The Arrangement of Bits
Data, information, knowledge, art. The smallest unit of all of these items is the bit. Given enough bits, all data, information, knowledge, and art can be perfectly described. Vice versa is also true: given enough art, any arrangement of bits can be perfectly described. Humans like to arrange bits, and we like to experience arrangements of bits - novel arrangements and familiar arrangements alike, though for different reasons. The human experience is a matter of taking in arrangements of bits through the senses, arranging bits inside the controlling apparatus of the brain, and then interacting with the world through the machinery of the body. It seems natural that many of those activities are, essentially, the production of external representations of bit arrangements.
Throughout much of the lengthy and largely obscured history of humanity, intentional output bandwidth was not high. Much of the bit arrangement encoded in the physical world was noise to the maker, not the intended effect, even if others might like to experience that noise as a novel arrangement. How much of the data describing a Venus figurine reflects the intent of the Paleolithic era maker? How much of the audience reaction to a story, the internal bit arrangement of the mind, the bit arrangements interpreted from the words, did the teller intend? Further, subsistence societies, whether hunter-gatherer or agricultural, were not characterized by a large amount of time left free for non-essential novel bit-arrangement. We no doubt see but a tiny fraction of the bit-arrangement that did take place, because it was largely transient: arranging bits in the brain for personal gratification, whether through storytelling, religion, or the experience of warm place on a sunny day.
In today's world, a vastly more bits are arranged and then stored beyond the mind, even per capita, setting aside the far greater human population. It is arguably the case that a much larger number of bits pass through to be stored within the mind for a time, through education formal and otherwise. Arguable because we are visual creatures, and what we see requires many bits to represent whether a forest, a city, or a book, or a video. In wealthier societies there is far greater leisure time for the arrangement of bits in non-essential ways, and a great demand for such arrangements. The bandwidth of bit arrangements inward from the world to the senses and out to the world through the machinery of the body is larger than it once was. Contemporary technology enables a much greater production of intentional bit arrangements in proportion to the noise of any physical creation.
Looking to the future, it isn't hard to visualize a world in which the sentient entities of the time, some meld of present humanity with sundry nano- and biotechnologies of enhancement, have added a new layer of mediation between themselves and their environment. They arrange bits with technological assistance, and their mediating machines then build structure and form, tools and utility, from the information encoded in those bits. Imagine fabricators capable of precision molecular manufacturing, driven by blueprints. Nanomachine swarms that adjust and maintain the fine structure of the environment and biological bodies according to instructions. The proportion of intentional bit arrangement in any interaction with the physical world rises to a very high level in comparison with the past. The tools and the enhancements enable any given individual to take in and create a vastly greater number of bits.
One might think that there are trends here. The trend towards greater fractions of the overall human experience across the species as a whole being ever more explicitly bit arrangement, and ever less the act of physical creation: artisan to factory to robotics to nanomachine fabrication. The reduction of noise in physical creation, following that same path. The rise of software engineering and software use, computers as intermediary, the dissemination of bit arrangements ever more efficiently. The creative industry, unleashed to produce: storyteller at a fire to musical notation and the printing press to video production and computer gaming industry to something of vastly greater bandwidth driven by AI.
This all points in the same direction, towards similar destinations somewhere in the century or two ahead. Presently we stand closer to the Paleolithic human than to the augmented posthuman who shapes its surroundings with nanomachinery. The pace is picking up, however, and is far enough along to pick out the trends in what we are and what we make of ourselves.