Verlinde: Physics in the Information Age

On October 5, 2017, Eric Verlinde gave a lecture at the Perimeter Institute on A New View on Gravity and the Dark Side of the Cosmos.1 Many of the points Verlinde made in developing his lecture recapitulated insights which Marshall McLuhan repeatedly urged beginning in the early 1950’s. This was 70 years before Verlinde’s Perimeter Institute lecture in Waterloo Ontario — 70 miles from McLuhan’s base in Toronto. 

Here is McLuhan writing to Harold Innis in 1951:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences.

And here is Verlinde retracing McLuhan along this labyrinthine way in a whole series of inter-related points:2

Technology and Thought

McLuhan in 1967:

  • this kind of [technological] revolution is one in which (…) all of us [are] actually living and it enables all sorts of things to appear and to be noticed for the first time that had previously been unobservable. This [is the] principle that whenever a new technology develops it creates a new environment for the whole culture…3

Verlinde in 2017:

  • The way that science progresses has very much to do with the times that we live in and with the technology that we use. Science helps us to develop technology but also our current technology influences the way we think about science. (4:33ff)
  • The revolutions in the 19th century were very much related to the existence of the steam engine. Now in the [20th] century we developed televisions and other things and a television, if you think about it, is actually a particle accelerator. It accelerates electrons which are moved around with electric fields and are projected on a screen and then we see photons coming out. So the ideas of forces and particles is really the language of the 20th century and there our understanding of nature was in terms of the most fundamental building blocks, which are elementary particles, and the fundamental forces. So we built theoretical physics using that language. Today we are already far in the 21st century and again we have a different type of technology — smartphones, computers, big data. (5:20ff)

Age of Information

McLuhan in 1958:

  • Today the movement, packaging and transfer of information is the world’s largest industry. The consuming of information in multiple-packaged form has become the largest occupation of mankind. The packaging and moving of information has transformed the globe into a community of learning. Since technology has undertaken the transfer of information the entire globe has become an adult education centre.4
  • General Motors is a small operation compared to the electronic processing and packaging of information. The moving of information itself has become by far the largest industry in the world. The consuming of information, electronically processed, is by far the largest activity today.5

Verlinde in 2017:

  • Most of what we’re doing every day has to do somehow with information and that’s again a new language and this is again influencing the way we think about science. Today the new view on gravity has to do with information.  And because this is basically the language that we’re developing in our current century, we live in an Information Age. (6:17ff)
  • My new view on gravity has to do with a new view on the universe [as] built out of information and we’re going to understand the forces in it, in particular gravity, in terms of this new language [of information]. (8:27ff)
  • Information [is] contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time. (Delft 5:15ff) 
  • we’re going to think about the universe where we think about the basic building blocks as being information. This is maybe a way of phrasing it: that we live in an information universe not an information world. The whole universe is revolving around information (Delft, 6:21ff) 

The Medium is the Message

McLuhan in 1953

  • the fury for change is in the form and not the message of the new media6

Verlinde in 2017:

  • But what is information? You might say, well it’s what I read in a newspaper because I’m interested in certain things. But there’s also an abstract way to think about information in terms of the way it’s stored in bits and then we don’t look at what is written somewhere, we just count for instance how many bits we have, how many bytes. And so I will think about information in this more abstract way so that we’re going to talk even about information that we cannot really access, but we still have a way of counting it by saying how many bits are used. (6:41ff)
  • So what indeed is information? I mean, it’s stored in bits and it is sort of unimportant (…) what is written there. You just count for instance how many bits you have and that tells you how much information you in principle can store, say on a chip or even in other parts of nature. (Delft 5:20ff)  
  • The link between entropy and information is going to be important, so if I talk about information later on and you wonder what I really mean, it’s counting the number of bits. (13:15ff)
  • There’s also another development going on, namely, we make things smaller and smaller and then we arrive at even sub-atomic scales or atomic scales where things become quantum mechanical. Then information has another meaning again because in quantum mechanics you get something called qubits. Not bits like zeros and ones but there’s also things that are somewhere in between. Qubits are funny objects because they can do things that are possible only in quantum mechanics — they can namely not just be 0 and 1 but can be something in the middle. (7:16ff)


McLuhan in 1963:

  • The (…) simultaneous character of electrical information coverage tends to create ‘field’ rather than point of view. And ‘field’ necessarily partakes of the character of interplay or of dialogue.7

Verlinde in 2017:

  • [Qubits] can do something called being entangled in the sense that one qubit here is doing the same thing as another one somewhere else. This is two qubits that are entangled, where the zero of one [qubit] is combined with a zero of the other, or the 1 of the one [qubit] is combined with the 1 of the other. This is an example of entanglement.  So this is the language we’re going to use to consider even our universewe’re going to think about the universe in terms of information and also in terms of this entangled quantum information. (8:00ff)
  • it’s the power of quantum mechanics, it’s the essence of quantum mechanics that we have entanglement. And our  [whole] universe [itself] is very entangled. (47.45ff)
  • Information [is] contained in everything that nature is made of, even space and time. (Delft: 5:15ff)


McLuhan in 1968:

  • As painters well know, space is created or evoked by all manner of associations among colors, textures (…) and their intervals.8

Verlinde in 2017:

  • And this is the same in nature — if we ask what things are made of, then some of the terms that we use, like maybe even matter or space and time, may not exist [as such at microscopic scale]. This is an indication of the way we are going in this lecture — and let me tell you then what the term [for this phenomenon] is: it’s called emergence. Mainly we use concepts and observe phenomena at macroscopic scales, which are derived from the microscopic scale but have a priori no meaning in that language [of the microscopic scale]. So the language that we use at macroscopic scales is different than the microscopic and we use concepts and things that are not meaningful [at microscopic scale], so we have to derive them… (10:02ff)

Emotion of Multitude

McLuhan in 1967:

  • the emotion of multitude (…) is a state in which we live constantly, that is, on the border. We live constantly in two worlds…9

Verlinde in 2017:

  • Bits are zeros and ones, quantum bits are also zeros and ones, but (…) [the quantum bit] can also be something in the middle and we call that a superposition (…) and this is why a qubit has many more possibilities [than bits]. (45.53ff)
  • A bit has only two possibilities, zero [or] one — [but] a qubit can be thought of as a sphere [where] all points on this sphere is a different state of that qubit and this is why if you do calculation with qubits, you’re doing many calculations at the same time — [using] many more bits than we normally have in a classical computer. In a quantum calculation you do all these things in parallel — all calculations are being done at the same time. This is why quantum computers are much more powerful [than classical computers]. (46.18ff)

Sphere of Meaning

McLuhan in 1960:

  • Today it is axiomatic that we live in a global space fed by information from every point on the sphere at the same time.10

Verlinde in 2017:

  • a qubit can be thought of as a sphere [where each] point on this sphere is a different [possible] state of that qubit (46:20ff)


McLuhan in 1967:

  • Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased…11

Verlinde in 2017:

  • if you do calculation with qubits, you’re doing many calculations at the same time (…) In a quantum calculation you do all these things parallel — all calculations are being done at the same time. (46:28ff)
  • if you measure an [entangled] object (…) here, it can determine the outcome of a measurement somewhere else [over there]. Instantaneously. (47.18ff)

McLuhan held that art is usually out ahead of science by a generation or two. So when Verlinde retraces McLuhan, it may be wondered if there are further aspects of McLuhan’s work which have not yet come to light in physics and which might help to solve outstanding problems in its investigations.

In fact, it is not at all merely McLuhan’s work that is of potential use to Verlinde’s physics. Instead, McLuhan may be regarded as a door opening onto both contemporary developments in the humanities and social sciences, as well as onto their long history. Entanglement (for example) has been considered for millennia in many different cultural traditions. Here is Heraclitus 2500 years ago:

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή12

Given such a long and varied history, it would be very strange if did not include the discovery and specification of ideas which physicists have not yet considered — but which could turn out to be critical for their research.

  1. On March 19, 2018 at Delft, Verlinde loosely repeated his Perimeter talk with a lecture called ‘A New View on Gravity and the Cosmos‘. Some of his formulations in this later lecture offer interesting variations on his earlier one at Perimeter.
  2. The remarkable thing between Verlinde and McLuhan (aside from the fact that McLuhan had these insights a half century ago), is not the number of similar points in the work of both, but the similar shape which the ensemble of these points takes for each of them. The passages cited from Verlinde’s lectures are taken from the auto-generated transcripts of the two ‘New View of Gravity’ lectures in YouTube.  They have been lightly edited to correct mistakes in the auto-transcription. The time stamps given in each case make it easy, of course, to proof Verlinde’s actual words.
  3. The Technological Unconscious‘, Inaugural Lecture at Fordham, September 18, 1967, 9:47ff.
  4. Radio in the Future of Canada’, lecture at UBC in Vancouver, May 5, 1958.
  5. Our New Electronic Culture’, lecture held 26 May 1958, printed in NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.
  6. Culture Without Literacy’, Explorations 1, Dec 1953. McLuhan in 1958: “The medium is the message. (…) It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers. (Our New Electronic Culture’, lecture held 26 May 1958, printed in NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.) McLuhan’s signature phrase has three entangled meanings: (1) form not content; (2) different forms have different middles or media and these forms can be classified on the basis of those different middles — so the middle is “where the action is” since it determines the form of the form (comparable to how the number of electrons and protons determine the particular form of the general form (EnPn) of chemical elements); (3) The middle is “where the action is”  because all messages are grounded in it — nothing comes to light except from some impetus out of the superposition of possibilities there.
  7. ‘We need a new picture of knowledge’, Yearbook: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1963.
  8. Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, 6. Interestingly, Verlinde, exactly like McLuhan, uses a picture to illustrate what he means by emergence. He shows his audience a few pixels of a picture which have no discernible significance at that level of detail (Perimeter, 8:53ff; Delft 6:53ff). Emergence is then shown in action when he pulls back to reveal the picture composed of those and many thousands of other pixels — just as in McLuhan’s painted picture where “space is created or evoked by associations among colors, textures (…) and their intervals”.
  9. ‘Canada: the Borderline Case’, 1967. For McLuhan and Yeats’ 1903 ‘Emotion of Multitude’ see Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology.
  10. Report on Project in Understanding, ‘Materials Developed for the Project’. Cf, McLuhan in 1970: “Without the interval (between them), there would be neither wheel nor axle. It is this resonant interval that constitutes the chemical bond, according to Linus Pauling (1939) in The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Heisenberg (1927) had pointed this out as relevant to quantum mechanics. What the Japanese call MA, the significant space between forms, evokes the world of auditory or acoustic space. It is the peculiar character of acoustic space, constituted by the act of hearing from all directions at once, that it is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere.” (‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’, lecture given at University College, Toronto, Nov 21, 1970, printed in P. R. Leon, ed, Problèmes de L’Analyse Textuelle/Problems of Textual Analysis, 189-199, 1971.)
  11. The Medium is the Massage, 1967, 63.
  12. The way up and the way down are one and the same’ (DK B60). The sayings of Heraclitus have been investigated from Plato to Eliot (whose Four Quartets used this B60 fragment as one of its two epigrams from Heraclitus).