Information, Meaning, and the Curse of Omniscience

James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Vintage, 2011), pages 416, 425–426:

The birth of information theory came with its ruthless sacrifice of meaning — the very quality that gives information its value and its purpose. . . .

No deus ex machine waits in the wings; no man behind the curtain. We have no Maxwell’s demon to help us filter and search.

“We want the Demon, you see,” wrote Stanislaw Lem, “to extract from the dance of atoms only information that is genuine, like mathematical theorems, fashion magazines, blueprints, historical chronicles, or a recipe for ion crumpets, or how to clean and iron a suit of asbestos, and poetry too, and scientific advice, and almanacs, and calendars, and secret documents, and everything that ever appeared in any newspaper in the Universe, and telephone books of the future.”

As ever, it is the choice that informs us (in the original sense of that word). Selecting the genuine takes work; then forgetting [the rest] takes even more work.

This is the curse of omniscience: the answer to any question may arrive at the fingertips — via Google or Wikipedia or IMDb or YouTube or Epicurious or the National DNA Database or any of their natural heirs and successors — and still we wonder what we know.

Ecclesiastes 12:12–14:

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

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