There’s an important bit of knowledge buried in an interesting new article about the history of modern communication:
A portmanteau of “binary digit,” a bit could be either a 1 or a 0, and Shannon’s paper is the first to use the word (though he said the mathematician John Tukey used it in a memo first).
Shannon clearly is reporting working around others and sharing attribution. However, the author of the article starts it off by rather ironically making a narrative of wide communication about a single person:
Mathematics searches for new theorems to build upon the old. Engineering builds systems to solve human needs. The three disciplines are interdependent but distinct. Very rarely does one individual simultaneously make central contributions to all three — but Claude Shannon was a rare individual. …more than 70 years ago, in a single groundbreaking paper, he laid the foundation for the entire communication infrastructure underlying the modern information age.
It reads to me as though the person trying to get us to celebrate importance of communication links being simplified and standardized (to bridge any and all individuals together) at the same time is trying to create a super-human myth.
Was Shannon rare, or was he just the natural progression in an old and well-known theory that groups achieve more by working together and being humble about the steps made?
Take for example this analysis:
His theorems led to some counterintuitive conclusions. Suppose you are talking in a very noisy place. What’s the best way of making sure your message gets through? Maybe repeating it many times? That’s certainly anyone’s first instinct in a loud restaurant, but it turns out that’s not very efficient. Sure, the more times you repeat yourself, the more reliable the communication is. But you’ve sacrificed speed for reliability. Shannon showed us we can do far better.
Sorry but I don’t know anyone who thinks repeating the same message in a noisy place is the first instinct, nor that it makes communication more reliable. The opposite, in fact, I know people who hate repeating messages and wisely give up quickly after just one or two attempts fail.
What if his conclusions were more reflections of reality? What if his big contribution was to make acceptable/formal the things already known and practiced, yet codifying it in a way most easily digested by the communities he served?
And most importantly, perhaps, what if he thought the lack of fame and outsized reward for his work isn’t such a bad thing at all? As the founder of the Internet precursor ALOHAnet purportedly once said “I was too busy surfing to worry about that stuff”.
Another example is my earlier post on attempts to pin down a single inventor of the Roland-808.
Note how this plays out in a 2013 article about the commonality of humans combining things together, just like Shannon:
Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something “new.” From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our “own” “original” ideas. The notion, of course, is not new — some of history’s greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another: Arthur Koestler’s famous theory of “bisociation” explained creativity through the combination of elements that don’t ordinarily belong together; graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to a slot machine that aligns the seemingly random jumble of stuff in our heads into a suddenly miraculous combination; T. S. Eliot believed that the poet’s mind incubates fragmentary thoughts into beautiful ideas; the great Stephen Jay Gould maintained that connecting the seemingly unconnected is the secret of genius; Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press embodied this combinatorial creativity; even what we call “intuition” is based on the unconscious application of this very mental faculty.
Of course some cultures still can’t resist trying to focus credit onto one person so that 2013 article also tries to make it seem like Einstein’s version was best:
The concept, in fact, was perhaps best explained by Albert Einstein, who termed it “combinatory play.” (Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks.)
To be fair that’s giving credit to Einstein for working so hard at combinatory play that he can explain it well to others.
For a different take on credit and combinatory play as innovation, perhaps take into consideration how an ancient African culture was so successful for hundreds of thousands of years.
When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man – and thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this … so we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way, we cool his heart and make him gentle.
In other words a young hunter killing big meat would face insults when they presented it to those who would be eating it. Major credit instead went towards the almost random person who delivered the arrow (hunters swap arrows before the hunt), for example.
Leisure and innovation were prized, not infinite aggressive aspiration. Centralized credit was not favored given inter-communication and collaboration.
Some psychologists now call the selfish attributes a function of being disrupted, such that technology may create a domain shift that manifests in “a new selfishness, and ultimately to hierarchical societies, patriarchy and warfare”.