Information - Counted, Measured and Mailed Information - Counted, Measured and Mailed

There are various ways of looking at the world. Pessimists regard it as a vale of tears. The philosopher Schopenhauer thought it consisted of will and idea. Atomic physicists look upon it as a structure composed of atomic nuclei and electrons. The spiritual fathers of the electronic computer consider it as an installation largely composed of information-data.

At first glance, that may seem a curious point of view. But when we take a closer look at it we shall see that there is much to be said for this view of the universe - provided that the idea of "information" is extended far beyond the ordinary newspaper-reader's notion of what it means.

When the lady next door is talking to the baker's wife, both of them are exchanging information. If you are listening to the news on the radio, you are absorbing information. Schoolboys struggling with Latin verbs are storing, though perhaps with difficulty, information in their brains. If you are thinking about something, you are comparing and connecting information you heard somewhere at some time or other to other pieces of information, and arriving thereby at new information. You can keep this new information to yourself or pass it on.

All that, of course, is pretty self-evident. But the information theoreticians go further. They explain that every living being carries steadily flowing streams of information about with him. If you look at anything, your eyes give information to your brain. The sense of pain racing through your nerves when you cut your finger is a piece of information. The course of metabolism, the control of the organs by the hormones, are nothing but an exchange of information in the body. When a flower unfolds at sunrise, it does so because the sun, with its beams, tells it to do so. If a man feels hungry, the origin of the sensation is the fact that his gastric juices are informing him via his nerves that they have nothing to work on.

Human beings have thought out several ways of exchanging information with each other. We could not have progressed very far if we were incapable of carrying on conversations or of reading books. We have developed this method of thought-transference into artificial and very effective systems. We handle the pieces of information exchanged just as recklessly as if they were tangible things like apples or potatoes. We store information in libraries, we count and measure it in every statistical operation, and we send it in letters. Newspapermen and secret agents make their living dealing with it.

We are not in the Ieast afraid of converting information into quite different forms. We translate it into foreign languages or, in teIegrams, into dots and dashes, and we are sure that the receiver will understand our message correctly despite its transformation.

For centuries, whenever men spoke of machines, they meant power engines and nothing else. They used to think solely in terms of apparatus for taking the place of muscIe-work or manual skill, of locomotives to compete with horses' legs, of cranes and jacks to replace the sturdy arms of the working man.

Then, one fine day, machines were invented for transmitting information instead of power: the Morse telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the radio. At the least, however, these were no more than helpfuI contrivances which did not themselves know what to do with the information supplied to them; a1l they could do was transmit it.

The first machine entitled to stand side by side with man as a partner having almost equal rights and capable of receiving, processing and reproducing information in another foml, was the electronic computer, the "electronic brain." Here, in this context, the taboo expression "brain" is aImost justified, for we do these contrivanees an injustice if we think of them as nothing but counting-devices. Counting? Cash registers do that too. Electronic computers can do much more.

When we count, we are only making a special application of our aptitude for combining pieces of information as we please. EIectronic computers are like peopIe in this respect. Their work, too, consists essentially of joining together the pieces of information supplied to them and making other pieces out of them. These pieces of information may be numbers, if they are, the machine counts with them. But they may be scientific facts, or Latin and EngIish words, instead. That is the reason why many scientists prefer to speak of "data-proeessing machines" or about "informationprocessing machines" rather than of "electronic computers".

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Kybernetik - Was ist das?

First printed in Germany: 1963


Cybernetic Computer and Electronic Brain

The fascinating story of how computers work in clear, non-mathematical language