This whole information business

One of the many revelations from reading Jon Gertner’s magisterial history of Bell Labs, is learning more about the story of Claude Shannon. He was one of any visionaries at the labs, but seems to have been preeminent amongst a group of very talented individuals.

Given his centrality to much of the world as we now know – he created Information Theory – and was responsible for the shift in communications to digital – this is surprising to say the least. His peers remarked that these discoveries and insights were not just a few years ahead of others but many decades.

I liked this rather prescient piece from a speech he gave in 1959:

“I think that this present century in a sense will see a great upsurge and development of this whole information business… [the future will depend]….on the business of collecting information and the business of transmitting it from one point to another, and perhaps most important of all, the business of processing it –using it to replace man at semi-rote operations[s] at a factory…even the replacement of man in the things that we almost think of as creative, things like doing mathematics or translating languages” (cited in Gertner 2012 317-18)

Given that Bill Shockley, one of Shannon’s colleagues at the labs and a pioneers of the transistor, predicted that the greatest innovation arising from it might be the compact tape recorder we can appreciated how visionary a thinker Shannon really was. And how accurate.