The Bit Player - Shannon Bio Pic On Amazon
Written by Mike James   
Sunday, 26 July 2020

You probably know who Claude Shannon was and what he did, but apparently he is little known in wider world. Hence a new movie "The Bit Player" which presents him to a wider audience is welcome - no matter how good or bad it is, which has now become available on Amazon.


First let me say that I'm a Shannon fan and have been ever since I settled down with his original paper on Information Theory in a dark university library - I was there until it closed. I was amazed that one man could put together a coherent theory of something so tricky. The paper read more like a textbook distilled from years of other people's work than an original thought presented polished and complete - which is what it was. The nearest comparison is the way Einstein presented the ideas of Special Relativity in a single, well-formed paper. Reading it, and the follow-on paper that expanded the initial ideas, made me feel that I sort of "knew" Shannon. Of course I didn't. However, I collected many anecdotes and facts over time that only increased my admiration. Yes, he deserves to be better known and to have more credit for inventing ideas that are very important to the digital world.

So I looked forward to watching The Bit Player and I have to say that I enjoyed it and would encourage others to watch it, but it is a very flawed piece of work.  It matters more when you know that it was funded by the IEEE Information Theory Society, which presumably wanted something that cast Shannon in a truthful light, and would get his key ideas across. It was directed by Mark A. Levinson and stars John Hutton as Shannon, Judith Ivey as his wife and Kaliswa Brewster as the interviewer. Other interviewees in the film, in particular, Shannon's first wife Norma Levor, are the real people, not actors, and the distinction isn't made clear.


Claude Shannon in 1948
(April 30, 1916 - February 24, 2001)

The choice of Hutton is most likely because he looks like Shannon and there are times when you can almost believe that he is Shannon. The acting however is strangely hesitant and, for me, off-putting. If you are charitable you could say that the actors are trying to give the feel of "normal" people put under the spotlight but for me it felt unnatural and forced. Try the trailer to see what I mean:


This clip also demonstrates the other main flaw - what you see in the trailer is about as far as the video goes in explaining information theory. I asked a few fellow viewers who knew nothing about information theory beforehand and I have to conclude that what they took away from the video was the fact that Shannon was a character who juggled, built playthings and generally had a lot of fun. This is nice, but Shannon isn't important to the world because he juggled.

I also found many of the statements made by the experts over the top. If Shannon hadn't worked out how to apply Boolean logic to computer circuits, we probably would still have the iPhone and AI would be a thing. His contributions were great, but they weren't so specific as to think of him as the father of the mouse, unless its Theseus, or the personal computer. This is the work of a whole community of people.

Shannon does deserve, however, the accolade "The Father of the Bit" which doiesn't refer to the bit as in binary digit, but as in bit of information. Information Theory, a topic which is key to all areas of communication and not just computing, is really important for Computer Science which is why it is given a chapter in my recent book, The Programmer's Guide to Theory, which can be read here.

The remark towards the end of the video that Shannon didn't publish very many of the papers that he worked on was surprising - what other ideas lurk in his unpublished papers or was that an invention for the docu-drama. I tried to find a Shannon Archive or Collection but no luck. If anyone knows what happened to his "Attic" papers, please comment.

You can watch The Bit Player on Amazon Prime Video or rent it for $2.99 and buy it for $9.99.


See our History article, Claude Shannon - Information Theory And More, if you want to know more. 

  • Mike James, founder and chief Editor of I Programmer, is the author of The Programmer’s Guide To Theory which, as its subtitle "Great ideas explained" suggests, sets out to present the fundamental ideas of computer science in an informal and yet informative way.

More Information

The Bit Player

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Last Updated ( Monday, 27 July 2020 )