Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Conceptualizations of Information

Luddites often fear technology because of the sense that it is something alien to human nature. There is this feeling that if we are using technology that somehow we are moving away from something essentially human. I would argue that our use of technology is part of our humanity and that the Rousseauist ideal of man in harmony with nature is a myth that never was. We invented fire as soon as humanly possible because it was damn cold. How do we communicate this new, vital information with others? We invented languages, drew pictures, and held workshops! Seriously though, our minds are so complex, they take in a huge amount of information at anyone time (consciously and unconsciously) that organizing information is probably the world's third oldest profession. I would like to look at one particularly early ordering of information. My wife, the most rational animal I know, hates hearing me talk about this because the idea sounds like I am saying that the ancient Chinese invented programming and computers. She believes, with little other evidence, that this is some marijuana-induced ramble from the 70s. Even if it were, it would only be additional proof of the archetypal nature of organizing information from chaos. Care for a brownie? Let us continue then.

The I Ching, the book of changes, consists of 64 chapters. The chapters contain cryptic poems describing our possible relationships to nature and one another. Each chapter is titled with two hexagrams made up of trigrams, each trigram is named after an element or a condition of an element (water, air, mountain, etc.). Each trigram is generated by three lines that are either yin or yang, female and male, dark and light, the bianary opposites. One is meant to randomly access the information using a stick gather method or the throwing of three coins to generate the lines. (The lines can be classified as static and moving as well.) The earliest methods of generating the trigrams come from the reading of heated tortoise shells thrown into cold water. The cracks were then interpreted and the appropriate poem or reading recalled or read. (A true master could see the cracks in a rock and refer them back to the I Ching!) So here we have a database of information, a formula or program to access the information (that even starts in a binary code!), and action taken based on the information. The idea was that the user was engaging in a random process (all randomness guided by the tao) and that by freezing that moment in time by the throwing of coins, one could get of sense of where it was going and where it had been.

You do not have to think that this is a computer. But it is a formal system for organizing and retrieving complex sets of information. It is probably 1200 years old and there are earlier examples than this. It shows that this is what the human mind does; this is what it was meant to do. Creating methods of visually communicating information is as natural to us as a walk in the woods.

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