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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.

20 thoughts on “On Claude Shannon’s Deliberate Depth”

  1. This reminds me of a speech by Richard Hamming who worked with Shannon. It can be found here and is worth the read. Hamming talks a lot about “deep work” (albeit in different terms) and there are a bunch of gems in this speech. Interestingly, he talks about doors being open/closed at Bell Labs and seems to lean towards preferring leaving doors open.

    “I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance.”

    “I think people with closed doors fail to do this so they fail to get their ideas sharpened”

    I personally tend to think talk about doors being open or closed is a bit simplistic and it seems like it is just a false dichotomy.

    • The false dichotomy is “always open” versus “always closed”. I like to schedule meetings with myself at a rotating list of meeting rooms throughout the organization (including my office sometimes) for deep work. I also schedule time to work on superficial tasks in my office with the door opened and accessible to my teammates.

  2. Interesting. My mind immediately leapt to Hamming’s “You and Your Research” as a counterpoint. For those who haven’t read it, Hamming noticed that researchers who worked with the door open were less productive but after several years, were still working on important problems instead of slipping into tangential research. Elsewhere, he noted that Shannon was unable to let small observations and research trails germinate after information theory and his fame and ceased to become productive.

    I write this not to argue against deep work but to suggest that a sort of “deep play” or “deep communicating” may be as important as closed-door completion of the most promising new ideas.

    • “Deep communicating” and “deep play” sounds interesting. Could you explain a bit more what do you mean by it? thanks.

  3. Hi Cal,

    This is Rex from Taiwan. I love your works. Just have a question about TV-watching. How detrimental do you think TV is to our ability to focus and go deep?

    I love watching dramas so I thought I’d ask.

    Thanks for all your hard work!

    • Just plan for it, and be very selective on what you watch. “Drama” is a broad genre. Find the best shows (for me Twin Peaks: The Return, Game of Thrones, The Young Pope) and watch only that. A relaxing hour at home after a long, hard day at work won’t kill your productivity.

  4. Hi Cal,

    I’m thinking about buying noise-cancelling headphones to improve my concentration. I got the idea from the movie “The Social Network” in which they wear noise-cancelling headphones while programming. I want to use it for programming as well. Are noise-cancelling headphones the best idea or is it better to just play some music?

    • I also suggest that you listen to white noise (or Gregorian Chants, which is the musical equivalent of white noise) instead of music. Music has a variable beat, and it can disrupt your thinking process. White noise (or brown noise) does an incredible job for me.

    • The answer is based in part on what’s the purpose of the headphones. Is it to block out all distractions by creating a sound-barrier so you can focus anywhere? If so, it’s your solution. It’s how I use them in my office and I don’t even program. I just write motions for court.

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  6. Brilliant essay, as usual, Cal – Thank you. I’m reminded of, and motivated now, to revisit and re-read the marvelously readable book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick.

    • As Cal’s fellow computer scientist—and other computer scientist readers of his blog, too, may well know this—my reference to The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick was neither random nor by way of a non sequitur 🙂
      So it is that I hasten to add that the profound imprint and intellectual impact of the inimitable Claude Shannon’s genius is writ large in the pages of this highly readable book…


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