Book Review: Understanding Information and Computation
Martin White reviews a very individual perspective on the extent to which the growth and structure of the World Wide Web is governed by the fundamental laws of physics and mathematics.
I have been a member of the information profession for almost 60 years, but then I started at a very young age. Indeed I was a library assistant at the age of four. My grandfather was the volunteer librarian for the small library in Clanfield, Hampshire, which opened up for a couple of afternoons each week. My job was to stack the books up, and help him put them back on the shelves. I felt very important.
I have no recollection of learning to read, but grew up surrounded by books, mostly Reader’s Digest condensed editions. My grandfather was also a regular user of the Lending Library that was run by Boots the Chemists from 1899 to 1966. The result was that by the time I went to school I could read very fluently indeed. Mrs Edwards, my first teacher, asked the class to bring in something they were reading at home, and I turned up with the Daily Telegraph! So from an early age perhaps I was destined to find a career in information science.
Every day we face the problems of how to find the information we need to meet personal, family and career objectives. Marshall McLuhan has remarked that the one thing of which fish are totally unaware is water, as they have no anti-environment that would enable them to perceive the element in which they swim . They take it for granted, and we do just the same.
Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in what we mean by ‘information’. Then we come to ‘content’, a convenient word when talking about enterprise content management. Is ‘content’ the same as information, or different? And how is it the same or different? There is a General Definition of Information that is based upon a concept of ‘data + meaning’. There is a good summary of GDI in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  written by Luciano Floridi, the author of the excellent book Information – a very short introduction .
From Einstein to Web Science
This is the subtitle of Philip Tetlow’s Understanding Information and Computation, which might also be regarded as ‘Information – a Very Long Introduction’. It is almost impossible to categorise this book. The author is an Enterprise IT Architect with IBM, but his book is nothing to do with IT architecture. Among the chapter titles are ‘Hitler, Turing and Quantum Mathematics’ (Chapter 3), ‘Twists, Turns and Nature’s Preference for Curves’ (Chapter 6), ‘Why Are Conic Sections Important?’ (Chapter 9) and ‘Time to Reformulate with a Little Help from Information Retrieval Research’.
At the time I was reading this book there was a fascinating programme on BBC4 by Professor Jim Al-Kahili which traversed the period from the initial development of writing scripts to Alan Turing’s seminal work on the basic principles of computation via Claude Shannon’s 1948 paper on A Mathematical Theory of Communication. One of the concepts introduced by Shannon was information entropy as a measure of the uncertainty in a message. At the Enterprise Search Meetup which took place during the Enterprise Search Summit Fall in Washington in October 2012, it was interesting to hear some quite intense discussions (especially as I am a chemist by training) around the implications of entropy in enterprise search. Next year we will be marking the 60th anniversary of the publication in Nature of the paper by Watson and Crick on the structure of DNA. At one level the role of DNA in genetic inheritance can be seen as a chemical reaction but, at another level, the communication of information.
Although ‘informational genetics’ is not in the index of Tetlow’s work, there are 30 entries for ‘gravity’, ‘quantum mechanics’, ‘relativity’ and ‘The Universe’. Much of the mathematics is based on geometry, but I need to emphasise that a degree in mathematics is not needed to enjoy this book. If you are wondering where geometry and information coincide, there is no better example than the vector space model used to assess content object similarity in search applications. Indeed the discussion in the book about vector space and information retrieval is an excellent example of the skill of the author in being able to link computation and information.
A Feynman Approach to Information
Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist, was always seeking to understand everything in physics from first principles and never took anything on trust. Tetlow follows the same path in an endeavour to discover whether it is possible to see information as a fundamental force of The Universe in the same way as we do gravity. This may seem to be a very pretentious endeavour and I’m not sure I am entirely convinced by the arguments, but I admire the breadth of knowledge that is evident in this book. There is a very good bibliography and reading the book is enhanced though excellent footnotes.
It is certainly not an easy book to read. It took me a month or more to work my way gradually through it and I found it useful to read several of the early chapters again as I moved through the later sections of the book. Having done so, I feel at last that some of the hunches I have around the concept of information and the behaviour of the Web are in fact based on fundamental laws of physics and mathematics.
This is not a student textbook and it is not going to help you deliver better customer service tomorrow, or design a better intranet architecture by the end of the month. But if you feel that there must be more to information than shelves of books or folders of files, then this is a book for you.
- Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore. “War and Peace in the Global Village”, 1968, Gingko Press
- "Semantic Conceptions of Information", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Luciano Floridi. Information: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 138 p. ISBN 978-0-19-955137-8.
Web site: http://www.intranetfocus.com
Martin White is an information management consultant specialising in enterprise search assignments. He established Intranet Focus Ltd in 1999 and has been a Visiting Professor at the iSchool, University of Sheffield since 2002. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Member of the Association of Computing Machinery. His latest book, Enterprise Search, has just been published by O’Reilly Media.