By painting or drawing, an artist with skill, training, and long labor reconstructs what the eye might see. By contrast, a daguerreotype is in some sense the thing itself - the information, stored, in an instant. It was unimaginable, but there it was. The possibilities made the mind reel. Once storage began, where would it stop? An American essayist immediately connected photography to Babbage’s atmospheric library of sounds: Babbage said that every word was registered somewhere in the air, so perhaps every image, too, left its permanent mark - somewhere.
‘In fact, there is a great album of Babel. But what too, if the great business of the sun be to act registrar likewise, and to give out impressions of our looks, and pictures of our action; and so … for all we know to the contrary, other worlds may be peopled and conducted with the images of persons and transactions thrown off from this and from each other; the whole universal nature being nothing more than phonetic and photogenic structures.’
The universe, which others called a library or an album, then came to resemble a computer. Alan Turing may have noticed this first: observing that the computer, like the universe, is best seen as a collection of states, and the state of the machine at any instant leads to the state at the next instant, and thus all the future of the machine should be predictable from its initial state and its input signals.
The universe is computing its own destiny.
Turing noticed that Laplace’s dream of perfection might be possible in a machine but not in the universe, because of a phenomenon which a generation later, would be discovered by chaos theorists and name the butterfly effect. Turing described it this way in 1950:
‘The system of the ‘universe as a whole’ is such that quite small errors in initial conditions can have an overwhelming effect at a later time. The displacement of a single electron by a billionth of a centimetre at one moment might make the difference between a man being killed by an avalanche a year later, or escaping.’
If the universe is a computer, we may still struggle to access its memory. If it is a library, it is a library without shelves. When all the world’s sounds disperse through the atmosphere, no word is left attached to any particular bunch of atoms. The words are anywhere and everywhere. That was why Babbage called this information store a ‘chaos.’ Once again he was ahead of his time.”” —