Even before I was a few pages into The Information, a deep, sometimes frustrating but nonetheless superb book by James Gleick, I knew I had to ask him to speak at Web 2 this year. Not only did The Information speak to the theme of the conference this year (the Data Frame), I also knew Gleick, one of science’s foremost historians and storytellers, would have a lot to say to our industry.
Now that I’ve finished the book (and by no means will it be the last time I read it) I can say I’m positively brimming with questions I’d like to ask the author. And perhaps most vexing is this: “What is Information, anyway?”
If you read The Information for the answer to this question, you may leave the work a bit perplexed. It may be in there, somewhere, but it’s not stated as such. And somehow, that’s OK, because you leave the book far more ready to think about the question than when you started. And to me, that’s the point.
When I was a kid, and fancied myself smarter than someone who might be in the room at the time, I’d ask them to explain to me where space ended. How far out? Often, and this was the trick, a youngster (we were six or seven, after all) would posit that there must be a wall at some point, an ending, a place where the universe no longer existed. “Oh yeah?!” I’d say, exultant that my trick had worked. “Then what’s on the other side?!”
I think the answer is information. Perhaps others would say God, but if that be true, then both are, and the truth is that both understanding God and understanding information are quests that are more about the narrative than the ending. At least, I think so.
Gleick’s book tells the story of how, over the past five thousand or so years, mankind has managed to create symbols which abstract meaning and intent into forms that are communicable beyond time and space. I too am fascinated with this (hence the focus and title of the new book I just announced – What We Hath Wrought .) While my book will attempt to be a narrative history of the next 30 or so years of information’s impact on our culture, Gleick’s is a history of the past 5,000 or more years – and it manages, for the most part, to stay focused just on the theory of information itself, rather than its political or social impacts. It’s ambitious, it’s heady, and at times, it’s nearly impossible to understand for a lay person such as myself.
Gleick traces the narrative of information from the first stirrings of alphabet-based communication to the explosion of academic excitement that accompanied the rise of “Information Science” and “Information Theory” in the mid to late 20th century. Nearly all the geek heros take a star turn in this work, from Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to Lord Kelvin, Claude Shannon, and Marshall McLuhan (Wired’s patron saint, in case you younger readers have forgotten…). Einstein, Borges, and scores of other folks who make you feel smart just for reading the book also make cameos.
The work really picks up speed as it describes the rise of early telecommunications, the role of information in mid century warfare, and the birth of both genetic sciences and the computing industry. In the end, Gleick seems to be arguing, it’s all bits – and I think most of us in this industry would agree. But I think Gleick’s definition of “bit” may differ from ours, and while it may be esoteric, it’s there I want to really focus when he visits Web 2 in October.
Reviews of The Information are mostly raves, and I have to add mine to the pile. But as with his earlier work (Chaos cemented my desire to be a technology journalist, for example, and may as well be viewed as a precursor to The Information), this most recent book is sometimes a rather dry tick tock of various academics’ journeys through difficult problems, often accompanied by descriptions of insights that, I must admit, escaped me the first two or three times I read them*. While I thought I knew it, I had to look up the definition of “logarithm” at least twice, and honestly, as its used in some passages, I had to just give up and hope I didn’t miss too much for my ignorance of Gleick’s nuanced use. (Given his larger point, that the core information is that which can be reduced to its essence, I think I got the point. I think).
I guess what I’m saying is that I had to work hard through parts of this book – for example, in understanding how randomness relates to the essence and amount of information in any given object. But I find the work worth it. I’m also still getting my head around the relationship of randomness to entropy (Maxwell’s Demons help…)
But isn’t that the point of a great book?In the end, I feel far more prepared to be a participant in what we’re making together in this industry, more rooted in the history that got us here, and more….yeah, I’ll say it, more reverent about the implications of our work moving forward. For that, I thank Gleick and The Information.
*This, for example, is a typical footnote: “The finite binary sequence S with the first proof that S cannot be described by a Turning machine with n states or less is a (log2 n+cp)-state description of S.” My blogging software doesn’t even have the right scientific notation capabilities to do that phrase justice, but I think you get the point I’m making….