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Book review: 'The Information' by James Gleick

This wide-ranging exploration of humanity's struggle to make sense and maintain order of its ever-growing store of ideas and knowledge is a dense but engaging read.

March 13, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic

The Information

A History, a Theory, a Flood

James Gleick

Pantheon: 531 pp., $29.95

Partway through "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood," James Gleick describes a technological innovation so transformative that it was heralded as "one of the grand way-marks in the onward and upward march of the human intellect" by the New York Times. "What was the essence of the achievement?" Gleick asks. "'The transmission of thought, the vital impulse of matter.' The excitement was global but the effects were local. … Information that just two years earlier had taken days to arrive at its destination could now be there — anywhere — in seconds. This was not a doubling or tripling of transmission speed; it was a leap of many orders of magnitude. It was like the bursting of a dam whose presence had not even been known."

Sound familiar? It should. The telegraph, after all, changed everything when it was popularized in the 1840s; by 1858, a transatlantic cable had put Britain's Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan in direct contact, while news, gossip and commercial orders blazed across the wires. "Some worried that the telegraph would be the death of newspapers," Gleick writes, although "newspapers could not wait to put the technology to work." All of a sudden, information was not just a tool but also a commodity. "Because the telegraph was an information technology," he posits, "it served as an agent of its own ascendency."

The story of the telegraph is central to "The Information," which is a wide-ranging, deeply researched and delightfully engaging history — going back to Homer and Socrates (who distrusted written language as a corruption of pure memory) and extending, in loosely chronological fashion, to our contemporary culture of downloads and data clouds — of how we have come to occupy a world defined in bits and bytes. For Gleick, information has always been our medium; since cave dwellers painted the first animal forms on their walls, we have existed in two parallel universes, the biosphere and the infosphere.

"We are the species," he observes, "that named itself Homo sapiens, the one who knows — and then, after reflection, amended that to Homo sapiens sapiens." Our self-consciousness, in other words — our awareness of our awareness — resides at the heart of our incessant need to process and to know. Over the course of human culture, there have been a number of significant transformations, beginning with the alphabet, which Gleick calls "a founding technology of information. The telephone, the fax machine, the calculator, and, ultimately, the computer are only the latest innovations devised for saving, manipulating, and communicating knowledge." It is his idea that all these technologies exist as part of a continuum, with each developing from the last.

The key to such an argument is perspective, which is often in short supply when it comes to the information culture, with its tendency to inspire either paeans or jeremiads. Gleick, however, is too smart for that; he's all about the forest, not the trees. Throughout his career he's addressed difficult concepts accessibly but with an abiding sense of their complexity; his 1987 breakthrough work "Chaos: Making a New Science" (a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award) helped popularize chaos theory, while his 1992 biography "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" brought attention to the physicist and his work.

That's true also of "The Information," which invokes both chaos theory and Feynman, as well as a dizzying array of other subjects, including African talking drums, the Jorge Luis Borges story "The Library of Babel," Charles Babbage's Difference Engine (a failed attempt, in 19th century England, to create a mechanical computer 100 years before the electronic age) and the embrace of paradox in Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel's 1931 Incompleteness Theorem.

In places, the science can be overwhelming: Even Gleick admits it's "hard to summarize" Claude Shannon's 1948 paper "Mathematical Theory of Communication," with its logarithms and formulas, its statistical probabilities. The density, however, is unavoidable if we want to understand Shannon's thinking, or why Gleick frames him as an essential figure in "The Information," a Bell Labs researcher and the first person to theorize the bit as a "unit for measuring information … as though there were such a thing, measurable and quantifiable, as information."

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