What has been the most transformative, creative and disruptive technology ever conceived? This was the question I asked the office after watching Jim Al-Khalili’s BBC documentary about information. One person offered the printing press as an answer, another thought it was the wheel, but the answer is in fact the written word.
Al-Khalili describes the written word as the most transformative technology ever conceived because, as he describes, “writing is about the transmission and storage of information” and that words allow ideas to endure through time. Previously when I thought of data storage I pictured data centres and USB sticks, not the words that I am typing now.
The documentary highlighted a number of Information Age milestones. Some of these I was familiar with, like Alan Turing’s universal computing machine and Morse code, however, I had not realised that the weaving loom – specifically the Jacquard loom – played such an important part in the history of information. A little card, punched with holes, would be inserted into the loom to programme the machine into printing a particular pattern.
“The loom revealed the power of abstracting information. It showed that you could take the essence of something, extract the vital information and represent it in another form. Writing had revealed that you could use a set of symbols to capture spoken language. Now, Jacquard had shown that with two symbols, a hole or blank space, it was possible to capture the information in any picture imaginable.”
The documentary also explained the relationship between information and energy and how information obeys the same laws of physics as everything else in the universe, and can never be divorced from the physical world. However, “what makes information so powerful is the fact that it can be stored in any physical system we chose… From using stone and clay to using electricity and light. The medium that stores information gives it unique properties.”
Al-Khalili describes information as being “one of the subtlest and most difficult concepts that science has had to grapple with.” So where is the development of the Information Age heading, what will be the next few milestones? He mentions that today scientists are exploring new ways of manipulating information using everything from DNA to quantum particles.
According to the journal Nature, the world’s data could be stored in just 1kg of DNA. It’s incredible to think how the human race has moved from writing symbols on clay tablets in order to store information, and now consider DNA for this purpose.
The documentary can be viewed on iPlayer – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01nj44h/order-and-disorder-2-information
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