Among the three books that I am currently reading is James Gleick’s The Information, a non-fiction work exploring information theory and telling the story of how information technologies have altered the nature of human consciousness. Gleick is much better known for his work Chaos, which I read many years ago and which, when published in 1987, explained the then-emerging scientific field of chaos theory.

I am only just into The Information, published this year 2011, yet already my mind is enjoying itself immensely. The first chapter reveals the ways in which drummers in sub-Saharan Africa used drumbeats as a full langauge—“long-distance communication faster than any traveler on foot or horseback.” Gleick explains that the drum language was not just a series of signaling a small set of messages, such as “attack” or “come to church”; rather, the drumbeats were part of the tonal quality of several African languages, “in which meaning is determined as much by rising or falling pitch contours as by distinctions between consonants or vowels.” Although this feature is missing from English (and most other Indo-European languages), I remember my friend Steve telling me about this quality in his Thai language.

Gleick’s latest work rivets the mind so far. However, before I get too far into it, I want to share a quote from his preface. I find it apropos, especially in the glow of my newly beloved iPad 2.

The alphabet was a founding technology of information. The telephone, the fax machine, the calculator, and, ultimately, the computer are only the latest innovations devised for saving, manipulating, and communicating knowledge….The punched card, the cash register, the nineteenth-century Difference Engine, the wires of telegraphy all played their parts in weaving the spiderweb of information to which we cling….From the printing press came new species of information organizers: dictionaries, cyclopaedias, almanacs, compendiums of words, classifiers of facts, trees of knowledge. Each new one throws its predecessors into relief. Thus Thomas Hobbes, in the seventeenth century, resisted his era’s new-media hype: “The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters is no great matter.” Up to a point, he was right. Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought. In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.

“In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” (Sigh of contentment). I have yet to hear a more eloquent and simply elegant definition of history.

In my AP Language and Composition course, I had my students write throughout the year in several non-fiction essay modes: argument, comparison-contrast, definition, division/classification, description, etc. We always, always began with the narrative mode, because in many ways it was the least foreign, the most personal, and fairly straightforward to achieve. Yet my students were always game to push our discussions further, and we would often talk about some of the greater implications of writing a non-fiction narrative. We thought about the ways that writing our own narratives is an act of conscious sorting through information. We often choose the narratives we lay over our lives, do we not? Omit this piece of information, expand some of the smaller moments we liked to become symbols of our character. Our history is fluid, constantly shaped by the words we use, the details we keep, the details we take away. We cannot possibly remember—even if well-intentioned—all the many thousands of bits of information that make up our lives, our histories, our every nanosecond of existence. The best we can ever do…is approximate.

And that is usually where I stopped with my high school students. The idea of the approximate, and the close relationship between the approximation of our personal information and mathematical concepts like the asymptote and the infinite in Calculus…well, that is best left for those late nights of philosophical interdisciplinary discussions that take place in the magic known as the university.

As I cuddled up those beloved children of mine tonight, these thoughts were not far from my mind. I am so aware of the ways in which my children, and I, and their father, are all having a hand in shaping their narratives, their histories. We build mental schema that preference our children about what bits of memories to save and which ones not to. Who they are—actually, no, who they remember they were (when they are 30)—might be so different from the ways in which I as their mother might remember them. How do any two people bridge that divide? How we see ourselves versus the way others see us comes down, in the end, to our ability to compress and parse information—information in this case, based on fluid memory.

If “history is the story of information becoming aware of itself,” then surely growing up is the story of the self becoming aware of its authorial control over its own narrative. I couldn’t help but see the parallel between Gleick’s work, and the astounding and humbling job of being a mother.

Advertisements