“Information,” John Durham Peters has written, “is a term that does not like history” (1988, 10). Like other scientific megaconcepts, and like myths, information is commonly taken to exist outside of historical time. It is there whether we know about it or not, as a common definition puts it, “independently of living beings in the structure, pattern, arrangement of matter and in the pattern of energy throughout the universe” (Bates 2006). Because information is pattern alone, it can move through time and space, across different substrates, without changing: the periodic flashing of a pulsar in distant space a thousand years ago, the electromagnetic waves it beamed across the galaxy, captured by a radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico in 1968, the drawing of those waves’ intensities on a roll of paper by an electromechanical plotter, the india ink tracing of that plot by a draftswoman at Cornell University, the publication of that image in an astronomy dissertation, and its eventual reproduction on the cover of Joy Division’s 1979 debut album Unknown Pleasures can all be described as the “same” information, in different media (Christiansen 2015).
At the beginning of the Cold War, the year after she died, the Yale Poetry Review published a piece by Gertrude Stein: a paragraph titled “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” (1947/1998). Atomic bombs were simply too big to care about, she wrote: “if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there is nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about” (1998, 823). But where the overwhelming destructiveness of the bomb led Stein to apathy, it drove others into an unnatural frenzy. Stein concluded: “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story” (1998, 823).
Stein’s story captured the apathy and anxiety of everyday life as it first fell under the shadow of the bomb—what Joe Masco has described as “the overstimulation of the body produced by an all-or-nothing Cold War cosmology” (17)—but it also marked the beginnings of what would eventually be described as a new historical age: the Information Age. It was not the scale of nuclear war that drove people mad, according to Stein, but the scale of information, overwhelming their common sense. The following year would see the publication of Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1948), which formalized a definition of information that became so influential, spreading so quickly across scientific fields, that he was soon compelled to disavow “the bandwagon” (1956) that had carried it away from its technical roots in communication engineering. While scientists from biology to sociology tried to recast their fields in informational terms, in a dense post-war “epistemic ecology” (Boyer), anxieties about information and its growing scale spread through popular culture, as well.