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Information is Surprise

July 6, 2013, 7:00 AM

One of the things that I became fairly comfortable with early on was that I wasn’t going to be able to offer a single definition of information.  I was going to write a whole book about this thing and was going to title it The Information, and I was never going to say in a short, pithy way what information was because it’s taken me 500 pages to say it.  And in fairness, it takes the Oxford English Dictionary not quite as big a space but something like 8,000 words to define this simple word.  

Having said that, I don't mean to be flippant.  The core of my book, the starting point for the book, is a scientific definition of information that emerged with the birth of information theory from the work of Claude Shannon and it’s a very mathematical definition, and yet it’s possible to talk about it in a human way.  You can say that information is surprise.  We know that information is something that we have a unit of measure for.  We measure information in bits, and, of course, that wasn’t always true.  That also began with Claude Shannon.  

A bit, the smallest unit of information, the fundamental particle of information theory, is a choice, yes or no, on or off.  It’s a choice that you can embody in electrical circuits and it is thanks to that that we have all this ubiquitous computing.  But it’s also the flip of a coin or it’s the lighting of one or two lanterns in the Old North Church when Paul Revere had to convey a single bit of information by land or by sea, a choice.  And again, it’s information because it’s surprise.  If you already know the answer, there's no information there. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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Information is Surprise

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