The Information by James Gleick

A stranger is at a party of people who know one another well.

One says, “72,” and everyone laughs. Another says, “29,” and the party roars.

The stranger asks what is going on. His neighbor said, “We have many jokes and we have told them so often that now we just use a number.”

The guest thought he’d try it, and after a few words said, “63.” The response was feeble.

“What’s the matter, isn’t this a joke?”

“Oh, yes, that is one of our very best jokes, but you did not tell it well.”

James Gleick, The Information

You have heard the phrase: Data is the new oil. Well, what is data? It’s information. And what is information?

You intuitively know what information is, but it is hard to define. You want to know where your kids are right now. You want to know which stock is going to outperform the market. You want to know what someone is going to do next.

Information is Surprise.

After reading The Information by James Gleick, this idea Information is Surprise is forever stuck in my head.

If I told you The Most Important Thing in the World is… you would be hanging on the next word because it would be surprising.

Your friend is telling you a story about the time her dog threw up on the shirt she was supposed to wear that night. You have heard that story 100 times. You are unlikely surprised by anything she says.

Instead of telling the story, the only information you need is a code for it. It takes 10 minutes to tell. If we call it “The Dog Story,” we can save 10 minutes by just saying, “The Dog Story.”

Like in the joke above, you can compress it even further by numbering the stories. The Dog Story could be #1.

She has another 10-minute story about a wild night with Piña Coladas at the Lincoln Memorial. That could be Story #2.

Once you both know the code, the only information you need is whether it’s Story 1 or Story 2. Those two numbers (1 and 2) contain 20 minutes worth of stories.

If pressed, you could make the code even shorter. You could tap your foot once for Story 1 and twice for Story 2 (Morse code).

This is an efficient way to communicate.

That is the main idea behind Information theory, which is the study of the quantification, storage, and communication of information.

Quick Technical Explanation

You can communicate anything with a string of 1s and 0s, once you establish what they mean.

Until reading this book, I was confused by what that meant, PHYSICALLY. Not knowing this aggravated me for years. I would read or hear this and think, “Okay, if I write down a list of 1s and 0s on a sheet of paper, nothing is going to happen. So, there is more to it.”

The answer is electricity.

A 1 or 0 is another way of saying yes-no, flip-flop, on-off. This is called a bit (short for binary digit). It is the most basic unit of information.

A light switch is either on or off. Electricity is flowing or it is not. This fact cannot be compressed any further, which is kind of amazing the longer you think about it.

What people REALLY MEAN when they say 1s and 0s is whether electricity is flowing or not flowing at a microscopic level (through a transistor, which is a chip with A LOT of tiny light switches). The electric pulses happen so fast I try not to think about it too long or I get overwhelmed.

  • Electricity is flowing: 1
  • Electricity is not flowing: 0

It costs money to send electricity. So, there is a massive incentive to figure out ways to pack the most information in a message with the least amount of work.

Smart people throughout history have carried this idea further and further. Today, the 1s and 0s are electric pulses, but they used to be a lighthouse turning a light on and off, or drumbeats in Africa.

You are reading this on a screen because there are millions of 1s and 0s that turn the light on and off behind each of the tiny crystals on your screen.

When I hit the letter “Y” on the keyboard, pulses of electricity go thru the computer. The letter Y might be 1-0-1-1 in computer language.

So, the flow of electricity would go on-off-on-on. This electric signal leaves my computer and goes through the internet cables. Your computer gets that signal and it is programmed to put a “Y” on the screen when it gets electricity in the sequence of “on-off-on-on.”

Do you need to read this book?

You don’t need to read this book. It’s good. I learned a lot. It’s dense. You will survive without reading it, though.

However, knowing what Information is has helped me become a much better listener and storyteller.

Everything we do is communicating something. This book made me pay more attention to that.

In a conversation, I try to figure out what The Information is. I also subconsciously ask myself, “Is the purpose of this conversation communicating information or spending quality time together?”

Anything that isn’t surprise, should be compressed or removed. The more surprises, the better.

In complex conversations, you have to read between the lines for The Information. Good communicators are efficient with providing information and good at picking out what is important when they are receiving it.

When people say Ask Good Questions, what they are really saying is Get Information.

This is important for work.

I have been in several meetings where I had a list of questions. I would leave the meeting feeling like we had a productive conversation and discussed the answers. When I went to answer my original questions, the answers from the conversation were nuanced or qualitative, when they needed to be black-and-white quantitative.

I realized I had less information than I thought.

The solution for me is bullet points.

During a conversation, I will make bullet points. Before leaving, I will look at them again and think, “When I get back to my office, all I am going to have to summarize this conversation are these bullet points. Do they have all the information I need?”

Two Types of Surprise (Information)

There are two types of surprise.

It’s December in Maryland. It is likely cold outside. I know that before checking the weather.

When I check the weather and see that it is 40°, in a literal sense I am surprised because if I already knew that it was 40°, I wouldn’t have needed to look.

That is information, but it didn’t change what I was going to wear. I was already planning on wearing a jacket.

I would have been really surprised if it was 70°. That is also information and would have changed what I wore.

We can separate those two types of surprise into the global idea (is it cold enough to need a jacket) and the local idea (the exact temperature).

I separate those two because people often resist letting The Information change their mind.

Real Scenario

I had a conversation about an $11 million loan to build Popeye’s franchises. One person vital to the decision said, “I remember lending to a Popeye’s franchise 15 years ago. They didn’t do that well.”

15 years ago? First, one is a small sample size. Two, you mean before they came out with their new fried chicken sandwich and the lines were around the block? It’s a different company. The failure rate for Popeye’s is less than 1%.

The facts didn’t change his mind. It was like we found out it was 70° and still insisted on a winter coat.

It is a form of confirmation bias.

People updating what they believe based on getting new information is rare enough that it has a name: Bayesian Reasoning.


See also:

Thanks to James Bunch & Suzanna V. Wood for reading drafts of this.