Thursday, February 4, 2010

Run! It's the Infocalypse!

I read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash recently, as those of you familiar with that book might infer from the title of this post. It's a book about an information virus; that is, a virus spread by the communication of information (specifically, in Snow Crash, the virus is spread as "binary information" in the form of random white noise in a bitmap, which is rubbish, but let's move on). The "information/mental virus" theme seems to be getting used more these days, with the recent horror film Pontypool being another example.

Augh! It's a mind virus!

I guess this trend shouldn't really be all that surprising considering that we now have real information viruses in the form of computer viruses. Still, thanks to the phenomenal complexity of brains and the wonders of biodiversity, literal mind viruses are going to be confined to science fiction for a while (unless you count religion, catchy songs, or any other cultural meme).

That was all a long digression. What I intended to say with this post is that information, when you think about it, is a really strange and ephemeral thing. We try and think about it in material terms, even going so far as to have crazy ownership laws for it and equally crazy progressive licensing schemes to make sense of those laws, but information really is in a class of its own.

It's a very disconcerting (and frustrating) experience to lose information, be it from a hard drive failure, forgetting a password, or simply deleting it. It doesn't seem like it should be possible to lose information that we've already acquired — what's seen cannot be unseen and all that jazz — except that it absolutely is possible. You may use a password every day, but if you ever forget it it's gone and you'd better hope there's a backup system or your data wasn't important.

This is all basically a long lead-in to linking to this article on the problem of archiving computer records. I find this interesting because, theoretically, computers offer almost unlimited information storage capabilities and they also allow for those records to be backed up and transferred with complete fidelity. Despite this, our information is less permanent than ever and requires constant maintenance to keep around, like that password you must use every day to remember.


  1. Did you post a random-dot sterogram (MagicEye-like) image on purpose? It doesn't really contain anything except for several differently sized squares at different depths. :P

  2. That image is of a "snow crash" -- the random white noise pattern that is a vector for a mind virus in Stephenson's book. Interestingly, as you point out, the pattern is not actually random, because I copy and pasted it a few times to fill up more room, so it's not surprising that it does form 3D squares.

    Personally, I'm terrible at those Magic Eye things, so I cann't see it myself.