Reading: Why Information Grows

Yesterday in a zine, I read an in-process book review of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Reading that was a project for the review author; they wrote the review while still in the thralls of the book. That seems like the best time, not after I’ve closed the book. So quick! before I listen to the epilogue:

César Hidalgo is a statistical physicist. His book, Why Information Grows, is about biology and economics. It scales from the quantum to molecules to life to ecosystems to human systems. The common theme at every level is: information, embodied in matter. Processed by systems of increasing complexity to produce even more information. This is how our planet keeps being interesting, while the universe as a whole marches toward the boringness of maximum entropy.

Traditional thermodynamics says entropy always increases, OK, and then it uses this principle to predict the behavior of closed systems near equilibrium.

Which is no system ever.

There is only one closed system: the universe. And it is nowhere near equilibrium. When you get into a planet like Earth, which then develops feedback loops like self-replicating proteins, which develop into feedback loops like ecosystems, and eventually into human systems — we’re only moving farther from equilibrium. Energy is constantly injected into the system, and we use that to process and create higher and higher levels of information. More and more interesting stuff.

Hidalgo extends this into economics, and uses it to explain geographic income disparity.

The trick is: information by itself is useless. To use it, a system/entity/person needs enough knowledge to know what it means, and enough know-how to do something with it.

His key metaphor is that products are embodied information. To create any product takes knowledge and know-how. From a little, like garments, to a lot, like airplanes. That knowledge and know-how must exist inside a country for that country to make such products. And knowledge and know-how are way, way harder to move around than raw materials. They exist inside people, and networks of people, and networks of networks of people. So a person can make a rug, a firm can make a jersey, and many firms together can make a satellite.

Furthermore, Knowledge and know-how create knowledge and know-how. There’s a feedback loop: I know how some aspects of how to build software, so I build it, and I work with other people, and we learn from each other and the knowledge in our particular piece of the world increases. We also create new k&kh, both in ourselves, plus embodied in our software, which can give us and other people new tools to build new things. It spirals.

So software concentrates in Silicon Valley. Movies in Hollywood. Financial instruments in New York. Cars in Germany and Japan.

I’m also reading a book now, Cybernetic Revolutionaries, about a sophisticated cybernetic computer system built in Chile in 1971–72, a collaboration between many Chileans and a few key foreigners. Stafford Beer and some other British computer scientists worked with them on cybernetics, economic modelling, and programming. Guy Bonsiepe (German) worked with them on industrial design. The project and the whole country were greatly held back by US embargos which deprived them of parts and computers that Chile didn’t have the knowledge and know-how to build for themselves. The story illustrates the value of acquiring knowledge in a nation, and the limitations of not already having it.

Personally, this concept of knowledge and know-how being embodied in people — not in text! text only helps if you already have the knowledge to attach meaning to the text. And the way it transfers is by working together. By pair programming, not by documenting your code.

I can build a thing; we build the thing together; now you can build the thing (and better). We know this is how we learn best. Why do we pretend that text is sufficient?

There’s also the part where, he looks at cars or pillows as embodied information: products have the value that you can get benefit from the information without having to understand all of it. Software is very obviously that. The value in the software is what people can now do, that they couldn’t before without possessing a whole lot of knowledge and know-how that the creators of the software put into it. Note that here, software is a medium, and the value is in the business, in whatever users can do with it.

In the Three Body Problem series, one of the characters describes inhabited planets as “low-entropy systems,” and humans and aliens as “low-entropy beings.” We get there by using and creating information, by means of the knowledge and know-how embodied in the organization of our components — proteins, cells, neurons, employees, firms, nations. This book has me thinking hard about how knowledge is created and moved. Because it is not through books or the internet — printed language is the feeblest form of knowledge transfer. Working alongside each other is the richest. Can we do more of that?