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

Posted by CLA Govt Library and Info Mgmt Professionals Network on 2011-10-10

When I saw the first review of it I was intrigued. The title alone made me want it.  I had to read it, and when I saw it at the Carrot Common location of Book City, just sitting there on a table, I picked it up and bought it.  But I didn’t start it right away.  Some how I knew that this book would require something of me, and I had to be ready. I was right.


If nothing else, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Random House 2011 978-0-375-42372-7) by James Gleick is physically substantial, weighing in at 2lbs, and measuring 9 1/2×6 1/2x 1 1/4  inches in its hard cover form. Reading this book takes a commitment on a physical level: if you choose to commute with this book you should book a massage appointment before you start.

Reading this book also demands a significant intellectual commitment: it covers vast terrain, from ancient technologies, disciplines and knowledge, through the wonders of the past century and to present day; Newtonian and quantum physics, neuroscience, biology, and maths mingle with the military industrial complex and secret codes.

And, believe it or not, Gleick deals with an infinitely dense and expansive subject matter quite succinctly.

The Information tells the story of how we humans have come to understand information over time. But it is not a chronological story. Do not expect to start at some fixed beginning and go merrily along until the ending with everything falling into place. However, Gleick’s subtitle proves a perfect guide to this great work. While each chapter takes the reader on a journey through time and space around some aspect of information, the reader is also introduced to an excellent History of our interactions with information and its related machinery, a fabulous primer on the Theory of information a la Shannon-Weaver, and a useful perspective on the never ending Flood of information around us.

Throughout, Gleick demonstrates that, at a fundamental level, information is a special thing. A quote from Seth Lloyd neatly captures this unique quality

“To do anything requires energy. To specify what is done requires information” (p355).

Lloyd is a self-professed quantum mechanic based at MIT, but the truth of his statement stretches across many different domains of research and study. Not only is information special, but it breeds like rabbits: data begets metadata, ever more nuanced descriptions create cascades of new information that is then logged somewhere else, even if it is only in our brains. For instance, in highlighting the inclusionist and deletionist factions among Wikipedians, Gleick reinforces that information grows and is persistent over time, often in spite of attempts to erase it. It equally shows that our human need to express our selves and share knowledge is strongly tied up with passion.

Without doubt, Gleick has done a masterful job presenting the wide range of disciplines at play in this story. Be it molecular biology or molecular physics, these are big topics in and of themselves, suitable for entire books of their own. Yet in Gleick’s hands these subjects are like pieces of a mosaic: perhaps difficult to source and hard to cut, but essential to the big picture. He deftly integrates complex theories and ideas into a cohesive whole. The Information does not demand pre-existing knowledge in any one subject area, but don’t be surprised if some extra reading is required for some sections (be warned: there are numerous equations!) I have read fairly widely across many of these topics and was happily challenged by this great read.

On one level The Information reads as a subtle homage to Claude Shannon, of Information Theory fame. Yet at the same time there is also a critique. Gleick notes that Shannon had no regard for the meaning of a message; the information content of a message was more concerned with accuracy in transmission. Granted, interference from a number of sources (some which had not yet been discovered) was a real problem for emerging communications technologies, war time demands for secure communications were great, and there were limits to how much information could be sent at a time. However, even with the maths behind the Theory showing

“the fewer symbols available, the more of them must be transmitted to get across a given amount of information” (p27) (emphasis added)

it turns out that African drummers, the story Gleick uses to open his work, with their limited range of sounds, had for centuries mastered the art of adding extra “symbols” to ensure comprehension, not just reception. Our need for meaning through disambiguation is as old as our desire to communicate.

It was only with some form of written expression, be it cave paintings, glyphs, pictograms or letters that information took on its first physical form. Our encoding of the world based on our emotive experiences eventually led to the advent of written words, and with them, Gleick notes the need for

“word related machinery: classification, reference, definition” (p39).

The first wordbook provided definitions of

“all hard usuall English wordes” (p53)

and arrived on the scene in 1604, starting the process of codifying not only meanings but spellings. Isaac Newton was also very much at the forefront of this endeavour from a scientific perspective. After all, how can one share new scientific knowledge if there is no shared system? Undertaking experiments and writing up the results demanded consistency in measurements and definitions, something Newton seemed to appreciate and act on.

Despite our new electronic age, Gleick is sure to remind the reader that Information is still physical, and has real implications in the physical world. When quantum physicists and computer scientists talk of the quantum teleportation protocol they are talking about the transfer of quantum information (meaning information about real, physical quantum states) from one place to another. And all those fancy new clouds require server farms with huge electricity needs, often just to deal with waste heat. Jimmy Wales is wrong: bits are not free.

(As an aside, consider Star Trek Voyager: the limited power supply on the ship post-jump to the Delta quadrant meant limited replicator usage. Even our stories of the future require huge amounts of energy to make all that stuff.)

On a final note the reader should be happy to learn that for as long as we have enjoyed an abundance of content provided by printing presses we have been concerned with having too much information. The quote starting on page 401 from Oxford Scholar Robert Burton dated 1621 starts with

“I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of . . .”

He then goes on for 200 words to describe the miscellaneous bits that

“ . . . Thus I daily hear, and such like.”

Gently, Gleick reminds us that we have always devised methods deal with excess information, many of which still work quite well today regardless of format: catalogues, directories, indexes, encyclopaedias, digests, gazetteers . . . It has always been about seeking a balance between searching and filtering.  With each new tool we create yet more information.

My first impression of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, after reading the first two chapters, was that this would be a good read in LIS Masters level education. I am even more convinced now that I have finished it. I also believe it would be a welcome addition in the world of computer science education. Gleick has compiled a useful, even vital guide to understanding Information in its broadest and evidently most true sense. For anyone seeking to work with information and its technologies, The Information by James Gleick is your best introduction.

Robyn Stockand is a Librarian, practitioner of curiosity and follower of serendipity. She blogs at www.practicingcuriosity.blogspot.com

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One Response to “Book Review: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick”

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