NEWTON WAS INVENTING INFORMATION IN THE 17TH CENTURY. UP UNTIL THE LATE 18TH CENTURY, IT WAS ASSUMED THAT THE RARE INDIVIDUAL — THINK THOMAS JEFFERSON OR ADAM SMITH — WAS CAPABLE OF MASTERING THE SUM TOTAL OF ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE TODAY. YOU IMPLY THAT WE WOULD BE LOST WITHOUT TOOLS THAT EITHER SEARCH OR FILTER.
Searching and filtering are not opposites. I don't want to use the cliché that they're two sides of the same coin. But they go together. Everyone knows that Google is a search engine. So we imagine that what Google is doing is going out and finding the stuff that we ask it to find. But it's just as true that Google is a filtering engine because when we enter our search terms or our query or whatever we type into that little bar, its just as important for Google to exclude the bottom 999,000 things as to show us the top thing or the top 10 things, because it's finding all kinds of garbage. And if not garbage, stuff that is not valuable to us. So the challenge for Google is not just going out and finding stuff but filtering all of the stuff we don't want. I think they're very well aware of that. You can't really succeed at one without the other.
ARE SEARCHING AND FILTERING BINARY CHOICES? YESSES OR NOES?
It's more complicated. At a certain point my book veers back away from the digitization and conversion of everything into binary choices and the definition of information in engineering terms. I look toward; I turn to our more human needs. This involves not just the engineering of information. It is the search for meaning and knowledge, which Claude Shannon very explicitly removed from the equation for his engineering purposes. That's where searching and filtering come in, in trying to make distinctions between worthless information and valuable information. Between what's true and what's false. In the end, it is about knowing and understanding.
DOES A COMMON THREAD RUN THOUGH YOUR BOOKS ON CHAOS, TIME AND SPEED, AND INFORMATION? INTUITIVELY, THOSE BOOKS SEEM RELATED.
Well, there are certainly themes that run through all of the books. I didn't have a plan, or if I did, it was a different plan. But sure, you see chaos popping up in a number of places in the information book. And there's a reason for that. It was when I was working on the chaos book that I first heard about Claude Shannon and information theory. Physicists were using it as a tool. It was very striking and strange to me that something called information theory would be relevant in understanding dynamical systems. That was a clue that information was a more profound idea than I had imagined. Also, you mentioned Faster; in working on that book, I realized somewhere along the way that all of the really interesting technologies that we use to save time are information technologies. Fax machines, telephone answering machines, voice mail, speed dialing . . . Those barely exist now, but they gave us the sense that our world is speeding up. In Faster, I talked about access to information and connectedness. But now I see I had really just barely begun to look at the story from the right perspective. With this latest book, I think I have finally arrived at it.