The Information - James Gleick

I can't remember when I first read James Gleick's Chaos, but I'll take a guess that it was late in my undergraduate years, probably at the recommendation of the brilliant biology major I was dating at the time.  In truth, although I'd always been interested in science by way of my affection for science fiction, in my early 20s, it would have taken affection of another sort entirely to get this English major to read a book about (mostly) mathematics. I'm still not sure I understood everything in Chaos, but the counter-intuitive gist of its subject fascinated me -- as did the terminology: Butterfly Effect, Mandelbrot set, Julia sets, and Lorenz attractors. Although I haven't had the chance yet to read Gleick's Genius, Faster, or Isaac Newton, I knew as soon as I heard about The Information, I would be reading it.  Gleick's latest, coming as it did (in my reading life)on the heels of Tim Wu's The Master Switch, was an inevitable book.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, like many great books, has the effect of changing your way of thinking about the world. In much the same way that Chaos pulled fields of study like meteorology, the stock market, and ecology together around the idea of nonlinear systems, The Information demonstrates -- in a far more sweeping manner -- how the challenges of transforming and transporting ideas run throughout the history of civilization.  Not only that, but Gleick clearly shows readers just how radically different today's information universe is from what existed just 150 years ago.

Gleick begins his story with the example of the West African talking drum to demonstrate the two basic challenges of moving information from one place to another.  The first challenge is that of encoding -- how to convert information into a form suitable for transmission.  The second challenge is attenuation or signal loss -- how to prevent the encoded information from being lost or distorted.  The manner in which users of the talking drum have solved these problems is striking, and the strangeness of the example serves well to lead the reader into a deeply counter-intuitive (there's that word again) exploration of the all-too familiar systems of information around us.

We take these systems so much for granted we hardly notice them at all.  Something as simple as the alphabet -- a system of signs encoding of the sounds of words -- had to be invented, as did standardized spelling and the use of alphabetical order.  This last item of alphabetization could easily be overlooked, but Gleick spends a great deal of time explaining how, without a system for organizing all the names of things that could be written down, the names themselves are not nearly as useful.  There's a good reason why, when toddlers are getting ready for kindergarten, one of the first songs they learn to sing is their ABCs.

In his usual manner, Gleick weaves what might appear to be disconnected topics into a cohesive narrative synthesis around this core concept of information: the history of dictionaries, the optical telegraph, the electric telegraph and Morse Code, logarithmic tables, Charles Babbage's difference engine, Alan Turing and encryption and algorithms, Claude Shannon and digital design, Watson and Crick and the human genome, packet switching and the Internet, the meaning of Wikipedia, right up to the latest developments in quantum computing.  By the time the reader finishes, the true significance of that smart phone in the pocket will be more clear than ever before.  Always surprising, challenging but never obscure, The Information is an essential book for understanding one of the defining elements of contemporary life --just how much information surrounds us at every turn.

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