The End of the Information Age

The Bronze Age. The Industrial Revolution. The Information Age. Surely we live in the Golden Era of the Information Age. The Internet of course has brought us here, and it is nearly a clean sweep. Governments can no longer control information, no matter how they try. Things like cars and watches and refrigerators are rapidly becoming purveyors of information. Biology, even quantum mechanics are being described in the language of information, and it seems to be able to handle these and more. Perhaps we are approaching the ideal of late 19th Century physics when some believed their theories could explain all physical phenomena…25 years before relativity and quantum mechanics rained on their parade. Maybe we’ve finally gotten it this time! Well, probably not.

Just like those physicists of the late 1800s, there are a few bothersome loose ends with Information as The Thing of Things. Now I don’t understand quantum mechanics any better than you do, but it seems to point to the idea that maybe information is…probabilistic. Or if we think about the graph theory of all information, with Google as the index, things like the Dark Web or even separate spheres of political discourse raise the troubling thought that maybe information is…discontinuous. Maybe there are disconnected islands in the information graph.

Today NPR ran a story (http://www.npr.org/2014/02/27/282939233/good-art-is-popular-because-its-good-right) describing an experiment by Princeton professor Matthew Salganik seeking to determine whether the popularity of music is related to quality. His finding was that, above some minimal quality threshold, it was pretty random. Like the butterfly sneeze in the Brazilian rainforest or the Big Bang, small initial random variations seemed to propagate and be magnified. In the case of music the propagation mechanisms were social interaction. So perhaps information is…random. Or, local.

All of these hints lead me to believe we have not found the answer to everything simply by invoking information. So, what might the post-information age look like? What comes next? Clearly this is speculation extrapolated from a flimsy foundation, but here is my guess. Maybe someday we will emerge into the Energy Age. Not an age describing fossil fuels and dominated by Big Oil, but an age where the unifying principle is the amount of energy consumed in an operation or a process. Already we measure data centers not in storage capacity or processing speed, but in watts per square foot. Things like the carbon footprint of our daily lives eventually depends on a single common measure of the energy consumption of, say, recycling that beverage can as opposed to throwing it out. Maybe social networks can be measured in the energy efficiency of their information transmission. Even quantum mechanics points to the total entropy of the universe.

Finally, what good are such speculations? They fundamentally call into question what we know, and what is knowable. They challenge the conventions we use to describe the world we experience and the hidden world beyond that we can only hypothesize. While the Information Age is a wonderful thing, and has much left to teach us about the world, it is not the only view, and probably not the final one either.

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