If there was a silver lining to the demise of the Border’s bookstores, it’s the new books that I was introduced to during their liquidation sales. One of those books was The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick. I was expecting it to be a thought provoking book (which it was). I just didn’t realize how much fun I would have reading it.
A riveting page-turner. We all have heard this phrase used to describe books before. Usually, it’s a thriller or other such fiction. You know the type: a team of scientists races to the ends of the Earth to discover the secrets of a long lost civilization before other nations use it for nefarious means. With dinosaurs, neanderthals and sabertooth cats. Oh, and aliens. Soon to be a Nicholas Cage movie. But a non-fiction book about the concept and history of information?! What madness is this?
We live in the Electronic Age. We live in the Information Age. Ipods & Ipads. What we call money stopped residing in paper and coins; it’s now found on some cloud that talks to magnets. I could run a poll about people’s favorite pastas and have thousands of people from all corners of the globe respond faster than the time it takes me to microwave a Hot Pocket. Heck, I’m using a laptop to upload information right now to a web service that’s purpose is to make delivering information easier for us masses. As ubiquitous and intuitive as all this has become, it’s a recent revolution in human history. And a profound one. This book illuminates the foundation of this revolution more clearly than anything I’ve come across yet.
So what is this foundation? What exactly IS information? Is it quantifiable? The book starts off with a quote:
“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning.”
How awesomely sublime is that? These are the words of Claude Shannon, the man whose paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” was at the core of this revolution. If you didn’t know (which I didn’t), Shannon created the term bit, which is a unit for measuring information. Part of Shannon’s insight is revealed in that innocuous quote, he divorced information from meaning. WTF! Heavy stuff indeed.
This is just one example of the topics the book gets into. As abstract as all this is, Gleick ties it all together in a wonderfully understandable way. For instance, he writes how the Talking Drums of Africa, wonders of long distance communication, seemed to have redundant phrasing. It’s not drummed as “Come back home” but “Make your feet come back the way they went…” But his explanation:
“… allocate extra bits for disambiguation and error correction.”
… is masterful. By showing information through this sieve of historical perspective, Gleick is able to tie seemingly distant topics in a very natural manner.
And there’s much more. He discusses things such as Morse code, the invention of writing and mathematics, the Oxford Dictionary, Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine with this same perspective. It’s all quite insightful and very satisfying.
I will admit, the last third of the book was more of a struggle for me. The book had so much momentum, so much energy which seemingly culminated with Shannon’s Theory of Communication. It’s like the wave broke and I’m standing in the whitewash after Chapter 7. The commentary on modern technologies just didn’t capture me in the same way.
Still, a book hasn’t kept me up late reading in a long time. While I might have bought it at a steep discount, I am glad to have come across Gleick’s work. The scope, the topics, the research all come together in this well-crafted book. I am happy recommend it to anyone with a curiosity of our informational world. Or, as John Wheeler puts it:
“It from Bit”