God is a Gigabyte
Are machines really learning to think? In his latest book, Robert Feustel demonstrates how we have elevated digitalisation to a religion.
By Jakob Rondthaler
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” the Bible states in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The title of Robert Feustel’s non-fiction book Am Anfang war die Information (In the beginning was information), published by Verbrecher-Verlag, is quite appropriate. On the one hand, it foreshadows a debate Feustel later discusses in the book: how information and semantics, i.e. in a sense information and the meaning of the word, are intertwined. He also examines the question of whether information in itself already has meaning or whether it only attains meaning through being absorbed by humans. On the other hand, by using a bible quote in the title, the author already alludes to what he later elucidates in the book: In the digital age – if indeed we live in such an age –, we have elevated information science to a religion.
The term information – an illustrious careerFeustel illustrates in detail how information science as a discipline managed to enjoy such a stellar career – despite the fact that there is still no uniform definition of the term. Even after decades of debate, indeed “after endless discussions […,] we are nowhere close to even the prospect of a clear concept of information,” Feustel states.
The author traces the long history of concepts and ideas regarding information: from the industrialisation, the invention of the steam engine and the discovery of thermodynamics all the way to digitalisation, the rise of big data and the use of algorithms. At times, this makes the book less accessible than it is at the beginning: Here, Feustel introduces his topic by recounting an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror so vividly, it feels like there’s no need to even watch it anymore. The fact that Feustel continues to include references to popular culture (Star Trek) and our everyday lives (Siri) over the course of the book is a welcome relief – in particular if you’re about to get a little lost amongst the many quotes from all kinds of scientists.
Questions that lead to greater understandingThe large number of quotes makes the book not always easy to follow. On the other hand, the parts where Feustel summarises the thoughts of others and explains them in his own words are easy to read. And time and again, Feustel manages to come up with surprisingly insightful explanations: For instance, he illustrates a model of the connection between entropy and information by scientist Claude Shannon by means of a person standing at the bar and having 16 different kinds of gin to choose from. If only my statistics professor at uni had used examples like this!
Regardless, it’s probably best not to read Am Anfang war die Information at the beach or on your daily commute – if you haven’t studied information science, you’ll frequently find yourself having to look up terms. Yet without exception, the questions Feustel discusses are fascinating: For example, does thinking ultimately just mean being able to calculate particularly well, and is it therefore only a question of time until machines learn how to think (in Feustel’s opinion: no)? It’s also good to see that the author challenges ideas that often go unquestioned by many: such as the claim that computers have revolutionised society to the same degree as systematic agriculture and, later, industrialisation. This makes Am Anfang war die Information an interesting, informative and – who would have thought, considering the topic? – refreshing read.
Feustel, Robert: „Am Anfang war die Information“. Digitalisierung als Religion
Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag, 2019. 200 S.