The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

by James Gleick

Hardcover, 2011




New York : Pantheon Books, 2011.


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.

Media reviews

The heart of Gleick’s book is his treatment of the new information theory that Shannon — and computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing, noisily brilliant pioneer Norbert Stuart Wiener and many others — created in the middle decades of the 20th century. But Gleick loops backward to discuss early efforts at messaging and storage, from drum messages to dictionaries, and forward to make clear the massive consequences of what Shannon and the others wrought. ... Gleick is a technological determinist, in a moderate way. He argues elegantly that the telegraph promoted everything from the weaving of networks to the building of skyscrapers and the creation of a new “telegraphic” style of communication. It seems a pity, accordingly, that he does not say more about the ways in which information theory and its technical progeny have changed our ways of reading and writing, doing research and listening to music. ...
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Shannon's take on language is disconcerting. From the outset, he was determined to divorce information from meaning. That's why a random string of letters is more information-rich, in Shannon's sense, than a coherent sentence. There is a definite value in his measure, not just in computing but in linguistics. Yet to broach information in the colloquial sense, somewhere meaning must be admitted back into all the statistics and correlations... Gleick too readily accepts the standard trope that genes contain the information needed to build an organism. That information is highly incomplete. Genes don't need to supply it all, because they act in a molecular milieu that fills in the gaps. It's not that the music, or the gene, needs the right context to deliver its message – without that context, there is no message, no music, no gene. An information theory that considers just the signal and neglects the receiver is limited. It is the only serious complaint about a deeply impressive and rather beautiful book.
A highly ambitious and generally brilliant effort to tie together centuries of disparate scientific efforts to understand information as a meaningful concept. For a society that believes itself to live in an information age, the subject could hardly be more important. That the project doesn't fully succeed has more to do with the limits of our understanding than with Gleick's efforts.
This is all engagingly told, though Gleick’s focus on information systems occasionally leads him to exaggerate the effects technologies like printing and the telegraph could have all by themselves. For example, he repeats the largely discredited argument, made by the classicist Eric Havelock in the 1970s, that it was the introduction of the alphabet that led to the development of science, philosophy and “the true beginning of consciousness.” Such errors are mostly minor. But Gleick’s tendency to neglect the social context casts a deeper shadow over the book’s final chapters, where he turns from explicating information as a scientific concept to considering it as an everyday concern, switching roles from science writer to seer.
“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. “The Information” is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.
Entertaining, funny and clever, The Information puts our modern "information revolution" in context, helping us appreciate the many information revolutions that preceded and enabled it. The internet certainly has changed things, but Gleick shows that it has changed only what has already changed many times before.
Bestselling science and technology writer Gleick (Genius) gives a brilliant, panoramic view of how we save and communicate knowledge-from ancient African drumming to alphabets, the telegraph, radio, telephone and computers-and provides thrilling portraits of the geniuses behind the inventions.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
This sprawling volume explores of the idea of information: how we encode and transmit it, how we think about it, and what we do with it. Gleick starts out talking about African drum signals, the invention of writing, and the advent of the telegraph, then moves on through Charles Babbage and his early anticipation of the computer age and into discussions of mathematics, computer science, cryptography, biology, and physics, exploring the ways in which the concept of "information" has evolved in and influenced all of these various fields. Some of this stuff gets a bit technical, but I think Gleick does a good job of presenting it all without making it either too simplistic or too dry. He finishes it all up with a couple of relatively light chapters about the deluge of information we're all now exposed to, thanks to the internet, and how we are or aren't handling it.

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.
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LibraryThing member haig51
James Gleick does a remarkable job detailing the history of information and communication from the first scratchings on a cave wall to the cyberspace of today and the quantum information systems of tomorrow. He starts off not at the origin of symbolic language, but a short time after, when those ephemeral sounds between mortal humans leaped out of our minds and crystalized into timeless artifacts and immortal ideas that would forever change our culture and our world. Gleick traces the origins of both writing and mathematics to their historical beginnings and tracks the progress of these formalisms along with the theories and technologies that enabled their innovation and dissemination. He gives the reader both a clear explanation of each innovation as well as personal biographical accounts of the pioneers that made them possible. Both the breadth and the depth of the material is enlightening, and the writing is entertaining as well.… (more)
LibraryThing member BenTreat
As he did with chaos theory, decades ago, Gleick now attempts to introduce information theory to a popular audience. The book includes lengthy sections on Babbage and Shannon, surrounded by shorter discussions on other important topics (quantum information theory, information overload, etc.).

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.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
James Gleick is one of my favorite popular science authors and he doesn't disappoint in this book either. While the book is quite long, it only tells have of the story. In my view, the uninteresting half. The development of the different information technologies is well told. The familiar cast of Babbage, Lovelace, Shannon, Gödel and Turing are given loving portraits and their ideas well explained. With Richard Dawkins' meme, Gleick reaches the present. What he fails to realize, is that information is subjective. Gleick's objective, physicist's world breaks down in social systems. He brushes upon this in his discussion of contaminated memes but does not continue his journey on to communication theory and sociology.

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.
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LibraryThing member bookworx
An engaging journey to the center of the meme, the acceleration of information sharing from the first multi celled organism to abstract mathematics and back. Loved the concept of chickens being the eggs way of making another egg and humans as lumbering robot hosts for gene procreation. Lots of research and reason put in memorable motion.… (more)
LibraryThing member co_coyote
James Gleick can make just about any topic interesting and engaging. He is one of the finest science writers of our time. But with information theory he really has chosen a tough row to hoe. It is a confusing, subtle mis-mash of counter intuitive ideas that has to be pulled together into a coherent whole. Glick manages to pull it off with his usual clarity and sense of style. This is one of those science books that I keep thinking about over and over again. Very well done.… (more)
LibraryThing member love2laf
Completely fascinating, although, at time, over my head. Would love to own!
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
a very interesting and thoughful book about how we as community have more access to information. this is a great read actually exciting book
LibraryThing member neurodrew
Subtitle: A History, A Theory, A Flood.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member sthitha_pragjna
Gripping account by Gleick. His section on Babbage (who married Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, who also ran the analytic engine) is excellent. The whole book is a veritable tour de force. Destined to become a classic.
LibraryThing member BookWallah
Well written, engaging, far reaching romp through information theory. Never thought I would see this as a popular science book. Recommended for anyone with so long attention span, as some of those concepts will require an effort to sort through. Worth the effort.
LibraryThing member mullerd
The title is promising, however the book does not live up to the expectations. It's more a story about the influence of Claude Shannon than anything else. The part about the history of the telegraph is great to read.
LibraryThing member paulkeller
a bit of a disappointment. there are lots of hidden gems in there (the story about the midwest farmers using fences as local telefone networks!) but all in all it is a rather difficult read. i found it quite challenging to drag myself though the first 13 pr so chapters that primarily deal with advances in theory. It is quite frustrating that this suddenly changes with the last two chapters which deal primarily with anecdotal evidence documenting the information explosion of the last two decennia. It never becomes really clear how the two parts of the book relate to each other (other than that the first part provides some much needs historical perspective on the second). Personally i had expected that more of the first part would come back in the 2nd. [unexpected bonus: i think that i finally understand entropy].… (more)
LibraryThing member waitingtoderail
This may not be my favorite book of the year, but it's up there, and it may be the most influential. This is an introduction to information theory that isn't perfect, but is pretty understandable - I lost him a bit near the end - and has me wanting to learn more. Anyone who can get me to add a book on hard-core math to my wish list must be doing something right.… (more)
LibraryThing member fpagan
Long, wide-ranging, and quite resistant to brief summarization, but rightly centered on Claude Shannon's work of the mid-1900s. The short physics chapter refers to Wheeler's "It from Bit" idea and whimsically offers that "the bit is the ultimate unsplittable particle." (p 357) Myself, I wonder if (seemingly dimensionless) information could somehow be given a fundamental dimensional status comparable to mass, length, and time. Could physics (having annexed computer science as a subdiscipline?) then proceed to give us a scientific understanding of things in the universe like observers and consciousness? Or are these questions completely crazy?… (more)
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
Fascinating history of information. How we transmit it, organize it, retrieve it, filter it and the impact it has on how we live and think. I loved this book especially the chapter on Wikipedia. SRH
LibraryThing member tlockney
As I just commented to a friend: "Absolutely loved it. The chapter about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage was perhaps among the best chpaters of any book I have ever read. That's the only way I know how to put it -- this book left me wishing it was twice as long."
LibraryThing member SwitchKnitter
This book was fabulous. It looks at everything from African talking drums to the telegraph to quantum computing to Wikipedia. Everything is woven together nicely by the author. It's not what I was expecting, though -- there's way more science and math than I would have thought, but it makes for a fascinating book. I definitely recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member dazzyj
Fascinating study of the genesis and development of information as a scientific subject in is own right.
LibraryThing member br77rino
The early chapters were boring, but the later ones were great.
LibraryThing member rsubber
A powerfully engaging book, heavy on history and heavy on observation and assessment of historical and current technology of communication. "Technology changes the way we think," is one of my takeaways. From the jacket: "…the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness."
LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
This book covers the history of information theory. Some of it is very technical and although I was able to follow the basics, it was really beyond me. I mostly just tried to keep moving through those parts, and take in as much as I could. But, a lot of the book was fascinating, and held my interest, particularly, stories about the first dictionaries, the use of semaphore to transfer information long distances, until it was replaced by the telegraph, African talking drums, and others.… (more)
LibraryThing member Katong
So far, so awesome. If I had a band, it would be called Spooky Action from a Distance
LibraryThing member Popup-ch
Gleicks's book is a historic overview of the evolution of 'information theory', discussing the very concept of communication, from early alphabets to the proliferation of Wikipedia entries.

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.
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LibraryThing member shadowofthewind
This book is a very thorough examination covering information from the smallest bit. A bit is the smallest piece of information that cannot be broken down whether its 1s and 0s, an African drum beat, a telegraph beep, or our own genes.

Gleick covers it all here, but the book goes to places I had trouble following. It starts off with a general history of information and covers the African drum as a communication tool and follows with oral communication, written communication, and up until the telegraph. It’s at this point that I had trouble with a little too much detail. He gets into how a telegraph works and the use of electricity, then into code breaking, Babbage’s analytical machine, entropy, quantum physics and string theory. In some parts I had to recall my High School physics and a book I read earlier this year, The Grande Design (dealing with quantum physics and string theory). I couldn’t piece together a cohesive point to this direction. I was under the impression the book was about information, how it is delivered, and how we are overwhelmed by it (which he does cover), but it takes such a big sidetrack that I wasn’t sure if he could pull it all together at the end. He does thankfully, and it does all make sense after finishing the book.

An example of the extreme points is when he examines a book called A Million Random Digits, which is a book with a million random digits in it. It was a book published by the Rand Corporation in an attempt to determine if there is a pattern. He also discusses genes and how those tiny bits may be controlling who you are more than you know.
Although difficult, it’s fascinating. There is a part about how information can never be lost, and that it takes work to actually forget things. In fact, if information could be lost it would upend all of quantum theory, even if you burn a book, you could technically rebuild the information from the ash.

The book is a flood of information in and of itself, but worth the read. I will definitely re-read this one in the future to get many of his points, but his main one is clear. It’s not a problem of losing information, but wading through and filtering all of it to find meaning. How do we find meaning with this flood of information? (It’s a call to the librarian in all of us.)

“This is the challenge that remains, and not just for scientists: the establishment of meaning.” P. 372

“When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.” P. 410

Favorite Passages:
“It from Bit: Information gives rise to every It—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself.” This is another way of fathoming the paradox of the observer: that the outcome of an experiment is affected, or even determined, when it is observed. Not only is the observer observing she is asking questions and making statements that must ultimately be expressed in discrete bits. “What we call reality” Wheeler wrote coyly, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He added “all things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.” P. 10

“The alphabet spread by contagion. The new technology was both the virus and the vector of transmission. It could not be monopolized and it could not be suppressed. Even children could learn these few, lightweight semantically empty letters.” P. 39
“The information has been detached from any person, detached from the person’s experience. Now it lives in the words, little life-support modules.” P. 39

“Language did not function as a storehouse of words, from which users could summon the correct items, preformed. On the contrary, words were fugitive, on the fly expected to vanish again thereafter.” P. 53
(There is an interesting perspective on how our view of the universe affects our language. The illiterate see geometric shapes, not as circle or rectangle, but as ball or door.)

“Telephone books soon represented the most comprehensive listings of, and directories to, human populations ever attempted (They became the thickest and densest of the world’s books—four volumes for London; a 2,600 page tome for Chicago—and seemed a permanent, indispensible part of the world’s information ecology until, they were not. They went obsolete, effectively, at the turn of the 21st century. American telephone companies were officially fazing them out by 2010 in New York; the end of automatic delivery of telephone directories was estimated to save 5,000 tons of paper. “

“Information is not free. Maxwell, Thomson, and the rest had implicitly talked as though knowledge was there for the taking…they did not consider the cost of this information. They could not; for them in a simpler time, it was as if the information belonged to a parallel universe, an astral plan, not linked to the universe of matter and energy, particles and forces whose behavior they were learning to calculate. P 279

“When a jingle lingers in our ears or a fad turns fashion upside down, or a hoax dominates the global chatter for months and vanishes as swiftly as it came, who is master and who is slave?” P. 327
“Now expectations have inverted. Everything may be recorded and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop; elevator, or city street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match. Having a camera at hand is normal, not exceptional, something like 500 billion images were capture in 2010…” p. 397

“Overloading of circuits was a fairly new metaphor to express a sensation—too much information—that felt new. It had always felt new. One hungers for books; rereads a cherished few; begs or borrows more; waits at the library door and perhaps, in the blink of an eye, finds oneself in a state of surfeit: too much to read.” P. 401
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