From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long misunderstood "talking drums" of Africa, James Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He also provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information, including Charles Babbage, Ada Byron, Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, and Claude Shannon.
I was already familiar with a lot of the scientific and mathematical ideas here, so the parts I found most interesting involved the ways in which our worldviews and our ways of thinking about knowledge and information have changed over the centuries. I might almost have preferred more of an emphasis on that, actually, but I'm not really complaining. Overall this was well-written, thought-provoking, and definitely worth reading.
The book includes an early, slightly off-kilter discussion of the origins of information in early writing systems. Some conclusions here seem questionable. The genealogy of alphabet --> information seemed incomplete and perhaps a little Eurocentric.
Some parts seem to overreach. On page 16, for instance, Homer, Virgil, and Aeschylus are cited as sources who recount the use of fire beacons in the Trojan War. The Homeric epics are no guide to 12th century Mediterranean technologies, since they are considered to contain numerous 8th century anachronisms. Certainly, Virgil and Aeschylus are even further removed. If the best source for this information was poetry, several centuries removed, then the example (which was not vital to the chapter) should probably have been left out. One could make too much of this, but a misstep occurring so early in the book made me wary (probably unnecessarily so) of other conclusions and summaries offered by the author.
The section on the information deluge was appropriate in its length and coverage; so much has been written about this, elsewhere and recently, that this section could easily have been overdone. I would have appreciated attention to Jaron Lanier, here, but this is a personal preference and not a necessity.
Gleick's use of Marshall McLuhan was interesting, in that McLuhan merely popped in frequently, rather than having his own spot in the book. This was disappointing, as McLuhan is an interesting character to include when discussing the social impact of information, new media, etc. But at 426 pages (plus the seemingly exhaustive index and the extensive notes and bibliography), the book probably could not bear any additional close character studies.
This book would be most useful to a reader who wants to learn about information theory in order to understand other, denser work, or to critique other popular information/Internet-related texts. Gleick excels at humanizing abstract concepts.
I have read and enjoyed James Gleick's previous books, and also enjoyed this volume, a description of the information theory developed by Claude Shannon. The book starts with a history of information storage and transmission, from the redundancy in African drumming, needed to overcome the problems in transmission, to the printing press, which made information more stable, less subject to errors in copying. Shannon developed his theory while working for Bell labs, in order to improve transmission of phone calls. Along the way are described early telegraph codes, and the use of private codes to reduce telegraph key strokes; the first phone directories; the publication of vast compendiums of calculated answers that are now accessible by computer, and the explosion of information in digital storage.
He should have distinguished between data and information. Information has to be both new and relevant to the sender. Otherwise it just creates information (actually data) overload. A general introduction to some of the paradoxical results of information remains to be written. One example: You have to know the information to assess its value. But why would you pay for something that you then already know? This paradox lies at the heart of the media's struggle and inability to make the user pay for information.
A good but incomplete read that hides its incompleteness from its readers.
The main hero of the book is Claude Shannon, the engineer who first applied the concept of 'entropy' to information, and showed how this could be used for cryptography as well as for compression - but the book also shows how Samuel Morse had similar ideas when he invented his famous code, and how even the 'talking drums of Africa'¹ employed the same mechanisms of a small code-set complemented by redundancy.
There is also a chapter dedicated to the (at the time) unsung duo of Babbage and Lovelace, where he shows how their work - while impractical at the time - also presaged the same general development.
Another important subject is formal systems, and their inevitable incompleteness - Here he echoes Douglas Hofstadters Gödel, Esher, Bach, but also another book that deserves mentioning,Tor Nørretranders Mærk verden, (In English rendered as The User Illusion).
The book concludes with a chapter on 'information overdose', the case when too much information actually impedes decision-making. Very interesting, as I was listening to Malcolm Gladwells book Blink in parallel; a book that champions the idea that it's more important to consider the right information rather than all the information in order to make the right decision.
I think this book well deserves it's place next to Hofstadters tome.
¹ The tone is occasionally rather chatty, such as when he comments that the 'talking drums' have recently been replaced by mobile phones in less than a generation.
Your mileage may differ.
Yes there is a lot of information in this book about information. And, sometimes it can feel like too much. But I would rather an author try for more and not quite make it than settle for less and succeed.
Gleick gives us everything we could want to know and more. We learn about how information is transmitted by African drums. We learn about the origin and impossibility of dictionaries. We learn about all that Babbage tried to do with his calculating machines and never accomplished because he wanted to do more. We learn about codes and code breakers. We learn about randomness. We learn about how technologies fundamentally change who we are.
We are guided from the drums to the molecules of information.
In a way, the book is a metaphor for what it is trying to say – that we have more information than we know what to do with. Similarly, this book has more information than it knows what to do with. However, the best advice is to dive into that information. Better to miss some of it than all of it.