The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Genes, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithm
June 08, 2021
Does the information and data we’ve accumulated and carry with us as a species belong to us, or do we belong to it?
The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Genes, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithm by Caleb Scharf, Riverhead
Caleb Scharf dedicates his new book “To the 130 million books that came before this one.” Based on how wide-ranging and all-encompassing the book is, it almost seems as if he’s read all 130 million of them. The book is an exploration of both our past and future existence as a species through a phenomenon he has named the “dataome”—basically, all the non-genetic information and data humanity has created and carries with it—ultimately examining if, as previous thinkers have posited, “information itself may be the fundamental currency of the universe.” But it’s more than that. There are, in fact, a lot of “it’s even more than that”s and “that’s not quite the whole story”s in the book. Scharf widens and narrows the focus over and over again, into the basic building blocks of life, and into life’s potential role in the universe.
If I had to sum it up, I would say that at its heart is a question: Does the dataome we’ve created belong to us, or do we belong to it? Is the dataome a byproduct of us trying to understand our own existence, or is our own existence merely a byproduct of the universe’s inexorable march toward entropy and its desire for energy dispersion? Like all inquiries that are existential in nature, it can be a bit disturbing. Considering the prospect that we are here simply to help “Earth as an object … dissipate energy and return to being an inert smear of atoms adrift in the cosmos” and bring it into a “cosmic equilibrium state” isn’t exactly a warm feeling—even if it does describe a “thermodynamic imperative” of life. But it does suggest that we are involved in a participatory process, and a participatory universe. In that participation, perhaps we can find a purpose.
We all have a personal role to play as we live out our own lives and interact with and contribute to the dataome. Can we learn to treat information as a natural resource, as another form of life that we should not think of or treat as “free” or wanting to be free (in a monetary sense), but something that we must find a way to keep as healthy as possible for future generations? If you have a mind left after it’s been repeatedly melted by all Scharf brings to the table, it will help your answer be yes.