Why information theory?

I had used the term ‘itheory’ (short for ‘information theory’) in the original address of my blog (itheory.spaces.live.com) because I wanted to pursue some ideas about this topic.
I was introduced to Information Theory in my Master of Library and Information Science degree program. At that time the topic seemed too abstract and too limited to be of much value outside of some narrow areas of work and research. However, I was always intrigued by the connection of information theory with the scientific concept of entropy— as if there was some underlying principle connecting information theory with the physical world (entropy being otherwise associated with thermodynamics, heat and work). I felt I had to return to this topic someday and acquire a better understanding of its implications. The best re-introduction for me to the topic was the book Decoding the Universe by Charles Seife.
Information is physical– a concrete property of matter and energy, according to Charles Seife. The universe is shaped by information in much the same way that the living world is shaped by the genetic code. Information is “transferred, processed, and dissipated” in every physical event that occurs, and there are rules that govern the universe as if it was programmed like a computer (although a computer more complex and quite dissimilar to what we use today).
I saw another link in these ideas of information theory to one of my other interests– the history of libraries and books. I was intrigued by the role that libraries have played in history as repositories of information– information that can be “transferred, processed, and dissipated” throughout time.
What information was collected in the classical era? How had it been transferred through the Middle Ages to the time of the Renaissance? These were great questions that also spoke to the enduring value of libraries. Where and how was humanity’s connecting thread of information spun and strung along during the collapse of civilizations? This topic led me to learn more about the role of Islamic culture in the preservation of knowledge. The libraries of the cities of Toledo and Córdoba in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) were safe havens of knowledge that helped the West rediscover its past and new ideas from other parts of the world. The central questions for me were: What exactly is the unique transformative power of books and libraries, and what can one learn from history to achieve the greatest benefits from books and libraries today?
And so information theory, or ‘itheory’, so shortened as a nod to the current vernacular of the technology-enabled with their ipods and itunes, is the name that I left on this blog since information theory serves as a useful connecting thread for a variety of topics.


A trek through history. The pillar forest of the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain. Originally built as the second largest mosque in the world, the Mezquita was a symbol of the cultural vitality of Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) at a time when the rest of Europe was mired in the Middle Ages. Because the Muslims translated classic Greek works into Arabic, and stored them in libraries, Córdoba, as well as Toledo, were important cities in the transmission of knowledge back through Europe. The man who was to become Pope Sylvester II discovered Arabic numerals while studying in Al-Andalus in the 980s, and he was responsible for first spreading that knowledge throughout Europe, although it would be several centuries before Arabic numerals were to become a practical replacement for Roman numerals. Among the ideas that later spread through Europe from the Islamic world that would have a profound impact on Western thought was the concept of ‘zero’.
Calculus is the math that solves problems with zeros and the infinitesimally small. The concept of zero had plagued philosophers for centuries. Zeros and infinities were problematic and even frightening ideas in ancient times since their appearance in calculating phenomena in nature might mean that nature would be beyond human understanding. The raw nihilism of zero was the worst imaginable state possible. Going beyond simple arithmetic and geometry, calculus gingerly sidesteps the paradoxes of zero by allowing us to calculate areas under curves and rates of change. Without the acceptance of the idea of zero a richer understanding of nature as the expression of equations would be impossible. Information theory would be impossible.
Anglocentrism has led many to view the Englishman Isaac Newton as the father of calculus, but Gottfried von Leibniz is also credited with simultaneously inventing calculus. In fact, students of calculus today use the notation devised by Leibniz over that used by Newton. However, Leibniz can be placed above Newton in one respect: the rediscovery of the binary number system, which is the basis for most information technology today. In the seventeenth century, a Jesuit missionary in China, Father Bouvet, wrote about the I Ching to his friend Gottfried von Leibniz. Leibniz discovered in the pattern of the I Ching the principles of binary arithmetic and calculus.
The yin () and the yang () represent an early binary system.
In the twentieth century, Claude Shannon combined binary arithmetic using zeros and ones with Boolean logic to lay the foundation for the invention of digital circuits, the basis of all computers today. Later, Shannon would usher in the information age and invent information theory with his 1948 work A Mathematical Theory of Communication.
So the concept of zero, preserved and transmitted in Islamic Spain through the Dark Ages of Europe, found its way into binary arithmetic, which in turn led to the invention of computers. The role that books such as the I Ching, and libraries such as the ones in Al-Andalus, have played is a fascinating part of the history of information theory.
Claude Shannon, the “father of information theory”.
Information Theory and the Librarian
Stephen Abrams in his new book Out Front with Stephen Abrams (pg. 155) has an excellent summary of how the role of librarians fits into the definitions of data, information, knowledge, and behavior. “Our goal in the knowledge-based sector is to integrate the data-information-knowledge continuum in order to fundamentally and positively impact behavior in our enterprises and society.”
data – raw facts; no context; no inherent meaning; data professionals add value by applying standards (HTML, MARC, etc.), by normalizing data; and through quality control
information – tangible representation of data within a specific context; for information to be successful, it must be useful; to be useful it must be communicated to a user and must meet the specific needs of the user; information professionals can add value to information by representing data and content effectively
knowledge – information in context; there must be congruity between the information and the individual’s context; knowledge can only be stored in a human being
behavior – decisions that result in action; key success factor is intelligent, informed results that meet the needs of the individual or the organization
The lesson in all of this is that focusing on information is not enough– there is more to being an information professional than adding value to information by representing it effectively. The goal is to seek effective transformations in people, by producing desireable behavior that is based on reliable information. The main product of libraries is not information– it’s answers.
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