On Claude Shannon’s Deliberate Depth

An Insightful Life 

Claude Shannon is one of my intellectual heroes.

His MIT master’s thesis, submitted in 1936, laid the foundation for digital circuit design. (My MIT master’s thesis, submitted 70 years later, has so far proven somewhat less influential.)

His insight was simple. The wires, relays and switches that made up the types of complex circuits he encountered at AT&T could be understand as the terms and operators of logic statements expressed in the boolean algebra he encountered as a math major at the University of Michigan.

Though simple, this insight had huge impact. It meant that circuits could be designed and optimized in the abstract and precise language of mathematics, and then transformed back to soldered wires and finicky magnetic coils only at the last step — enabling staggering leaps in circuit complexity.

But he wasn’t done. A decade later, inspired in part by his wartime research efforts, Shannon developed information theory: a mathematical framework that formalizes both techniques and fundamental limits for reliably transmitting information over noisy channels.

(For a popular treatment of this theory, see this or this; for a technical introduction, I recommend this guide).

Put another way, Shannon’s master’s thesis laid the foundation for digital computers, while his information theory paper laid the foundation for digital communication.

Not a bad legacy.

Decoding Shannon’s Work Habits

This is all to say that I was, quite naturally, excited to learn that my friend Jimmy Soni was co-authoring a big new biography of Shannon.

The resulting book came out earlier this week (I read a review copy — it’s great). As part of the publicity surrounding the release, Soni wrote an epic article on the twelve lessons he learned from the years he spent researching Shannon. The title of the first lesson caught my attention: “cull your inputs.”

To quote Soni:

“[D]istractions are a permanent feature of life, in any era, and Shannon shows us that shutting them out isn’t just a matter of achieving random bursts of focus. It’s about consciously designing one’s life and work habits to minimize them.”

Shannon, we learn, often worked with his door shut at Bell Labs to ward off distraction.

“None of Shannon’s colleagues, to our knowledge, remembered him as rude or unfriendly,” Soni writes, “but they do remember him as someone who valued his privacy and quiet time for thinking.”

It’s not that Shannon avoided collaboration. If anything, he was known for his ability to maintain stimulating conversation for hours when the topic was right. But he was wary of less fruitful digressions.

Shannon also discarded much of his voluminous incoming correspondence and invitations into a box labeled: “Letters I’ve Procrastinated On For Too Long.” When Soni and his co-author studied Shannon’s correspondence at the Library of Congress, they found “far more incoming letters than outgoing ones.”

To summarize these observations somewhat flippantly, while it’s absolutely true that Shannon’s breakthroughs ultimately enabled Facebook (which, of course, depends on computers and networks), if he was alive today, he’d almost certainly not use it.