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The Ascent of Information

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“Full of fascinating insights drawn from an impressive range of disciplines, The Ascent of Inform... Read More

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“Full of fascinating insights drawn from an impressive range of disciplines, The Ascent of Information casts the familiar and the foreign in a dramatic new light.” —Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe

Your information has a life of its own, and its using you to get what it wants.

One of the most peculiar and possibly unique features of humans is the vast amount of information we carry outside our biological selves. But in our rush to build the infrastructure for the 20 quintillion bits we create every day, we’ve failed to ask exactly why we’re expending ever-increasing amounts of energy, resources, and human effort to maintain all this data.

Drawing on deep ideas and frontier thinking in evolutionary biology, computer science, information theory, and astrobiology, Caleb Scharf argues that information is, in a very real sense, alive. All the data we create—all of our emails, tweets, selfies, A.I.-generated text and funny cat videos—amounts to an aggregate lifeform. It has goals and needs. It can control our behavior and influence our well-being. And it’s an organism that has evolved right alongside us.

This symbiotic relationship with information offers a startling new lens for looking at the world. Data isn’t just something we produce; it’s the reason we exist. This powerful idea has the potential to upend the way we think about our technology, our role as humans, and the fundamental nature of life.

The Ascent of Information offers a humbling vision of a universe built of and for information. Scharf explores how our relationship with data will affect our ongoing evolution as a species. Understanding this relationship will be crucial to preventing our data from becoming more of a burden than an asset, and to preserving the possibility of a human future.Praise for The Ascent of Information

“Caleb Scharf provides a wonderfully accessible and compelling account of how our relationship to information is becoming increasingly central to how we live. Full of fascinating insights drawn from an impressive range of disciplines, The Ascent of Information casts the familiar and the foreign in a dramatic new light.” —Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe

“Masterfully weaving together anecdotes and thought experiments from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, theoretical physics, astrobiology, and information theory, Scharf investigates how our relationship with the dataome has fundamentally altered our lives and how it will continue to do so.” —Science

“Scharf. . . offers a bold new perspective on the relationship between humans and information in this spirited consideration of data as a motivating force in humans’ lives…Scharf’s provocative thesis is sure to shake things up for readers with an interest in humans’ relationship to data.” —Publishers Weekly

“An astute, provocative contribution to information science and futurology.” —Kirkus

“Scharf provides a fascinating history of information theory.” —Booklist

“A fascinating study of information and its types.” —Library Journal, STARRED review

“A transformative new way of looking at our increasingly data-driven existence.” —Lee Billings, Scientific American

“Information is a way for one part of the universe to know something about another. What could be more profound than that? In this engaging and wide-ranging book, Caleb Scharf shows how information brings the world to life, both figuratively and literally.” —Sean Carroll, author of Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime
“I really enjoyed The Ascent of Information. The book is packed with provocative ideas, backed by wonderfully marshalled data, and entertaining on every page. Fascinating glimpses of what may turn out to be a new way to look at life.” —Jonathan Weiner, author of The Beak of the Finch
Caleb Scharf is the award-winning author of The Zoomable Universe, The Copernicus Complex, and Gravitys Engines, and the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Scientific American, Nautilus, and Nature, among other publications. He lives in New York City.


Our Eternal Data

Nature produces those things which, being continually moved by a certain principle contained in themselves, arrive at a certain end.

-Aristotle, Physics, Book II, 350 BC

In this instant, a precious one-second span out of the four and a half billion years Earth has existed as a bejeweled sphere of complexity and dynamism, I am gripped by one puzzle only: Can those really be tears glistening in the eyes of the museum guide standing in front of me?

Perhaps the guide, too, is momentarily caught up in thoughts of the rich tapestry of existence, brought to an emotional precipice. Or, since this seems improbable, maybe some part of her anatomy is being chafed as she resolutely delivers what must be an extremely well-worn line ". . . and this . . . is where the young William would have slept."

Before I can adjust my gaze to follow, I'm diverted by the sound of hysterical giggling coming through the open window from the street, where a dozen tourist groups cluster. Unfazed, our dedicated mentor on all matters of the youthful Shakespeare presses on to deliver a final heart-stopping temptation: "You can read more about everyday life in this house on the informational placards."

Sure enough, pieces of laminated text are dispersed across the room, strategically located where you might try imagining a domestic scene from four centuries earlier. Laser-printed, I think to myself. Nice fonts.

Here in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK, the theme is all Shakespeare, all the time. I've dutifully parked our car outside the city center and forced my family to trundle inward on the Park-and-Ride bus, past all the usual trappings of twenty-first-century life in the West. There's a hairdresser's, there's a pub, there's a hotel, an Indian restaurant, a chain sandwich shop. And there is poster after poster for this season's performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Having descended through these layers of contemporary civilization, we are now well and truly prisoners for the day. First up on our hastily conceived activity list has been the house that was the birthplace in 1564 of William Shakespeare, son of John and Mary. Now, with the placards politely read, we're back to walking around the streets, squeezing by yet more tourist groups of every conceivable nationality. I hear at least half a dozen languages, and remind myself that Shakespeare's works must have been translated into all of these tongues and many more.

Along the admittedly quaint streets are boundless opportunities to accumulate staggering numbers of Shakespeare-related knickknacks. Busts of the bard in all sizes and color schemes, haphazardly molded or carved somewhere in China or Indonesia. Postcards, trinkets, banners, and T-shirts with slogans: "All the World's a Stage," "Will Power," "I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed." Then there are the Hathaway Tea Rooms and Bakery, the Creaky Cauldron, The Pen and Parchment, and many more establishments reminding us not-so-subtly of where we are, and that we might need to be refreshed or further amused.

Finally, after wading through another batch of Elizabethan houses, and more points of sometimes questionable historical interest, we make it to the place I really wanted to see most of all: Holy Trinity Church, and Shakespeare's grave. Not because I'm harboring any particularly ghoulish dreams, but because I want to see Will's epitaph in the flesh-so to speak.

And it's a great epitaph. Carved into the flat flagstone inside the church, right up at the foot of the altar, are the words:





The orthographic conventions used are a little tricky for modern English-speaking brains, so here's a translation:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Regardless of debates about whether or not Shakespeare himself penned these exact words, this has to be one of the most memorable and original passages to ever adorn a gravestone. Its ambiguous tone-playful, but also utterly menacing-keeps your attention. And it's easy to see it as a final nose-tweaking taunt of authority-a knowing reminder to the church that it had better not repurpose this spot, or else. Or else, I think, you'd not have the endless streams of eager tourists and coins in the donation box.

Standing there, feeling slightly soiled from the day, I am struck by the sheer absurdity of it all. This one human, William Shakespeare, wrote a bunch of stuff some four hundred years ago, and that stuff has radiated outward, in space and time, like a brilliant pulse of light spreading into the cosmos. His words have been reproduced and copied on an astronomical scale. Those words have prompted new words-writings of critics, of fans, of historians, of schoolroom essayists, and of me as I think these thoughts and craft the phrases written here. Although the bard himself was definitely not immortal, a fact his grave clearly testifies to, his ideas and creations might be. Yet the conceptions and stories that William Shakespeare converted into written matter never existed inside him as anything more than synaptic connections and electrochemical pulses. This information was not encoded in his DNA. He could not biologically bequeath it to his descendants. There were no heritable genes for his thirty-seven plays.

All of that information is still here, though. Outliving him, and influencing our lives all this distance down the human timeline. As I flex my tired feet I am acutely aware that on this ordinary day in the twenty-firstcentury my actions can be directly attributed to Shakespeare's informational remains-his data from hundreds of years ago.

Shakespeare didn't reach across the ages to me personally. The data he created-his plays and sonnets and his epitaph-is what's affecting me and my family, and the two to three million people visiting Stratford each year, as well as billions of humans now and in generations past. And it's no longer just his first crop of data that's influencing the world. His original works are well preserved, but now there is a vast ocean of descendant material. All those scholarly analyses and all those Hollywood reimaginings packaged so as to obscure their Shakespearean sources, from The Lion King (Hamlet) to 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew). And again and again, his turns of phrase are repeated and redeployed. We still talk about shuffling off this mortal coil, being pure as the driven snow, and breaking the ice, all with a heart of gold.

Some aspects of this phenomenon are captured by the famous (or possibly infamous) concept of memes, a label invented by the ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his hugely influential 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Although the basic idea had been around before in different guises, Dawkins' neologism "meme" was, without any irony, the term that propagated itself in the popular consciousness. A meme is a unit of cultural transmission, or of imitation and replication. As originally envisioned it is a dynamic "replicator," constantly being propagated by and stored in living minds. I'm going to come back to this later in much more detail, but for now I'll simply point out that while the spread of Shakespeare's ideas and phrases is decidedly meme-like, it arguably stretches beyond that. His data not only seems to have a life of its own, it has manifested physical structures of its own. Much like his carved epitaph, it persists regardless of whether or not there are human vehicles to carry it at any given moment.

Of course, Shakespeare is only one example of how this happens. Our entire species is drenched in data. This is one of the most peculiar and possibly unique features of humans: we carry vast amounts of information externally to our biological forms. We've been doing this for a long time, and we are very good at propagating that information into the future and making use of it. And just as with Shakespeare himself, today our carried data far exceeds the root information contained in all of our DNA. There is so much data that it spills across the world: in books and electronic media, as well in all of the artifacts that go hand-in-hand with those data repositories, from brick-and-mortar libraries to fiber-optic networks.

The philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers have gone further to observe that aspects of our physical environment, as well as our languages, might function as an "extended mind." Those hastily scribbled notes or architectural models or physics experiments could represent parts of an extended cognitive system. Perhaps our cognition is really the sum total of what happens inside our brains and what happens outside.

These observations, some that at first appear quite simple, mark the beginning of the story that I will tell in this book. This story turns out to be vastly more complex and surprising than could ever have occurred to me as I stood a little woozily in the nave of Holy Trinity Church. It's a tale that first leaps from Shakespeare to the energetic burdens of maintaining an information-rich world. We can understand that burden through nothing less than the fundamental physical, mathematical properties of matter and a special measure of order and disorder in the cosmos. From the earliest stirrings of human communication and informational invention we'll travel all the way to the grandest possible perspective: that of life in its cosmic setting, encoded in atoms and molecules, but pressing up against even deeper substrates of reality. In between these extremes are a series of many interlocking puzzles. Puzzles that include the nature of meaning in information and its relationship to biology, and what that meaning costs our planet, as well as the emergence of a machine world . . . and, ultimately, what it is about the workings of the universe that actually compels us to write, build, and compute in the first place.

I'm going to explore how the forces of evolution and the mechanisms of natural selection help connect all of these waypoints. We'll probe into the fundamental nature of information itself-as something of substance rather than abstraction, a part of the laws of nature. Navigating this trail will challenge us to think about what we even mean when we talk about the nature of life and living things-and whether our conceptions of ourselves and our intelligence are due for a drastic, and disturbing, overhaul.

The central phenomenon in this journey needs a name. I've come to call it the "dataome," similar to the concept of a genome. Dataome is a combination of the Latin-rooted "data" with "ome," which has its origins in ancient Greek and means a mass of something, or the complete class of substances for a species or an individual. Other names might include "exodata" for data or information existing "outside," or "datasphere" as a parallel to the biosphere (and distinct from the "technosphere," which is the physical environment made or modified by humans). The dataome is all of the non-genetic data we carry externally and internally. It encompasses William Shakespeare's works and their progeny, as well as everything else that we know of human information. It is, as I'll argue, far from being merely derivative in nature, and far from being a passive component of Earth's cascading systems of life, energy, and material structure.

Although we often use the words "data" and "information" interchangeably, strictly speaking they do carry different meanings. In computer science data is typically considered to be raw material, facts, and figures. In that sense data corresponds to pieces of information. But real information is that data organized and assembled, and structured to provide meaning and context. A set of data might be the list of words "all," "the," "world's," "a," and "stage," but the information of that dataset is "All the world's a stage."

Similarly, the dataome comprises data with different fundamental characteristics and different degrees of information. For instance, there is data that, while not genetically encoded, is only ever held in biological structures. The majority of your personal memories would be in this category, never straying beyond the confines of the dendrites and synapses of your brain and vanishing when you die. Then there is data that might persist as memes, perhaps never committed to physical form outside of human brains but shared and maintained regardless of how many generations come and go. And there is data that is fully encoded in the physical world external to human bodies and seemingly unconcerned with whether or not it is interacted with, be it in letters, books, films, music, hard drives, or silicon chips. But there is also information in these structures themselves. The arrangement of a book is a manifestation of an idea, a design made of data regardless of the words on its carefully measured pages. A library is a further elaboration of that idea, a brick-and-mortar object originally encoded in an architect's data that now sustains and curates other data and helps create information from that data.

All of these things seem like they must originally be set in motion by our genetic material, the expression of those genes, our genotype. In biology we refer to the phenotype, the observable characteristics of a living thing due to the interaction of its genotype with the environment. A phenotype encompasses an anatomical form and its appearance. We also sometimes talk about the extended phenotype, another concept advanced by Richard Dawkins, back in 1982.

The extended phenotype is the sum of all the changes that an organism makes to its environment: the structures it builds, like burrows and dams, all the way to cathedrals and cities. Even the parasitic impacts on others can be included, and there are astonishing examples of that kind of extended phenotype. A certain species of nematode (a tiny roundworm) infects ants and distends their bodies to look like ripe red fruits. Berry-loving birds that usually avoid ants will then eat them, and disperse the nematode eggs in their droppings, which more ants harvest for their larvae, reinfecting a new generation. The fruit phenotype of the ants is actually an extended phenotype of the nematodes.

Other ideas that try to capture the extended properties of genes expressing themselves in the world include the concept of "niche construction." This refers to the way living things can manipulate their environment and pass that manipulated system on to subsequent generations-just as we might build a house with the intention for our children and grandchildren to benefit from it.

But, as we'll see, the dataome isn't fully describable with concepts like memes, extended phenotypes, or niche construction. These phenomena are definitely related, even a significant part of what the dataome is, but I'm going to argue that the dataome is much more. One simple clue to this is the very unfiltered way in which our human dataome can interact with our entire species, not just the individuals who contribute to it.

Product Details

Title: The Ascent of Information
Author: Caleb Scharf
SKU: BK0453269
EAN: 9780593087244
Language: English

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