Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies

by César Hidalgo. London. Penguin Books. 2015. 265 pp. ISBN 9-780-2410-0355-8

In Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies, César Hidalgo presents a compelling argument for an information-centric view of life, society, and the economy. His ambitious aim is to establish a universal theory of information that can be applied to all things, from the artificial and inanimate to the natural and organic, and to all levels and scales, from atoms to economies. Life, according to Hidalgo, is all about information. He states that we spend our lives “moving around and processing information, helping information grow while interacting in a social [and economic] context” (44).

Hidalgo challenges us to understand, or at least appreciate, the entire universe around them as being information. Hidalgo presents a number of original contributions to the concept of information, providing a promising and multidisciplinary point of departure for further analyses of the role information plays in diverse contexts. The book explores questions of what information is comprised of, where it originates, where it is concentrated and located, how and why it is accumulated, how it grows, how and why it is valued, and the diverse social and economic mechanisms affecting, directing, and shaping it.

Hidalgo begins his discussion by distinguishing between information as something and information about something. He cautions against confusing or conflating information as meaning (information about something) with an understanding of information as physical order (information as something). His approach builds upon Claude Shannon’s information theory in which information is “a measure of the minimum volume of communication required to uniquely specify a message. That is, it’s the number of bits we need to communicate an arrangement” (13). Information, in other words, is the minimum volume of data needed to specify any kind of message regardless of its content or meaning. Hidalgo extends Shannon’s theory beyond an understanding of information as the number of bits needed to communicate an arrangement, to information as arrangements of atoms in physical objects.

The argument that physical objects are information leads to Hidalgo’s concept of crystals of imagination, arguably his most creative contribution to the concept of information. He states that the products we produce are instances of physical order; ergo, they are necessarily information. Products, moreover, are imaginary in origin, their physical order notwithstanding. Hidalgo argues, “the imaginary origin of the information embodied in products…is a fundamental characteristic of the type of information that humans grow and accumulate” (50). Products are crystals of our imagination; in other words, we transform our thoughts and dreams into these real-world items. He therefore encourages us to think about products of all kinds – from brooms to books, teapots to turbine engines, plates to planes – as crystals of imagination.

Hidalgo further notes that it is important to understand the source of this information that makes it possible to create and make products, namely, our imagination. He states that we need to “understand the importance of the source of the information that is embodied in a product. Complex products are not just arrangements of atoms that perform functions; rather, they are ordered arrangements of atoms that originated as imagination” (62). We constantly “engage in the production of items that are the fruit of our imagination. We crystallize imagination when we write, cook, and doodle…[and] when we invent” (62-63). The economic value of products do not reside in our ability to purchase and consume; instead, their economic value resides in our ability to imagine, create, and make them. Indeed, it is our ability to imagine, create, and make crystals of imagination into physical objects (products) that imbue them with their value that, in turn, contribute to economic development and growth.

It is in the first half of the book in which Hidalgo clearly and eloquently presents and analyzes his most original concepts, including those regarding information and crystals of imagination. Other important concepts discussed include the so-called personbyte – the maximum amount of knowledge and knowhow carrying capacity of an individual – and firmbyte, the distribution of knowledge and knowhow among teams of people and among networks of other firms. He states “if we say that an individual can hold up to one personbyte of knowledge and knowhow, then all products that require more than one personbyte of knowledge and knowhow to be produced will require teams of individuals” (81-82). He argues that these two bytes are fundamental units of measurement of economic development and growth specifically, and the development and growth of information generally.

The book’s second half, however, becomes somewhat stale with repetition and generalizations. This part of the book would be more illuminating if, for instance, Hidalgo were to discuss in greater detail some of the potential practical implications of his intriguing ideas. How can or should these concepts, like crystals of imagination, personbytes, or firmbytes, be applied to economic analyses? Or how can or should these information concepts be incorporated into the various theories and professional practices in the library and information science domain? Or what could be some public policy recommendations based on these ideas? Beginning to address some of these practicalities would add more substance to these ideas specifically, and strengthen the entire book’s focus and impact more generally.

Despite a less insightful second half, this book nevertheless presents a promising new way to approach, understand, and appreciate information and the significant roles that it plays in our lives. These intriguing ideas have the potential to develop into impactful ones, especially with greater attention to their practical dimensions. Hidalgo’s perspective is fresh and inspired. Although he is dealing with complex and dense concepts, his narrative remains clear and accessible to readers who may not be familiar with some of the theoretical tools he employs from various disciplines. His writing style, in other words, is neither intimidating nor bogged down in subject specialist jargon; instead, it is engaging and intimate.

Why Information Grows is an important book for both scholars and students in economics, physics, library and information science. For economics, it forces a re-examination of how economics could be understood; for physics, it presents a different perspective on how matter comes to matter; and for library and information science, it provides new conceptual directions for information theories and frameworks.

Marc Kosciejew, University of Malta, Msida, Malta