"The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood" is a book by science history writer James Gleick, author of Chaos: Making a New Science. It covers the genesis of our current information age.
Gleick begins with the tale of 18th century European explorers and their fascination with African talking drums and their observed use to send complex and widely understood messages back and forth between villages far apart. Gleick transitions from the information implications of such drum signaling to the impact the of the arrival of long distance telegraph and then telephone communication to the commercial and social prospects of the industrial west. Research to improve these technologies ultimately led to our understanding the essentially digital nature of information, quantized down to the unit of the bit (or qubit).
Starting with the development of symbolic written language, Gleick examines the history of intellectual insights central to information theory, detailing the key figures responsible such as Claude Shannon, Charles Babbage, Ada Byron, Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and John Archibald Wheeler. The author also delves into how digital information is now being understood in relation to physics and molecular biology. Gleick finally discusses Wikipedia and the implications of its expansive user generated content and the ultimate entropy cost of generating aditional information.
The Information has received mostly positive reviews by the press such as by Nicholas Carr for The Daily Beast and physicist Freeman Dyson for The New York Review of Books. Geoffrey Nunberg writing for The New York Times, while mostly positive, is concerned about Gleick's dismissal of distinctions between pure information and meaning. Ian Pindar writing for The Guardian laments The Information for not fully addressing the relationship between social control of information (censorship) and access to political power.
The fact is, although we live in an information age, we don’t really know what information even means.
Into the breach steps the gifted science writer James Gleick. In his formidable new book, The Information, Gleick explains how we’ve progressed from seeing information as the expression of human thought and emotion to looking at it as a commodity that can be processed, like wheat or plutonium. It’s a long, complicated, and important story, beginning with tribal drummers and ending with quantum physics, and in Gleick’s hands it’s also a mesmerizing one.
—Nicholas Carr, The Daily Beast
To grasp what information truly means—to explain why it is shaping up as a unifying principle of science—Gleick has to embrace linguistics, logic, telecommunications, codes, computing, mathematics, philosophy, cosmology, quantum theory and genetics. He must call as witnesses not only Charles Babbage, Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel, but also Borges, Poe and Lewis Carroll. There are few writers who could accomplish this with such panache and authority. Gleick, whose 1987 work Chaos helped to kickstart the era of modern popular science, is one.
—Philip Ball, The Observer
Gleick connects the dots that connect information to us, and there are many dots. He covers the history of communications of every sort, and the history of information science, which are the most enjoyable parts. At the core of the book is Claude Shannon and his theory of information. Gleick has done better than anyone else in trying to explain the paradoxical nature of information. But it is not easy to understand, in part I believe, because what Shannon meant by information is not what most of us mean by it.
Still, here in one volume is the great story of the most important element at work in the world, and its story is well told. I had forgotten what a fantastic stylist Gleick is. It’s a joy to read him talking about anything.
—Kevin Kelly, Technium
James Gleick (born August 1, 1954) is an American author, journalist, and biographer, whose books explore the cultural ramifications of science and technology. Three of these books have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists, and they have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Born in New York City, USA, Gleick attended Harvard College, graduating in 1976 with a degree in English and linguistics. Having worked for the Harvard Crimson and freelanced in Boston, he moved to Minneapolis, where he helped found a short-lived weekly newspaper, Metropolis. After its demise, he returned to New York and joined as staff of the New York Times, where he worked for ten years as an editor and reporter.
He was the McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University in 1989-90. Gleick collaborated with the photographer Eliot Porter on Nature's Chaos and with developers at Autodesk on Chaos: The Software. In 1993, he founded The Pipeline, an early Internet service. Gleick is active on the boards of the Authors Guild and the Key West Literary Seminar.
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