The book is called "The Information" by James Gleick, and it chronicles the history of information theory and its patriarch, Claude Shannon (the man who coined the term "bit" as shorthand for "binary digit"). In a Wall Street Journal review, science journalist John Horgan says the book tracks the history of information "from 5,000-year-old cuneiform records of barley sales all the way up to today's digital super-abundance." Horgan says the book "illuminates the histories of mathematics, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, genetics and other fields that we have come to understand better thanks to Shannon's theory."
I haven't even read the table of contents yet, and I've already been illumined. Shannon's breakthrough in information theory was to define it in simple terms: The information in a message is inversely proportional to its probability. The more surprising the message, the more information it contains.
You might have to think about that for a minute. I did. But it's really quite simple. The probable is uninformative because it's unsurprising; a store-bought birthday card doesn't contain much information because we all know and understand what a store-bought birthday card is and does. By contrast, the improbable is informative because it is surprising; should that birthday card include a handwritten note providing the directions to a briefcase full of cash buried on the edge of town, now that's information.
The simplicity of Shannon's observation, and the complexity of its implications, both boggle the mind. Lots to think about there, to be sure. But for those of us concerned with business, marketing and branding---particularly for stalled, stuck or stale companies---it offers a valuable first lesson.
Every company wants and needs to provide information to its customers, prospects, employees, investors, and a host of other constituencies. Yet the temptation in branding and marketing is to trod familiar ground, to fear the unworn path, to avoid altogether blazing a new trail. But when we default to the familiar, the conventional, the "safe", those on the receiving end of our messages almost by definition gain precious little information. Because the message is unsurprising, even probable, it communicates little or nothing new. We're shooting ourselves in the foot, and paying for the privilege.
There are many reasons to embrace bold creativity, as I outline in When Growth Stalls. But information theory provides perhaps the most fundamental reason: it's the surest way to communicate vital information to those who need to know.
Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork + Company, and author of When Growth Stalls and Power Branding. A marketing strategist for nearly three decades, Steve has been published or quoted in many top news outlets and industry publications, and writes a monthly marketing column for Businessweek.com.