The persistence of insight

I’m reading James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, which I highly recommend. Gleick takes a philosophical, historical, and theoretical view on data in all its forms, from messages communicated through drum beats in 18th century Africa to the development of the written word to the telegraph and so on. It’s a fascinating, fun read that makes your mind spin with ideas about what’s coming next.

A recurring theme, as indicated by the title, is the flood of information that exists today. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gleick evokes that idea by drawing on one of my favorite short stories, “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges, which describes a universe in the form of a library.

The Library, Borges describes, is composed of a vast (perhaps infinite) number of hexagonal rooms. Each room is connected to other rooms that are identical, and there is a spiral staircase that winds upward and downward, seemingly forever, connecting to other levels, each with identical rooms. In each room, on four of the six walls are bookshelves filled with books.

The story is told by one of the inhabitants of this universe who doesn’t know precisely what the Library is, yet repeats what he has been told:

The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable.

Each wall of each hexagon has five bookshelves, and each bookshelf holds thirty-two books of the same exact format: 410 pages, 40 lines on each page, and about 80 black letters on each line. But the characters seem to be random. Most books are complete gibberish. One contains the letter M C V repeated from start to finish. Another, “is a mere labyrinth of letters whose penultimate page contains the phrase O Time thy pyramids.” The narrator laments: ”For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.”

It’s a beautiful and haunting story, like all of Borges’s stories, and a very apt description of the world we live in today. There’s more data than we know what to do with. In Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile, he shows how many spurious correlations can result from very large data sets, yielding apparent signal, when there’s really just noise [1]. It’s enough to drive you mad—and that’s precisely what happens to many of the inhabitants of the Library.

But other parts of Gleick’s book offer hope. My favorite chapter so far was Chapter 2, “The Persistence of the Word,” in which he describes the impact on humanity from the written word. Gleick describes the rise in the Paleolithic age at least 30,000 years ago of pictures scratched and painted to represent horses, fish, and hunters. Over time, the symbols become more abstract, and, eventually, writing developed. But most importantly, there was a shift in writing, from the representation of things to representations of the spoken word.

There is a progression from pictographic, writing the picture; to ideographic, writing the idea; and then logographic, writing the word.

When an alphabet arose—which Gleick points out happened only once, that all alphabets are descendants of the same ancestor—it allowed everything to be abstracted. Homer’s poems that had been passed on for generations in solely spoken form were finally written down, an event one scholar called a “thunder-clap in human history, which the bias of familiarity has converted into the rustle of papers on the desk.”

This act allowed something that had been experienced as a momentary event to become permanent. The words themselves when placed on something permanent became something new, leading to a whole new level of abstraction.

Gleick takes this line of thought to an amazing idea. Once Aristotle and other philosophers could grapple with words, it gave rise to entirely new language and ways of thinking.

The persistence of writing made it possible to impose structure on what was known about the world and, then, on what was known about knowing.

Gleick continues:

In our world of ingrained literacy, thinking and writing seem scarcely related activities. We can imagine the latter depending on the former, but surely not the other way around: everyone thinks, whether or not they write. But [the British scholar Eric] Havelock was right. The written word—the persistent word—was a prerequisite for conscious thought as we understand it. It was the trigger for wholesale, irreversible change in the human psyche—psyche being the word favored by Socrates/Plato as they struggled to understand it.

At this point, I had to stop reading and absorb that idea.


The written word—the persistent word—was a prerequisite for conscious thought as we understand it. 

A technology fundamentally changed us as a species. It made me wonder, What’s next? The technology of writing fundamentally changed how we thought. Will technologies of today have a similar impact over time?

Tableau Software went public last week. Its incredible financial performance underscored what many already knew—that it offers an incredible product that allows people and organizations to interact with data more efficiently and effectively. In addition to public companies like Tableau and Splunk, there’s Domo, Palantir, Ayasdi, and scores of young startups combining the latest database, visualization, and machine learning technologies to push forward our ability to interact with data. The goal of these companies is to yield better insights allowing organizations to make better decisions.

When I look at some of the tools emerging and how people are using them, I wonder if we’re just at the very start. There will be other types of innovation, second order problems and solutions to those problems: new academic research on how to think about insight from data, new ways to train young people just entering the work force to work with data, new business models that give companies an advantage through data, new ways to store and share data, new concepts on how to build insights on top of other insights, and so on. Each innovation will build on earlier innovations and, possibly, exponentially increase the impact.

I’m really excited about where all of this takes us and wonder which technology, company, or event we’ll look back at and see as another “thunder-clap in human history.”


[1] Read Antifragile Chapter 24, ‘Fitting Ethics to a Profession’ > ‘Big Data and the Researcher’s Option,’ which has the following chart: