It From Bit

Throughout my early school years, in a remote South Indian village, I could see myself spending a great deal of time outside the walls of my home interacting with the natural environment-obviously I didn’t have many choices. Now, when I think back to one of those experiences, I am convinced what the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler summarized in his 1989 essay with the catchphrase, It from Bit. This notion is even more relevant in the contemporary political era where narrative (bit) construction of reality (it) is a norm.

Those days, my native village reminded the look of a Flatland that displayed a romance of many dimensions. A huge rock, seemingly indistinguishable from an asteroid belt object, occupied the heart of the village and I always thought this stone was transplanted from the remote corners of solar system by some astronomical phenomena. Every object and every piece of information is conserved in the village by the laws of nature. Everyone held the view that there are no absolute reality but only description of reality exists, without even having any knowledge of Quantum Mechanics or philosophical views.

The information came to my village in the form of a local newspaper printed in a far away town and carried by bikes that followed rudimentary Newtonian Mechanics. The other information system was radio waves reaching quite intermittently as the countryside hills that surround the village offered a barrier for the electromagnetic waves. Paradoxes were plenty in the village-for example, laws were followed without laws and there was order from disorder. And, when Yama (the God of death in Hindu mythology) came as a cosmic equalizer, the village people acknowledged his visit by either ringing church bells loudly, in simple harmonic motion, or diffusing smell of Pooja (Hindu rituals) materials that were burned in fire. Unaware of any of these sacraments, Yama visited the village taking away people and animals on a regular basis. No one complained about it as they were in full compliance with the cosmic law.

In 1979, the news of Skylab’s apparent fall reached the village. The next two months the social and religious events in the village were filled with the narration of the potential destruction that could be brought in by the falling space station. The Hindu temple performed Pooja and quoted relevant texts from Ramayana and Mahabharata describing how such objects were floated by Gods and Asuras (demons) in the past. The pastor invoked Bible quotes and warned this as a punishment from God for humans venturing into stars and skies, yet he was bit soft on USA that owned and operated the Skylab. The few leftists lived in the village were apparently rejoiced by the fact that an American imperialist machine is coming down and used the occasion to celebrate the bright future of Soviet Union.

As a tween boy, my curiosity for observing Skylab grew increasingly powerful and was even stronger than the death itself. So very night I looked at the sky with fear in heart but my inquisitiveness destroyed the fear. Everyone owned their own piece of subjective description of Skylab including myself and really wanted to see the amazing machine that is falling from the sky.

A few days later, specifically on July 11, 1979, the fall of Skylab was brought to the collective social psyche of the village by a church goer. Apparently, the newspaper weren’t delivered and radios were not working for a couple days creating a perfect opportunity for everyone to chime in. The Christian devotee described seeing the night sky littered with heavenly lights and the machine fell to the Earth like a star as described in Bible. He even claimed to have seen biblical verses inscribed on the fireball from the book of Revelations. The Hindu priest’s narration of Skylab resembled the chariot of Arjuna piloted by Lord Krishna (a scene that look a lot like the epic battle of Mahabharata) cruising and crushing everything on its path. These narrations were widely debated and by now everyone had an image of Skylab created in mind depending the source of information.

The following weekend my elder brother brought some magazines from his college town and I curiously scanned the pages and one of them had a fussy picture of Skylab as it fell into the parts of southeastern Indian Ocean and western Australia about 3000 miles away from the village. Ideally, no one in the village was able to see the Skylab or its apparent fall as described above, yet everyone saw it.

After several years, I realized that the Newtonian Physics was sufficient enough to explain the fall of Skylab. Yet, I wasn’t sure how or why everyone created the image of an object (it) from whatever information (bit) they had. Now, when I read Wheeler’s essay that explains It from Bit, it makes perfect sense to me why everyone saw that Skylab. Furthermore, I am absolutely convinced it is the same explanation we need in our contemporary political age where narratives create facts and alternative facts. Once again it from Bit.

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