The Information Age: what will the martians think of us?

PHOTO/Ryan Somma

In thousands of years’ time, a small green creature on the planet Gliese 667 Cc, 22 light years away, will be analysing astronomical data. They will notice an anomaly. They will discover that passing through their system is a tiny, metal craft. They will alert the community, and much effort will be made to retrieve the craft. On it they will find a circular disc, made of gold, covered in ridges and symbols.

For me and you, this is a record. The grooves on the disc encode information about sounds; if we stuck it on our record player, we would hear animals and greetings from world leaders. This golden record is a description of humanity, something for future aliens who might discover it to learn about us. It is aboard Voyager 1, the furthest manmade object from earth.

We would like to say that, in some sense, the disc has information on it. Yes it’s a physical object – but there’s something more, some content which goes beyond the metal it is made of. Our green friends will realise that the grooves must have been made by some intelligence, but working out what they mean is problematic. A paper map can be mapped onto a physical country by associating points on the map with geographical points; somehow, they will argue, the grooves map onto the something tangible in the real world, and there must be a dictionary which associates certain patterns of grooves with certain events in the real world. The job of our green friend is to find the dictionary.

They are looking for a record player. A record player maps the information carried by our disc onto sounds. One pattern of grooves encodes Beethoven’s 5th; another Eleanor Rigby; another John Cage’s 4’33”.

Is there only one record player? That is to say, is it possible for our friend to find a “record player” which maps our grooves onto something else – colours for instance, if they have eyes – that is consistent? The answer looks like a definite yes. The more you think about it, it’s possible to create all sorts of weird, wonderful (and extremely artificial!) record players which map grooves onto all sorts of strange sounds and colours and goings on in the world.

Information – like bits, bytes, grooves – doesn’t mean anything without a record player. Patterns of bits are given meaning by the dictionary we use to translate those patterns into relationships had between colours, sounds and smells in the real world. This is the sort of thinking that makes a piece of mathematics – say  linear algebra – so powerful. These theories deal with abstract “objects”. Depending on our choice of mapping, the claims of linear algebra can apply to colour vision, quantum mechanics, hearing or distances.

It is amazing then that, more and more, the world is dealing in information – we are in an “information age” – this mysterious quantity which is only meaningful because of its structure, and how it is interpretated. The oldest example is communication through language– our ear maps patterns of air vibrations onto concepts and ideas. Books, and writing in general, work because humans have the right dictionary for translating strings of symbols into thoughts.

The information age is often understood in a political or social context: the advent of the internet, social media, etc has allowed the free transfer of ideas and beliefs throughout the world. But there is a more fundamental thing going on here: our society is trading information. Information is software, it’s data, it’s intelligence. Halo 4 is not a just small circular disc; it’s a small circular disc covered in a  complex pattern which our XBOX will map onto pixels on a screen – and the only difference between Halo 4 and FIFA 13 is that pattern.

The economies of the past largely relied on physical goods. Today, we trade bits. Want a 5mm screw? Google it, buy and download the blueprint, and get your 3D printer to make it. When Apple releases iOS 5, they release another unique way of turning a billion bits on and off; and without the record player (in this case an iPhone), that is literally all it amounts to.

We will never be able to trade purely in information. Yet it almost surprising that we can buy and sell it at all. If I discover a mathematical equation, I don’t expect people to have to pay me for the right to use it. This kind of idea motivated the GNU public license, a software license which prevents the softare being bought or sold.

As it happens, NASA’s golden record is covered with diagrams explaining how to build a record player: they’ll be able to understand what physical things the grooves map onto – vibrations in a gas. But our friend could not have guessed the correct record player. The meaning of information, these abstract arrangements of digital bits or the frequency modulations of radio signals, is in the eye of the beholder – and this makes the modern world, at least briefly, seem a bit odd.