C&B Notes

The Origination of Bits

Claude Shannon’s original ideas about information theory and binary digits, which he nicknamed ‘bits,’ serve as the cornerstone of the information age.

The Man Who Turned Paper Into Pixels from Delve on Vimeo.

An invention even more profound and more fundamental came in a monograph spread across seventy-nine pages of The Bell System Technical Journal in July and October.  No one bothered with a press release.  It carried a title both simple and grand “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” and the message was hard to summarize.  But it was a fulcrum around which the world began to turn.  Like the transistor, this development also involved a neologism: the word bit, chosen in this case not by committee but by the lone author, a thirty-two-year -old named Claude Shannon.  The bit now joined the inch, the pound, the quart, and the minute as a determinate quantity — a fundamental unit of measure.

But measuring what? “A unit for measuring information,” Shannon wrote, as though there were such a thing, measurable and quantifiable, as information…Shannon’s theory made a bridge between information and uncertainty; between information and entropy; and between information and chaos.  It led to compact discs and fax machines, computers and cyberspace, Moore’s law and all the world’s Silicon Alleys.  Information processing was born, along with information storage and information retrieval.  People began to name a successor to the Iron Age and the Steam Age.


(Information) pervades the sciences from top to bottom, transforming every branch of knowledge. Information theory began as a bridge from mathematics to electrical engineering and from there to computing. … Now even biology has become an information science, a subject of messages, instructions, and code.  Genes encapsulate information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it out.  Life spreads by networking.  The body itself is an information processor.  Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell.  No wonder genetics bloomed along with information theory.  DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level — an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being.  “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life,’” declares the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.  “It is information, words, instructions.… If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”  The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding.  Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment.