The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

August 18, 2011

In the age of Google, Twitter, information overload and confusion, The Information is a timely blessing for anyone in a wheelspin about the meaning of what has befallen us. It is a work of Herculean compass tracing the emergence of information as an entity vying with material cause as the essential explanatory agent in our account of the world.

James Gleick writes with charm, wit and clarity. The simplicity of his accounts of complex mathematical and conceptual abstractions is not that of dumbing down, but of mastery - not necessarily as a specialist in each of the ambitious array of disciplines involved, but as a decoder of hidden meanings, as a storyteller. His gift is that of a fine teacher: he writes as though he cares that we understand. This is not a work of either doom or optimism, but a candid, insightful and sometimes profound exploration of what has emerged as a unifying feature of the historically disparate disciplines of printing, communications, calculation, computing, computer science, machine intelligence, cryptanalysis, quantum physics, genetics and networks.

The unifying discourse is information theory, and the book is an exploration of how this has come to be. What "information" means to an information scientist is perturbing. Claude Shannon's attempts to quantify information led to the counterintuitive finding that meaning is irrelevant to information content. Precisely what is of value to us in a message (its meaning) is suddenly beside the point. As Gleick unpicks this ruthless and dismaying conclusion, he is as reassuring as a good therapist - understanding, sympathetic, never didactic.

The clue to the book's structure is in the subtitle, and the transitions between the three sections are seamless. The opening chapter describes African "talking drums", a subtle and effective form of pre-literate communication. E.P. Thompson warns against the "enormous condescension of posterity" in our views of superseded crafts and skills. It is easy to dismiss Gleick's talking drums as a simplistic, limited form of communication, a way, perhaps, of dignifying with a little obligatory history the forthcoming tale of modern triumphs. This would be a mistake. The significance of the drums unfolds in subsequent chapters as Gleick unveils the profound difference between their tonal system and forms of communication that we assume to be "natural", that is, characterised by coding language in symbols. The richness of the talking drums is a poetically sad example of what was lost in the transition to literate cultures. The loss was not without gain, though, and one of the book's highlights is its treatment of the implications of writing and literacy.

What follows is a grand tour of major intellectual developments in the history of scientific thinking and the recurrence of problems in apparently unrelated fields. Figures visited include Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace and the birth of automatic computation; Samuel Morse and telegraphy; Shannon and information theory; Kurt Godel and a mathematics crisis; John von Neumann and mathematics; Alan Turing and the universal machine; Norbert Wiener and cybernetics; James Clerk Maxwell and his demons; Erwin Schrodinger and his uncertainties; Francis Crick and James Watson and genetics; and Richard Dawkins on genes and memes. In this formidable line-up, Shannon is central. The information-theoretic approach produces a startling finding - the equivalence of information, randomness and complexity "bound all along like secret lovers". It is Turing's work on algorithms and the notion of "mechanical process" that provides the key to quantifying what would otherwise remain elusive abstractions. Inevitably, "thinking machines" are discussed, along with the apparent paradoxes of rule-based creativity.

Gleick's sources are richly eclectic, with throwaway treats throughout (the origin of the word "jack" in "telephone jack", of "file" in "to file a document"). The book concludes with our bewilderment at information overload. Gleick touches on the coping strategies of filtering and searching, "namespace crowding" on the internet and Wikipedia's "wisdom of crowds". The arguments of traditionalists and modernists are evenly balanced, although with the ingenious plasticity of electronic communications it is clear that it would take more than horses to turn the clock back. Calling the glut of electronic information "the flood" is perhaps suggestive of doom. But Gleick draws on history to comfort us: each major development in communications prompted the same anxieties. And we are still here.

There are extensive endnotes giving source references indexed by page number. The sources are prolific, but with the endnote arrangement the text is mercifully free of superscripts.

The Information is a masterful work about how fragmented strands of intellectual history have become increasingly unified in information theory. Gleick's guide carries a heavy payload lightly delivered and is invaluable not least because it bridges the divide between specialists and non-specialists.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

By James Gleick

Fourth Estate, 544pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780007225736

Published 31 March 2011

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