Review: Why Information Grows by César Hidalgo

Photo: Penguin Books

César Hidalgo is a physicist by training, and currently runs the Macro Connections group at MIT’s media lab. His book is (amongst other things) about theories of economic growth. It is not immediately apparent how these are connected. And that’s what makes it such an interesting read.

Why Information Grows begins by discussing its namesake – the reader gets a brief description of what information is and isn’t and how, despite the advance of entropy throughout the universe, Earth is a vibrant island of information – apparently we mass produce the stuff, and have done for aeons. This is because Earth is an out of equilibrium system, and in such systems information spontaneously arises. He uses the example of a whirlpool created when you remove the plug from a bathtub: information (in the form of the whirlpool’s structure) is created only so long as disequilibrium persists. But what if we could freeze that information and keep it? That, in essence, is what Hidalgo argues humans can uniquely do – we can “crystallise” information in matter and preserve it. From this foundation the book develops.

Why Information Grows cover claims, somewhat ambitiously, that it will explain “The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies”. As a student of the dismal science, I was expecting the latter application to be the one that intrigued me most. But Hidalgo, whilst interested in how his ideas play out in reality, is clearly primarily enraptured by the ideas themselves. It’s hard not to join in. Out of a technical definition of terms comes a cosmic war between the forces of information and entropy; out of an analysis of ovens and wineglasses, the discovery of what it is to be truly human. Why Information Grows is a love letter to the world, urging it to drink in the discoveries made in the field of information. He writes, “Crystallizing our thoughts into…objects is what allows us to share our thoughts with others. Otherwise, our thoughts remained trapped in the prison of our minds…crystallizing imagination [is] the essence of creative expression”, and it’s obvious that this book is one manifestation of that crystallising.

The insights into Economics that flow from this are also intriguing: he builds a model that can predict long-run economic growth by examining the relative complexity of the economy, measured by the complexity of the goods it produces. He uses this to explain why some economies are richer than others: according to him, it’s because they have the networks of people (firms) and of firms (clusters, such as Silicon Valley) that allow for quantities of information to be stored and used, in a way that an individual person could not. Where such networks exist, complex products such as mobile operating systems can be created: where they do not, the economy is stuck producing raw materials and clothing. (A gross oversimplification, but I only have 700 words.) It’s true that the book does have a bit of the Grand Theory about it: he claims that “the growth of information in the economy…is ultimately the essence of economic growth”, which seems rather reductionist for someone who has been labelled an “‘antidisciplinary’ academic”. There’s little detail to be found about why we would wish to create various forms of information, or, beyond linkages between similar products, why economies branch out into creating new categories of products. But this is no bad thing: economists need to have something to work on!

Having finished the book, and still digesting its contents, I realised that it had been missold – to me, at least. Yes, the economic applications are interesting. But what’s really exciting is information: pure, unadulterated information, generating and preserving itself in an ocean of entropy, sitting at the centre of a world which is unfolding like the petals of a flower. The latter half of the book is good, but the prose gets a little strained, the explanations a little convoluted – this is not Hidalgo’s home territory. This is the court of another king with different rules, where a gift is being presented, much laboured over, much loved, uniquely precious. I thank César Hidalgo for his gift to us; I wonder if academic economists will do the same.