22 February 2015

As humans, we pride ourselves of being able to pass information and culture to the future generations. We think, that since we invented written words, the printing press, and the internet, we have invented information. We haven’t. Many other animals successfully transfer information in their communities, over multiple generations. Take the example of a young leopard learning to hunt from his mother. Initially, the hunting skill and information exists in the mother’s head, in form of neuron connections and electrical impulses. Part of it exists in the shape of the leopard’s body, its agility and strength. Later, the mother is hunting, photons reflect from her body, and hit the eye of the son, exciting receptors in the eye, and then creating neural impulses to the son’s brain. He attempts hunting on his own, getting more photons from missed targets, taste particles from successful ones and ends up with a modified version of the original information, encoded by the particles in his brain, and the shape of his body. All the steps in the process of information transfer are physical and happen in our physical reality, and not in some imaginary world. Information, at any part of the process, not only can be represented as positions and states of various physical particles, it is the positions and states of the physical particles.

Information wasn’t always physical. At least from my point of view. I grew up as math and computers nerd, thinking abstractly about many things, including information. Information was even more special to me as it was so universal, able to represent virtually anything. I regarded it as something transcendental, even divine. But considering the hunting leopards example, made me consider information as something less transcendental. I started imagining more examples, and in all of them information was fully physical. When we talk, the sound waves travel physically by moving air particles. Sound doesn’t exist in vacuum because there is no physical matter in it to carry the sound. Information in computers is the physical state of the electrons in the RAM or the hard disk. The story about Bilbo the hobbit began as a set of neural impulses in JRR Tolkien’s head, then developed itself into ink on paper in a specific shape to become a famous book. Later, it became electrically encoded into the head of a script-writer, who created a movie script, typing on a computer, change memory as electric impulses, which pushed other electric impulses and travelled as an optic signal to a remote computer where it got transformed again as physical computer memory and then photons emitted from the displays of the actors and staff in the movie. The actors then acted, creating photons, which affected the physical state of the atoms in the camera’s receptors. Then after another computer-screen-eye cycle, the information got in our eyes as we watched the movie.

The visceral realization that information is very physical and tangible changed two beliefs in my head. The first major change, is to remove information from its imaginary pedestal. Realizing that I can fully represent all information as something physical made me address information less as something imaginary and pristine and more as something that is a part of our dirty, messy and imperfect physical world. The second major change, reversely, emancipated the physical reality. Considering information at the same level as the tangible reality, gives a lot of meaning to all kinds of physical objects, as carriers of rich information.

I look at a chair in front of me. Its shape, color and materials encode a lot of information about the person and company who made it. The chair is made of hollow metal tubes, some larger and others smaller. The larger ones are used to create structural support, while the smaller ones are used to provide comfort for the reclining back, at a lower price. The seating area is cushioned. It is the area that is most often in use of the chair so most resources have gone into increasing its quality than in the rest of the chair. The chair has four legs. Each front leg is connected with the corresponding back leg via metal pipe to increase structural strength. This allows the person seating on the chair to bring their legs back under the chair if they want to… There is so much information encoded in the mundane objects around us, in a non-obvious way.

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I write these posts to clarify my thoughts and improve my communication. They are mainly written for myself, and my future self, but I'd love to hear any comments you might have, especially if you disagree with what I've written, or if you've found it valuable in any way. Message me on Twitter @themitak or email me at comments@dimitarsimeonov.com.