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.

11 thoughts on “Surfing, Crawling, or Riding the Cosmos

  1. Wonderful post, Matt! Loved the science and math 😀 I am just geeky that way. And the dial-up, omg how I hated dial-up. I have a friend here in VA who still uses it. Such a pain in the arse! Anyway, enjoyed the post!

    Liked by 1 person

      • *laughs* it sounded quite convincing to me… I don’t know much about either subject, but they both fascinate me 😀


  2. This week, I had an insight into how easily accessible information is, and how readily the younger generation can assimilate and use it.

    My never schooled, never lessoned not-quite-eleven year old, who learned to read independently at the age of eight, and who, despite being able to read anything she chooses (and she chooses rather voraciously and disparately, these days), is in the process of taking her first-ever standardized test. As she’s moving through, I’m seeing again and again all the ways in which she’s acquired information I never knew she had.

    It didn’t come from school, or a teacher, because she doesn’t have those. She learned from talking, from listening, from paying attention, watching –

    From living.

    From her Kindle, and books, and television, and her friends. From making connections between seemingly random bits and pieces of information.

    To her, information truly is everywhere.

    Wonderful, witty post. So glad I found this today!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Louis CK had a bit about how we have access to more information than at any other time in human history, and it’s making us into the dumbest people ever. I also read a book, “The Dumbest Generation,” exploring the idea that with ready access to any information we might need, the young minds of the current generation aren’t learning to make organic connections between information like they used to. (Why memorize anything if you can just google it, in other words.) Fascinating ideas. I’m not sure if I agree with them, but they are great food for thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m reasonably sure I don’t agree with some of Louis CK’s views, so I understand your hesitancy.

        I will say that, as I live with these two kids who have free access to a huge amount of information, I don’t see them living paint-by-number lives.

        I see a huge number of organic connections, every day. I see kids who look around them, who notice materials they’ve built with in Minecraft when we go for walks, who notice architectural details and use those in their Minecraft creations. I see a boy who befriended a boy in Kathmandu, Tibet, and has sent him Google Play cards electronically, because his friend, who has shared details of his own life, is understandably frightened in the wake of calamity, and access to games gives a respite.

        I see a girl intensely interested in nature, who used the internet to research the cheetahs (her current favorite species) at the Oregon Zoo, when she learned we would be going there during our cross-continental vacation, and then spent 20 minutes personally communing with these same animals. I see her researching her pubescent hormonal moods online, and rejecting some of the information she found there, because it wasn’t useful to her.

        I see a 13 year old who has been researching and cross-referencing for years, because he knows not to trust everything he finds on the internet.

        I think there would be more danger in the Internet affecting their intelligence and ability to make those organic connections if they spent many of their waking areas being told what to do and what was important, as they would in a typical classroom.

        For my unschooled kids, the internet is another resource. It enhances and widens their worlds, but it doesn’t always hold the information or answers they want.

        Sometimes, the answer comes from a chat with a parent, a book, trial and error, life experience, or “checking our pansies” to see how the weather is affecting them…

        I think, if people have free access to many kinds of information, and how to use it, they will find ways to use it that feed their quest to learn, rather than stifling it.

        On a side note, I sometimes don’t look up something I want to know, just so I can keep wondering and feed my imagination for a while. =)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I think you’ve hit upon it: making sure they engage critically, and being an arbiter of information for them when there is a doubt, is a far step from simply googling to see who won the war of 1812.


      • Well, honestly, I have no problem with them Googling something like a date. Or reading articles at Salon to find information they’re looking for. Or watching court shows for about three days straight, and debating the cases…or any of the ways they use regularly to acquire information.

        I think we see this from a similar, but slightly offset, perspective. I don’t make sure my ids think critically – there’s no need. With such an abundance of information, they’ve learned to filter and triage organically, and they do it naturally. Neither of my kids are the type to tell me everything they’re doing while they’re doing it. I’m much more likely to hear, “Mom, I was doing virtual open-heart surgery last night, and I killed the guy I was operating on about 20 times, and then I decided I’d better not operate on him anymore,” or “Last night, I realized I might never actually own a horse in my lifetime. It’s not just the horse, and some horses cost more than cars, but the upkeep, and the food, and the tack -saddles are the most expensive…and that’s if the horse doesn’t get sick…” When I asked what made her think of that, she told me it was the Parelli and Swedish horse care DVDs she received years ago as a gift from her riding mentor.

        If they Google the War of 1812, they’ll probably stop to read some about it, and they’ll add that to the picture they have of ‘war’ in their minds (eldest was born in early September of 2001; sadly, war has been a backdrop of reality for nearly as long as I’ve had a child). I’d rather they have a realistic understanding of what war is and what it does than to know who ‘won’ a specific conflict – the victor tends to dictate what ‘facts’ get recorded, in any event (i.e,: the focus on the Nazi concentration camps while virtually ignoring the Japanese interment camps on American soil).

        ‘Arbiter of information’….hmmm….I’d say what we have here is more of a free exchange of information – it flows from them to their parents as often as the other way (in part, because they have free access to information, and they aren’t afraid to use it!). As they get older, that happens more and more.

        I think I feel a blogpost coming on…so thanks for the provocation of thought! =)


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