MAY 2, 2016
YOU TAKE A WARM BATH, step out, and pull the stopper, and voila! You have information. Yes, the lovely swirl of the water going down the drain is the embodiment of ordering information, successfully countering, if only for a few moments, the disordering entropy of the universe. That is the starting principle for MIT physicist and information specialist César Hidalgo in his fascinating and concise book, Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies. From this scientific fundamental, Hidalgo quickly broadens his focus to explain how humans capture and aggregate information, embody it in physical products, and create complex networks — economies — that vouchsafe, link, and augment information.
Early in the book, Hidalgo lays out the contributions of two seminal thinkers on the primordiality of information — Nobel Prize–winning chemist Ilya Prigogine and the quantum theory founding father, Nobel physicist Erwin Schrödinger. From Prigogine comes the water-down-the-drain metaphor. “Prigogine,” Hidalgo writes, “produced […] the idea that information emerges naturally in the steady states of physical systems that are out of equilibrium.” In other words, information counters (temporarily) the entropy/disorder pull. Hidalgo in fact uses the bathtub metaphor, which is doubly helpful to explain what Prigogine meant. First, it illustrates an equable system (the tub of water) thrown into disequilibrium (the stop is pulled), and yet information is generated and self-ordering occurs (the temporary swirling). Second, the metaphor highlights the problem that the information is short-lived — it goes down the drain. Here, Hidalgo brings in Schrödinger, who presciently offered that information could be vouchsafed when at some point it becomes crystallized into solid form. Solids like cell membranes and biological organelles maintain their structure for a comparatively longer time than tub water, and hence hold out the potential for information to last a bit.
Hidalgo adds that one other capacity needs to be in place: the system needs to be able to compute — that is, transform the meaning-indifferent code of information into valuable phenomenon. For example, a sapling has information, is a solid, but needs the biochemical capacity to follow — to compute — its genetic directives to grow. And it does, and nonbiological systems, too, have similar capacities. “Highly interacting out-of-equilibrium systems, whether they are trees reacting to the change of seasons or chemical systems processing information about the inputs they receive, teach us that matter can compute,” writes Hidalgo.
That ability to compute in humans, according to Hidalgo, is knowledge and know-how, with knowledge being the links and associations that give information meaning and know-how as the capacity to transform the information-knowledge connection into actions. Hidalgo emphasizes that humans, although like other organisms with capacities to generate and capture information, create and live in cultures that bridge islands of activity and augment information and computing with wholly unique and breakthrough forms. Those forms are physical products (e.g., toothpaste, computers, airplanes, and intellectual hubs like universities or Silicon Valley). In one of his central points, Hidalgo calls these physical products examples of “crystallized imagination,” which harkens back to Schrödinger’s solidity principle. Importantly, people can exchange, recombine, and aggregate the products, ultimately augmenting information capacities.
On information and economies, Hidalgo’s book gallops through much territory, including on the limits of an individual’s information-holding capacity — which Hidalgo terms “personbyte” — and how individuals and firms form networks and nesting arrangements to get over this hurdle. However, forming networks is hard and requires synergistic capacities and hard-to-quantify factors, such as trust and social openness. When things do click, it can be magnificent. For example, Hidalgo describes the creation of the USB port, which entailed “a collaboration between Intel, Compaq, DEC, IBM, Microsoft, NEC, and Nortel.” “[T]hese manufacturers,” Hidalgo writes, “knew that the ecosystem benefits of a standard interface were larger than the private gains they could harvest […]”
The complexity of a product is also important, according to Hidalgo. Complex products require more advanced information and computing networks than simpler products, like unprocessed natural resources. Hidalgo has done much work on this, and he offers illuminating comparisons of countries and the products they export, and their indications of complex networking. For example, he discusses the trade relationship of his native Chile with South Korea in 2012. Chile had $4.6 billion in exports to South Korea and South Korea exported $2.5 billion in products to Chile. However, Chile’s exports to South Korea are unrefined exports, with a large chunk being copper, while Korea exported cars and other complex products to Chile. For Hidalgo, this reflects “a balance of trade that runs opposite to the balance of imagination.” Chile is typical of this deficit of imagination, according to Hidalgo. “Copper is to Chile what natural gas is to Bolivia, tea and flowers are to Kenya, radioactive minerals are to Namibia, soybeans are to Argentina, diamonds are to Sierra Leone and Botswana,” he writes, and oil is to many countries. In another comparison, Hidalgo looks at Singapore, Chile, and Pakistan, correlating the productions of complex products with higher individual income level, with Singapore having the highest, followed by Chile and then Pakistan. Hidalgo argues that the gaps and discrepancies in information networks account for these economic iniquities at the local and global level.
Often, he argues, it is the human catalyzing element of trust that is lacking; Hidalgo vividly relates the well-studied example of how Silicon Valley succeeded in becoming a meta-information center and generator, while its 1980s competitor, Route 128 in the Boston area, did not, in large part because the working climate of Route 128 was marked by insulated management style, secrecy, and low lateral movement. Moreover, these information gaps are especially critical when they plague impoverished neighborhoods and underdeveloped nations. Here, the book could have used a few more examples of the failure to generate information networks, both in poor regions and countries. Hidalgo’s argument comes across as just a bit too intuitive in the case of underdevelopment, notwithstanding his substantive discussion of the greater cumulative benefits of exporting processed (information-rich) goods in comparison to raw natural resources.
At the same time, the book’s compactness — just under 200 pages not counting the extensive notes and index — and Hidalgo’s witty prose make it accessible. And as he trots along from the deep physics origin of information to the modern economy, Hidalgo substantiates the book’s central point: “The physical embodiment of information is the blood of our society.” It is a bold statement, but in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies, Hidalgo makes it crystal clear what he means by it.