’s 1621 phrase from The Anatomy of Melancholy. I’m currently about 600 pages behind in my reading: I’ve got the notes and text to read for a group of graduate students I’m working with on volume 1 of Marx’s Capital, your blog posts, a set of drafts for English 301, two hundred pages of materials for a section of English 302 that I’m teaching at the end of this semester, four books that I need to familiarize myself with in order to finish a large project I’m working on, three draft scholarly articles for which I owe people feedback, several webtexts to review for the online journal I edit, as well as the hundred or so emails per day that need sorting and answering. Certainly, I rely on algorithms to help me manage these: my email clients and RSS readers sort and prioritize for me, I use software to track changes and compare edits, and still I’m overwhelmed, drowning in the ocean of ephemera. Why?
I think Claude Shannon had part of the answer, and it has to do with his distaste for meaning. Meaning is what makes information hard to handle: it turns information into intellectual or emotional lived experience, something that you have to internalize. Shannon wanted to make everything algorithmic; to sort all information on the fly; to have a Babbage-style Analytical Engine that would rely only on the bits and the metadata to figure out where things go and what to do with them, 43-folders style. (Show of hands: how many people in this class use a GTD approach to task management? How many know about such approaches or feel like they might actually be useful? How many people use email rules or have different ringers for different groups of people on your phones?) All those things are rules for information that make us not have to worry about it until we want to experience it. And maybe that’s the big shift between our current situation and the way we used to live: a long time ago, we had to experience most things synchronously, in realtime. We couldn’t time-shift our lives. Without electricity, we learned most things about the wide world when the sun was up.
That also meant that we had to do all of our information-sorting by hand. If we had to sort a lot of information, it took a lot of people. What would have happened if the telegraph companies had actually kept records of every telegraph they sent, if they had figured out ways to sort those scraps of paper according to appropriate metadata, perhaps even the ones familiar to us today: author, date, subject? Word frequency? What could we have discovered?
Thomas Pynchon’s novel about World War II, Gravity’s Rainbow, begins with an instance of mass apophenia: Army intelligence analysts discover that the map of Private Tyrone Slothrop’s romantic assignations corresponds precisely to the map of V-2 rocket strikes on wartime London. The novel then begins to unravel and explore possible meanings or explanations for that correspondence. But what we should understand from Shannon, and what the novel makes clear, is that the only meaning we can apply to such circumstance is human meaning, and it is in no way necessarily related to the correspondence of data — to the information. The habit of apophenia exists only in human experience, and not in the operations of the universe.