Friday, September 26, 2014

Honoring the World Heritage of Information

I suggest that the most important heritage we have in the world is information. The Library of Congress has 23.6 million cataloged books. There are apparently some 12 million new and used books for sale on What a huge and valuable inheritance this is from the past.

There are currently 4.6 million articles on the English language version of Wikipedia. The indexed World Wide Web contains at least 1.21 billion pages. What an inheritance of information!

But our inherited information may be in other forms. Consider the information in domesticated plants' and animals' genomes. People have been selecting plants and animals for desired qualities for thousands of years, and breeding for such traits for decades if not centuries. The major food crops, that provide the basis of the diet for 7 billion people, have seed banks with thousand of different varieties -- each with its special properties -- in storage. Consider the many breeds of dogs and livestock, each bred for specific purposes. While we are now sequencing genomes, the information on how to create a new member of each variety or breed is present in its genes. Thus the genes of our domestic plants and animals too form a huge information heritage.

Information is present in tools and machinery. Billions of people know how to drive a car, but relatively few of them know how to repair a car, and none of them could build a car if (as in science fiction) transported back 10000 years into the past. Information was needed to process raw materials and manufacture the metals and plastics in a car; so too information was needed to design the parts of the car, and to make the machines with which the parts of the car were manufactured. We can regard all that information as embodied in the car -- the driver merely needs to know how to operate it. Indeed, how many of us would be able of find oil, get it out of the ground, and refine it into gasoline to power the car; even here we depend on exploration, drilling, pipeline, and distilling technology we as consumers don't fully understand. The roads on which the cars drive also embody a wealth of technical knowledge, as do the machines that build them, and the machines that build those machines.

Indeed, there is a huge heritage of machines -- not only those that serve consumers directly, but that are used to make the things we use every day. The development of these machines is the product of centuries of work by huge numbers of people in many places. We have inherited their legacy of knowledge and of the fruits of that knowledge -- the things themselves that indeed embody information in their very being.

Information is also institutionalized in culture. Take for example the U.S. government or the government of any large country. No one person has the knowledge and skill to perform all the jobs needed to make that government work. Indeed, no one person can even begin to describe all those jobs and their purposes. The "organization" as an institution provides the coordination, having evolved a distribution of tasks and responsibilities and institutionalized them through organizational structures and operating procedures. There are millions of institutions in modern society, each embodying information. Some, like government are formal organizations; others, such as markets, may be responsive to "hidden hands" institutionalized outside of our conscious observation.

Think of language itself. Our language includes thousands of words that represent ideas not present in the distant past -- the result of contributions of many people over a long time. Indeed, we are much more cosmopolitan, with hundreds of millions of people able to understand major international languages -- more people than existed on earth in early historical times.

And then there are the knowledge, skills, and understanding embodied in the seven billion people on earth. Some are explicit, some tacit; some have been developed by formal schooling or training, some informally. The information encoded in us behind that knowledge, skill and understanding is very different and vastly more complex than that of our ancestors 1000 or 2000 years ago. We have a huge heritage of scientific, technological, and social knowledge.

Perhaps we should honor specific world heritage. Perhaps the rice genome, or the science and technology of electricity, or the world religions are heritage more valuable and worthy of respect than the pyramids of Egypt. Perhaps the information embodied in the Library of Congress is even more deserving of honor than the Taj Mahal.

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