Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lucifer's Technologies: "From the Brow of Zeus"

The Lucifer archetype has been associated with knowledge and technology since antiquity, in a positive light (the Prometheus myth) and a darker sense (Satan and the Tree of Knowledge in the myth of the Fall). Which side of this powerful archetype will triumph in the future?
Google recently paid tribute to a man whose name many people do not know but whose legacy dominates every aspect of our lives all the same.

The author of the epoch-making paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", Claude Shannon is the father of Information Theory and indeed, the architect of the Digital Age itself.

YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, Netflix, Instagram, iTunes-- all these services that dominate the flow of words, images, and sounds-- would be nothing but strange and random neologisms were it not for a single paper that laid out the entire science of translating all varieties of information into binary code.

Shannon showed how the once-vague notion of information could be defined and quantified with absolute precision. He demonstrated the essential unity of all information media, pointing out that text, telephone signals, radio waves, pictures, film and every other mode of communication could be encoded in the universal language of binary digits...Shannon laid forth the idea that once information became digital, it could be transmitted without error. 
And where was Shannon employed when he wrote this world-changing paper?

Do you even have to ask? At Bell Laboratories, of course.

You may not know his name but experts in the field of Information Technology do. And they are all awed by him.

Solomon W. Golomb, former president of the IEEE Information Theory Society, thinks Shannon’s influence cannot be overstated. “It’s like saying how much influence the inventor of the alphabet has had on literature,” Golomb remarked.
One researcher goes so far as to claim that Shannon is more important even than Albert Einstein:
“Einstein looms large, and rightly so. But we’re not living in the relativity age, we’re living in the information age....It’s Shannon whose fingerprints are on every electronic device we own, every computer screen we gaze into, every means of digital communication. 
"He’s one of these people who so transform the world that, after the transformation, the old world is forgotten.” 

Sci-Fi legend Isaac Asimov paid tribute to Shannon by presenting him like a character from one of his novels:
Claude Shannon: Born on the planet Earth (Sol III) in the year 1916 A.D. Generally regarded as the father of the information age, he formulated the notion of channel capacity in 1948 A.D. Within several decades, mathematicians and engineers had devised practical ways to communicate reliably at data rates within one per cent of the Shannon limit.
Bell Labs' colleague John Pierce, credited with naming the transistor, notes how unique and unprecedented Shannon's paper was:
“It was like a bolt out of the blue...I don’t know of any other theory that came in a complete form like that, with very few antecedents or history.”
Indeed, Shannon's work was so radical that a professor and electrical engineer at MIT, would have to reach to mythology for an analog:
“He created a whole field from scratch, from the brow of Zeus.”  
Amazing. And yet how many of you have heard of Claude Shannon, or heard of him before the Google tribute?

Information Theory was a revolution, an entirely new vision in computer science. Yet, Shannon's ideas were made for an age beyond that in which they first appeared.

The technology didn't actually exist to turn Shannon's vision into reality when the paper was written. It was only as computer speeds increased-- thanks in large part to the miniaturization that transistors and microchips made possible-- would the full power of Shannon's ideas became apparent. 

Indeed, some said he was too far ahead of the curve in 1948:
 “A lot of practical people around the labs thought it was an interesting theory but not very useful,” said Edgar Gilbert, who went to Bell Labs (to work alongside Shannon).
Not for long.


So how did such a remarkable man come to work for Bell Labs? Turns out Shannon met the estimable Vannevar Bush at MIT and became his lab assistant. Shannon was a quick study†:

With the encouragement of (Bush), Shannon decided to follow up his master’s degree with a doctorate in mathematics--a task that he completed in a mere year and a half. 
Not long after receiving this degree in the spring of 1940, he joined Bell Labs. 
At Bell, Shannon played the crypto game. Spycraft and codebreaking. Like the group at Shelter Island, here was a man who could be trusted with a secret. 
Shannon's work on cryptography was even more closely related to his later publications on communication theory. At the close of the war, he prepared a classified memorandum for Bell Telephone Labs entitled "A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography..."  
Indeed, digitization and espionage are linked more closely than most would have once expected:
(Shannon) is also credited with the introduction of sampling theory (which) was essential in enabling telecommunications to move from analog to digital transmissions systems in the 1960s and later.
Shannon explained that his codebreaking work helped birth his work on Information Theory:
Shannon said that his wartime insights into communication theory and cryptography developed simultaneously and that "they were so close together you couldn’t separate them."  
Given how apparently disenchanted Shannon would become with the results of his own theory, and how he would eventually walk away from the field he created (at one point to the great worry of his friends and colleagues), one wonders how much can be read into that statement.

But Shannon didn't seem to follow through with Information Theory in quite the way you'd expect from the creator of such a profound new science. 

Instead he seemed to spend his time immersed in increasingly bizarre and obscure pursuits; eccentric experiments in Information Theory, poetry, juggling robots, magnetic mice, gambling techniques. He quit Bell Labs to teach at MIT where he would cowrite several papers, but he largely retreated from publishing by the end of the 50's.

Strangely, Shannon didn't seem to appreciate just how influential his work would be. 
In a 1956 paper entitled “The Bandwagon,” in the journal Transactions on Information Theory, he declared that information theory was being greatly oversold. “It has perhaps ballooned to an importance beyond its actual accomplishments,” he wrote.
He would later claim that he continued to work in Information Theory but didn't find any of his work worth putting out. He stopped attending meetings. He refused invitations to speak out of a terror he could not live up to his reputation. 
A very strange career arc, to be sure.
A flash of inspiration, an earth-shaking foundational theory appearing out of the ether, and then the air slowly going out of the balloon.

Zeus seemed to have taken back his thunder.


So how often does a theory seem to come out of nowhere, frighteningly complete and ready-to-wear in science or technology? 

I can't think of another example. It's certainly not the case in any of the technology we've looked at in this series; not even close.  

As always, we see vague references to precedent in Shannon's previous papers or his cryptography work (often by Shannon himself) or to Boolean logic, but the prevailing opinion seems to be that his 1948 paper was in fact novel, unique and unprecedented.

Even the transistor was anticipated, if only in theory (despite the fact that Wolfgang Pauli thought semiconductors were a pipe-dream). There were diodes and rectifiers, even if these antecedents are wildly oversold as true transistor prototypes.

But Claude Shannon's theory truly seemed to fall from the sky.

What should be remembered is that codebreaking is every bit a kind of reverse-engineering; it's like standing at a door without a key and learning how to pick the lock.  But first you need to find where the lock is.

To do so you need to learn to think the way your opponent thinks, understand the mysteries that confront you from the inside out.

There were a lot of excellent codebreakers at work during World War II, including the staff at Bletchley Park, who broke the German's Enigma Code*. But somehow they didn't go on to single-handedly create the digital age. 

Maybe this is another case of "it's not what you know, it's who you know." And what kind of code you're given access to, perhaps.

The timing here is also worth noting- Shannon was publishing his theory at the same time his Bell Labs' colleagues were first showing the transistor to the world.

Very interesting timing indeed.

Shannon's ability to break codes is how he got on Bell's radar in the first place. Given the facts in hand we have today about Shannon, perhaps there was a particular kind of code that Bell needed to...translate
Maybe Shannon's work and Shockley's group's work weren't altogether unrelated.

Because just as Claude Shannon got his position at Bell through his longtime association with Vannevar Bush, William Shockley had worked under Vannevar Bush during WWII on the anti-submarine program. 


Maybe that explains how Shockley was able to leapfrog over his more qualified partners on the Transistor team and get the lion's share of the glory. 

Through his association with Vannevar Bush.

The same Vannevar Bush who just happened to join AT+T's Board of Directors. 

In 1947. Timing is everything.

Now it's all starting to come together. One world-changing technology within the space of year from one firm is one thing, but two? And still more to come?

Maybe we need to look at those MJ-12 documents again.


NOTE: Read this interview with Shannon- there seems to be a mystery over an important paper which predates his work on Information Theory- it seems it was dated 1940, and Shannon insists it should have been dated 1946. Shannon and the interviewer chalk the discrepancy up to a typo, but that seems a very strange mistake for an important scientific paper.  There was no record of the paper in the IEEE archives either.

An attempt at backdating that was later dropped? Might this "mistake" shed light on the "sketchy" Lilienfeld patents? The interview also goes into greater detail vis a vis Shannon's relationship with Vannevar Bush and his National Security work, as well as his very deep ties to Bell Labs.

† One thing to bear in mind is that the concept of contact technology- ancient or modern- does nothing to diminish the genius of the scientists and engineers involved. Quite the contrary. These are individuals who are seen fit to essentially enter into communion with greater intelligences; gods, daimons, djinn, angels, whatever term you choose.

I can't imagine that a higher intelligence would pick anyone but the absolute best-and-brightest to bestow this information upon, even if those individuals remain in the shadows or if others may not necessarily recognize their abilities.

* Shannon and British computer pioneer Alan Turing were good friends and Turing spent time at Bell Labs during the war and Shannon spent time in England as well. One important detail to remember is that Turing's work on the Enigma code was about foiling the Nazi submarine attacks on British shipping. 

Remember this.


  1. Awesome Chris. These brilliant minds seemed to be in the right place at the right time, through their own skills and because of their connection through Vannevar Bush. Codes and codebreaking. Churchill said that Nazi U-Boats were the only thing he really worried about, and *I* think the U-boat campaign came closer to full success than is generally realized. Defeating U-boats was a top priority, and the kind of work that needed brainy thinkers as well as warriors. The kind of thinkers you'd want to deal with literally Out-of-this-World stuffs.

    As a sad note, Alan Turing was Gay, and after he was outed, he was given the choice of prison or chemical castration. Turing was later found dead. The man that lead the team that broke "Enigma", the scientists at Bletchley Park that may have done more than any other group their size to turn the tide in the Second World War, lost to us, driven to suicide because he was born different.

    1. Yeah, the whole thing with the U-boats and Enigma is an amazing story. There's actually been some research that Turing's death may have been due to accidental ingestion of cyanide because of some experiments he was conducting. I don't know what the status is currently but the whole story around him has had some questions still to be answered.

    2. Hey. I hadn't heard that, I'll look into it.

      But certainly, if some strange knowledge or technique were "handed over", these men are just the types you would want to be studying it. You're showing in this series that the real paper trail is....sparse?..for such a burst of breakthroughs.

    3. Well, for such an important breakthrough as the transistor it may as well not exist. There's a whole narrative that's come to us after the fact, but you know how those things go. The Shelter Island Conference paper trail is rather sparse give the importance given to it. And then here's Shannon creating everything about the modern world based on what? Codebreaking? Boolean mathematics? OK, that's fine but it's not how things tend to pop out of the either.

    4. Agreed. When you read about the Wright Brothers, the Manhattan Project, they weren't like this.

      I think you've shown that *something* happened, something very strange and special, in the years after WW2.

    5. Hi Chris. I've been reading what Turing expert Copeland has to say about Turing's death. It's possible that Turing did not commit suicide, I'll agree, but it is also possible the experiments with potassium cyanide were cover for a suicide attempt. The treatment Turing received at the hands of a government and nation that he'd served so brilliantly are even more cruel and shocking than I knew.

      There are worse things than dying.

  2. There's a fella who sets up at the MIT Flea (third Sunday of every month, Google it) who owns two Enigma machines, has them on display and runs a video on its construction and operation. Next one is this Sunday - I'll try to remember to grab his card. Having watched how the Enigma worked, all I can say is that Turing and his team were absolutely brilliant to crack it.

    1. Don't forget the commandos who found the machine in the first place. The whole story was straight out of a novel.

  3. You have no idea how hard it's been to keep quiet on this thread...

    That said: Vannevar Bush is also well-known (in some circles, anyway) for having written this semi-famous article in the Atlantic 1945, As We May Think. (Short version: The modern 'information office', essentially predicted two years before the transistor was publicly announced, by the man who had been FDR's science advisor). His 'Memex' went on to inspire men like Ted Nelson (inventor of hypertext back in the 60s/70s), which in turn led to... Today.

    I still believe that when the great minds of the early 20th century peered collectively down into the workings of subatomic spacetime... 'something' noticed, and crawled out. Something that somehow 'feeds' on entropy/information transitions. Just like those that take place billions of times per second within a modern CPU.

    So, yes... I too have come to wonder if this world was Shaped, by something that uses it to Feed. There seem to be multiple paths that pull towards this conclusion. And multiple sync events scattered throughout spacetime as a result (whether as 'clues' or just some kind of 'entropic residue' left over from these processes, is unclear).

    Looking forward to the rest of this series.

    1. Yes, I read that article and a lot of other material by Bush as well. Really makes you wonder, doesn't it? The syncs are going to get weirder, so hold on to your hat.