Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

In The Information, science writer James Gleick offers an engaging and eye-opening trip through the history of human communication.
He starts with the “talking drums” of Africa and traverses the creation of writing, the ingenious inventions of the steam age, information theory’s origins and development, and ends with the current state of the internet communication glut. He includes profiles of lesser-known innovators such as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, who in the 1800s envisioned computers made of gears and powered by steam, and Claude Shannon, a World War II code breaker without whose work computers could not have progressed.
Gleick traces the infiltration of information theory into other fields, such as the role it plays in our understanding of DNA. While previously biology had been considered mostly a matter of chemistry, Watson and Crick realized DNA’s purpose was to convey instructions about how to construct organisms. At the time, this idea was so novel, they put the word information in quotation marks whenever they mentioned it. Today we take for granted that DNA contains the genetic code.
Gleick takes the information infiltration even farther. In his review of the book in The New York Times Geoffrey Nunberg’ says, “Information, [Gleick] argues, is more than just the contents of our overflowing libraries and Web servers. It is ‘the blood and the fuel, the vital principle’ of the world. Human consciousness, society, life on earth, the cosmos—it’s bits all the way down.”
I found The Information (released in paperback in March 2012) in turns fascinating, startling, and baffling. I loved reading about the history of communication and felt I followed it well through the mid-19th century. After that, things got complicated, with discussions of logic proofs, unsolvable mathematics proofs, and I-still-don’t-get-it-and-probably-never-will particle physics. Then, abruptly, I was back in my comfort zone, with a timely and engaging chapters on memes and Wikipedia.
As a librarian, I probably should be more distressed that Gleick finds it fit to talk about the profession in one paragraph in the whole book; to him, libraries are just one way of organizing information in a pre-digital world. Geoffrey Nunberg points out that Gleick treats information “at a remove from the larger social world, rather than as an extension of it.” Of course no view of information is complete without the context of human understanding.
Regardless of any limitations, The Information is as entertaining as it is illuminating and is a must-read for anyone interested in communication and the history of information.

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