Book Review: The Information

Jame’s Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is kind of all over the place, as you might expect given its nebulous subject matter. The author intends to do pretty much what the subtitle suggests: review the history of information as a concept, dive into the scientific field of information theory, and ponder what recent volume of information flow means for us as a society or even as a species. As such, it’s a mix of history, hard science, and even a dash of speculation.

My favorite parts of the book were the history of science bits, which Gleick presents after what seems to be exhaustive and comprehensive research. He traces the evolution of information as a concept, starting around the invention of the written word, then working up through the time line and pointing out landmarks like the printing press, the discovery of logarithms, the telegraph, Morse code, the telephone, the computer, the Internet, and the like. Each of these is discussed in the context of how they shaped the abstract concept of “information” and all led to the inevitable creation of a theory of information. I also loved learning about all the people behind these inventions and discoveries, and Gleick delivers the best bits of biographies on characters like Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace (nee Byron), Claude Shannon, James Maxwell, and more. These parts of the book were replete with fun facts and amusing stories, like the woman who tried to “send” a bowl of sauerkraut by the newly invented telegraph or how the editors of the Oxford Dictionary decide what new words to add each edition. It’s all very educational and made me think of information and the information technology around me in new ways. I always love learning about visionaries and how they made their mark.

The sections on the formal theory of information, though, were also enjoyable, but to my layman mind they were sometimes dense to the point of being impenetrable. Gleick doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff, and his discussion of information theory is flung far enough to cover many fields: mathematics, cybernetics, quantum theory, psychology, electrical engineering, chemistry, astrophysics, computer programming, genetics, history, cryptology, and more. And while Gleick doesn’t revel in jargon and he makes many attempts to keep things at a high level, much of the book is unavoidably scholarly. Still, I was usually able to follow along with the WHAT he was getting at, if not the HOW. And it really is impressive how widely he casts his net.

And I’m glad I did. While some of the finer points may have been lost on me, I enjoyed the history of science treatment and got enough of it to get a feel for the shape of information theory and how the general concept of information has evolved and been revealed through advances in philosophy, science, and technology –what it is, how it’s measured, where it goes, and what its properties are. It’s heady stuff, but fun to think about.

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