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"The Information" by James Gleick

By - July 21, 2011

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.The Information.jpg

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.

—–

Previous books I’ve reviewed as I prepare for What We Hath Wrought: In the Plex. Next up: Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It), which I am finishing this week.

*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….

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  • Christian

    Thanks for your point of view on the “The Information”, it is in my reading list.

    Please, keep us updated with the list of books you are reading in preparation for “What We Hath Wrough”.
    Looking forward to reading your next book!

  • http://www.frequency.com/russg/ Russ

    Two books I’d recommend along the lines of technological transformations of humanity:

    1) Erik Davis’s Techgnosis (http://techgnosis.com/techgnosis/techgnosis.html) – a history of the mythological roots of technology. Spans the entirety of history from the ancient technological mecca of Alexandria, to the myths and demons that inspired the current web.

    2) Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny. More of a anthropological anthology, this Robert Wright book charts human evolutionary changes as a result of technological advance.

    Both are must reads if you’re interested in our relationship with information.

  • http://infostory.wordpress.com/ Gil

    The Information is a great contribution to the telling of the story of information. Particularly impressive is Gleick’s vast canvas and the range of secondary and primary sources he consulted. Gleick’s engaging writing style serves readers well when he portrays the lives in information of his cast of characters but leaves them disengaged when he goes through the “dry tick tock” that obviously fascinates him. While acknowledging what Shannon has wrought – information as meaningless ones and zeros – Gleick has left out the story of the last twenty years (and the next twenty or two hundred), the invention of the Web and the “return of meaning” (the subtitle of his Epilogue). Maybe it will be in his next book or maybe in yours?

  • Venu

    what was thought provoking was the extent to which a major innovation that defined a period (steam engine, telegraph) was also an ‘invention attenuating’ metaphor for the next big thing (computer as giant steam engine, nervous system as giant telegraph – really!). any guesses on what the next invention attenuator might be?

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/christopherjaldrich Chris

    John, I’m glad you’re reading books like these and posting up your commentary. Too often the tech press and digerati touch only on the “glitz and glamour” of what is going on in technology without actually knowing any of the basic mathematics and physics of how it happens and why.

    Gleick presents an excellent overview of information, but you’re right that he doesn’t delve very deeply into the thing itself.

    I’d highly recommend reading Claude Shannon’s original paper “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” which can be easily found online for free. You might be slightly better served by purchasing the University of Illinois edition with Warren Weaver’s lengthy but clear and concise introduction, but either way, just a few hours of invested time will make a lot more of the theory crystal clear. Even a high school level of mathematics and physics under your belt will allow you to grasp the majority of his presentation.

    Perhaps if more did as you are, people would have a better grasp of simple concepts like bandwidth, error correction, cryptography, and general communication (satellite, internet, cellular, landline, etc.) in the modern age.

    I daresay that Shannon’s original paper may be one of the top 5 most influential things ever written, it just isn’t as widely publicized as it ought to be — yet.

  • http://about.me/jasoncavnar Jason

    JB – as a big fan of your thinking/writing, I thought this was particularly great, fwiw:

    “…the truth is that both understanding God and understanding information are quests that are more about the narrative than the ending…

    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.”

    Keep up the great work!

    Read more: http://battellemedia.com/archives/2011/07