Surfing, Crawling, or Riding the Cosmos


The prompt for the week is “information” over at Stream of Consciousness Saturday. And technically the goal of the prompt is to engage with it spending as little time in planning as possible, but rather to dive in and just let the mind wander. Still, I couldn’t help noodling on this one for much of the day: while mowing the grass, while walking around with the kids in the stroller, while sitting on the crapper… at first it seemed so small, so insignificant a topic, such a minute and overspecific little thing, what could I possibly write about it? But the more I thought, the bigger it got, until it struck me rather like a 50lb sack of concrete tossed from the flatbed of a rusted-out Nissan on the freeway, generally fargoing up my mental vehicle and much of my worldview: information is everything.

That’s not metaphorical, of course. From a scientific standpoint, everything in the universe is simply a collection of information. This particle occupies this space relative to that other particle, and as a result this atom shifts into this alignment within this molecule, and because of the presence of said molecule, proteins can form, and with the preponderance of those proteins come cells and body structures and blood and bone and brains and everything else that makes us us. The tiniest deviations from the blueprints are all that make up the myriad differences between not just humans, but chimps, fish, trees, and the very earth we walk on (my sorry-not-sorry apologies to the creationist lot). And given enough time, money, and concern, those differences — that stream of information that makes us who we are — could possibly be chronicled. And that’s something.

But it doesn’t stop there. The movement of the heavens is relayed to us through information; much more so than simply the information we’re able to decode with our flimsy senses. Satellites capture the movement of one star past another, the bend in the gravitational field of a planet illuminated by the slowing of the light around it, the Doppler effect of interstellar debris, and translate this — this stew of raw information indecipherable to all but maybe a tenth of a hundredth of a thousandth of a percent of us — to paint the picture of our known universe, even looking back through time itself to map out what the universe was like in its primordial state.

And then, of course, there’s information in the traditional sense: the information that we doddering bipeds build our world around, the collection of the relative movements of the species across the face of our particular bit of space rock that cause economies to rise and fall, forces at war to invade or withdraw, and a million other decisions to swing this way or that in a flicker of firing synapses. Information drives the world, and that information has to come from somewhere for it to make me decide whether to get up off the couch to get another drink, or sit and suffer with a dry mouth while I watch another episode of Aquarius (which I’m not sure if I care for yet).

The internet. Right? When we say “information,” that’s where it comes from, for most of us. In the Western world, at least, if you’re getting your information from anywhere, odds are that it passed through a computer on its way to your face holes, if your own personal computer wasn’t the last stop. An interview conducted over Skype. Documents e-mailed from a presidential candidate’s personal, totally-legal-no-matter-what-anybody-says server. A record of purchases that you may or may not have made from websites of dubious repute. Whether it be legitimate information, ill-guided misinformation, or maliciously-intended disinformation, there’s a flood of it coming at us through the internet all the time.

So I took a pause from writing and googled one of those questions that I felt very dumb typing into a search engine: “how much information is on the internet?” And I ended up trying to grasp what I found on the wikipedia page: Exabyte. An exabyte is a million terabytes, or a billion gigabytes, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, which is one of those numbers — like the size of the universe — that your brain just sort of goes fuzzy thinking about. And estimates in 2010 showed that in a month, about 21 exabytes of information are passed along the internet. A MONTH.

And for all that, it’s estimated that a single gram of DNA could contain over 450 exabytes of information. So if you think those construction instructions from Ikea are complicated, well…

Now, your sources might differ from mine, and I’m not here to pass judgment on what sort of information you invite into your home (though given the size of, for example, the anti-vaxxer movement, some of you are receiving and believing some decidedly poor information). I’m only here to ponder the ramifications of such a system, and I will do so vis-a-vis a surprising moment we had driving home from the beach yesterday.

I pulled into a gas station in rural Alabama and swiped my card at the pump. I received an error message telling me to see the attendant.

Frustrated, I pulled to another pump (kids were in the car and there was no sense unloading them, and god knows you can’t leave them in the car on a hot day in Alabama) and got the same result. I called my wife on her cell phone (a fantastic tool for delivering information, and a little ironic if you’ll bear with me) where she was standing in line to buy some snacks for the road and asked her to check with the attendant.

Turns out, the gas station runs its internet connection on dialup, and the phone line was in use at the moment.

Now, there’s two funnies in this situation from where I stand.

First is that a business in the Western world is still operating off of a dialup connection. (Actually, first is that dialup connections are still offered at all, let alone to businesses.) But then, that’s Alabama for you, I guess. (My apologies to any readers from Alabama, except you already live in Alabama, so my apologies won’t help you.)

Second is that a person was using a phone that wasn’t in his pocket or in any other way connected to the internet. I thought we’d moved past that as a society, but you learn something new every day.

Point is, there is a literal uncountable ocean of information flowing in, around, and through us every instant of every day. Some of us simply ride the wave faster than others.

Again, my apologies to the readers from Alabama.