Dataome rising

Caleb Scharf, an astronomer and astrobiologist, is the latest in a series of authors to give an account of the new recognition of information as a significant, and objective, feature of the world, in his The Ascent of Information. The book gives an overview of the concept of information, not dissimilar to James Gleick’s The Information which gets praise from Scharf, whose rooted more in the physical, and particularly, the biological sciences, rather than in Gleick’s theme of communication.

With the general thesis that “data and its information are what determines life’s function and trajectory”, Scharf offers interesting thoughts on the nature of life, on what separates living from non-living, and the definition of an individual. The emphasis is not just on information within living things, but on the pattern of information flows, with differences in the hierarchical structure of flows being crucial. Living things seem driven to complexification, encoding more and more information from their environment, and from other living organisms. This may be accounted for quantitatively by Shannon’s concept of mutual information, but Shannon famously avoided any consideration of meaning. For Scharf, meaningful information for living things has to do with survival and with the delineation of individuals; meaningful information is that which influences survival by enhancing fitness.

Arguably the central concept of the book, aside information itself, is the dataome – ‘”all the non-genetic data we carry internally and externally” – named by analogy with the genome. The dataome, in this account, circumvents barriers of time and space for our species, and we nay even question whether it can be regarded as a form of life in its own right, with its own purposes. Its origins are with the first biological replicators and first sensory mechanisms, and it has steadily developed since. Its transcendence began when homo sapiens separated from other hominids, with “incessant talking and making of things”. The dataome is now reshaping the planet, with a profound shift in evolution, as that extent of human information processing becomes comparable with that of the total biological information activity of all earthly life. Humans and their dataome, Scharf suggests, may form a holobiont; a term from biology meaning an organism and all its associated microflora, e.g. gut and skin bacteria in humans. 

Intriguingly, the book speculates that many species throughout the universe may form their own dataomes, which may be detectable by SETI programmes. Outliving their originating species, they might encapsulate “a kind of library of the life of a world”.

The dataome concept seems very similar to Floridi’s infosphere, and it is perhaps surprising that this does not get a mention, although the somewhat similar noösphere of Theilhard de Chardin, Le Roy and Vernadsky does. They all encapsulate the idea that humanity has entered a new state, characterised by reliance on exosomatic stores of information and data. 

Stimulating and thoughtful analyses of information in different realms, and the interactions between, appeal to me, because of my interest in studies of ‘gap bridging’ between different concepts of information. But as Scharf reminds us “We should always be concerned about overinterpreting similarities between phenomena when those similarities could just be superficial in nature. But how do we find out the truth?” I think the search is worthwhile.

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