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Why Information Grows

The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies

By César Hidalgo
13-minute read
Audio available
Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies by César Hidalgo

Why Information Grows (2015) takes you straight to the heart of the battle between entropy and order, examining the way that information is propagated and its impact on life, civilization and the universe. In doing so, the book offers a thought-provoking explanation for the success of human beings on earth.

  • Anybody interested in economics
  • Anybody wanting to know the truth about order and chaos
  • Anybody interested in what makes our planet special

César A. Hidalgo leads the Macro Connections group at the MIT Media Lab and is an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of many lauded academic publications and the co-author of The Atlas of Economic Complexity (2014).

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Why Information Grows

The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies

By César Hidalgo
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies by César Hidalgo
Synopsis

Why Information Grows (2015) takes you straight to the heart of the battle between entropy and order, examining the way that information is propagated and its impact on life, civilization and the universe. In doing so, the book offers a thought-provoking explanation for the success of human beings on earth.

Key idea 1 of 8

Information is physical order, and is completely meaningless; our knowledge gives it meaning.

What comes to mind when you think of the date, September 11? Whether it’s your birthday, the day a terrorist attack occurred in New York City or of an upcoming exam, your mind automatically attaches meaning to the date.

But is there anything about this date that is inherently tied to any of those events? No, of course not. In reality, “September 11” itself is no more than meaningless information.

But what do we mean when we talk about “information?”

Information is physical order. While we often think of information as something immaterial, like data, in reality information is physical. Sure, virtual information does exist but it’s always wrapped in a physical body, like a brain or a hard drive.

So at its core, information is simply the physical arrangement of atoms.

DNA, for example, is pure information. It is a physical arrangement of atoms used to build new physical orders, like a human body.

Information, and thus the physical arrangement of atoms, exists everywhere. It’s not limited to the DNA in our bodies but it’s also found in products – in everything from toys to smartphones – which are essentially configured arrangements of atoms.

It’s important not to confuse information with meaning. No matter what kind of information you’re dealing with, whether a strand of DNA or your bedside lamp, the information itself is utterly meaningless. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to make sense of it.

As a matter of course, we attach meaning, derived from context and prior knowledge, to meaningless information.

To help conceptualize this, think about the letters that appear on your computer screen when you strike a key on your keyboard. The letters themselves are simply a configuration of light on your screen – they have no meaning in and of themselves.

However, your understanding of the alphabet gives these letters meaning, thus turning raw information into words and sentences.

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