The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

If you read only one science book in a decade The Information by James Gleick should be it.  I’m not saying The Information is the best science book in a decade, but if you don’t read much about science then this book is for you.  It’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever felt information overload this book will help explain how and why it’s happening.

We live in accelerating times that are hard to comprehend – the flow of information is like a category 5 hurricane that has stationed itself permanently over our lives, never leaving, and only intensifying.  Unless you have a fairly good education it’s doubtful you’ll truly comprehend this book, but there’s plenty of easy to understand history for the non-scientific minded to get the gist of things. 

Here’s one anecdote from the book that might help.  When the telegraph was first developed, people would go to the telegraph office and write down a message and give it to the operator who would key it in and then act finished.  Many people expected to see their message to go off, leave the building.  They couldn’t comprehend how information could be translated from words on the paper, to electrical pulses of dots and dashes that would travel along a wire.  Now this is hard for us to comprehend because we’re used to the world wide web, but the history of our species is a history of conceptual breakthroughs dealing with information.  But more than that, our minds, bodies and reality are information.

When my mother and father were children growing up in the 1920s all they had for news was the radio and newspaper.  My mother grew up in the country and didn’t even have the radio right away.  My father grew up in Miami, so he was closer to the cutting edge of communication technology.  My mother’s mother, born in 1881, and grew up in rural Mississippi probably didn’t even see a newspaper that often.  Most of the information in her world came from the Bible, static news that has been lingering around for 2,000-3,000 years.

James Gleick hooks us into his story by starting with African talking drums.  European explorers were blown away by African tribes communicating across great distances with drums, and sending rather complex messages.  The best the Europeans could do were things like signal lights, one if by land, two if by sea, or blow the bugle for retreat.  It’s very hard for us modern people to understand how talking drums worked because we no longer live in an oral culture.  Before writing people memorized everything, and often would know very long poems or songs they would memorize and pass on.  Drum talking is based on knowing the sound patterns of common phrases, with the drums having enough pitch to “talk” or mimic the phrase.  Basically the African drummers would imitate a line of a song and the receiver would interpret the phrase.  What would you think to do if you were in a sticky situation and your buddy started humming “Born to Run?” Gleick gives this example:

Make your feet come back the way they went,

Make your legs come back the way they went,

plant your feet and your legs below,

in the village which belongs to us.

If the African drummer created a pattern that sounded like that song, people were supposed to interpret as, “Come back home.”  It’s a rather neat trick when you think about it.

When humans lived like animals, communication and information was very immediate – “I found some grapes.”  But as we organized and formed permanent tribes, information became more complex and abstract, for example, the ten commandments.  Before the invention of writing there was a limit to how much and how far humans could communicate.

Writing was a real breakthrough because it conquered space and time.  A message could be copied and sent in many directions at once, and it would last as long as the medium it was written on.  There was a time when writing was even mistrusted.  Socrates felt writing was bad for memory.  He was right, but writing became a new form of memory. 

Early writing was still limited.  It was very hard to copy, few people could write and few could read.  From Bart Ehrman’s Forged, I learned something very interesting.  In ancient times reading and writing didn’t always go together.  Some people could read but not write, others would write by not read.  It took centuries to get from writing to printing, but after Guttenberg literacy took off, changing our world.  Computers have again transformed how we process information, but it’s a quantum leap over the printing press.  Quantum leaps were also made by the telegraph, the photograph, the radio and the television.

Each time, people protested.  Not long after the invention of the printing press people started complaining there were too many books – meaning there was too much to know.  Here is a quote I love from 1621, given in the final chapter of The Information.  It reminds me how I feel watching the NBC Nightly News every evening.  It is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, corantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c. This I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves; I rub on privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, statu quo prius, left to a solitary life, and mine own domestic discontents: saving that sometimes, ne quid mentiar, as Diogenes went into the city, and Democritus to the haven to see fashions, I did for my recreation now and then walk abroad, look into the world, and could not choose but make some little observation, non tam sagax observator ac simplex recitator, [45] not as they did, to scoff or laugh at all, but with a mixed passion.

I’m jumping to the end of The Information, the part about the information flood because I think that’s how most people will relate to this book.  The subtitle, “a history, a theory, a flood” is very apt.  For about half the book Gleick gives us a history of how we got here, reading, printing, computing – inventing the telegraph, radio, television, internet, etc.  Then he gets into Claude Shannon and information theory, and finally ends up with information overload.  That’s a very quick summary that does the book a disservice, but I’m trying to get you to read it, and if I started talking about Norbert Weiner and Cybernetics I’d probably scare you off.  (By the way, this book is very popular at my online book club, impressing a variety of different reading tastes.)

James Gleick covers a lot of fascinating history, like that of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace developing computer programming in the 19th century, or how Morse code was developed, which created a 19th century form of geek culture that inspired developments in cryptography and information compression.  Did you know that Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with cryptography?  I find the 19th century tremendously exciting, and Gleick spends a lot of time there.  But it’s when Gleick gets to the 20th century that book becomes important.  Most people’s knowledge of 20th century science is of the flashy stuff, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, or NASA’s explorations, or the dazzling development of medical science.  Some people are familiar with Crick and Watson’s DNA and maybe even gene sequencing.  Particle physics is often written about, and all kids love dinosaurs and a bit of astronomy.  But few people want to go deeper.

Gleick gives us a geekier history of 20th century science, almost a secret history not because it was hidden, but because it’s closer to math than pure science like physics, chemistry and biology.  This scares away the average pop science reader, but don’t let it.  Gleick wants to tell us how we are information, our minds, our bodies, our society, our reality, and it requires understanding some mathematical concepts.  But we live in a digital age and really need to understand communication theory.  Why?  That’s harder to explain, but I shall try.

Remember recently when Michele Bachmann was in the news with the story about her comment on the HPV Vaccine and it causing mental retardation?  This incident demonstrated many dimensions of her ignorance which gets into all kinds of ways we communicate and process information.  First off, notice that her information came to her verbally, in person.  She proudly cited it as such.  Before the scientific era, the eye witness was the highest forms of information validation.  We now know that first person accounts are among the least valid, but back then it was considered the gold standard of proof.  If someone claimed to have seen a mermaid then they existed.  Bachmann was merely acting like a 17th century person, or even a 4th century BCE person.  Not only did she collect her facts in a poor manner, she spread them by 21st century technology, and thus became a dangerous carrier of misinformation.  She may have created a meme and become a viral vector spreading unhealthy information.  Here reaction was based on previous memes.

But it is much more complicated than that.  How do we know if the HPV Vaccine is good or bad, or even how it works?  Your answer will place you along a history of information understanding time line.  Sadly, most conservative people are going to place somewhere before the 19th century.  But even well educated liberals might only peg in at early 20th century.  The Information, and many books like it that have come out in the last few years are trying to catch people up with things we’ve learned from the 1940s on.  There is an exciting synergy going on among the sciences and it’s a tragedy that most of the people living in these early 21st century times are missing it.

It’s very hard to explain this.  Physics was the first science to explain reality.  Then chemistry.  For a long time biology and botany was divorced from pure science of physics.  But in our lifetimes biology has reached the level of chemistry and physics, moving ever closer to the quantum level of reality, and this brings us to communication theory and mathematics.  19th century evolution is being validated by 20th century discoveries in genetics and DNA, which are now being connected to the subatomic world, which leads us to the world of probability and pure information.  It’s all coming together.  The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick is your introduction.

Normally, this is where I would stop my book reviewing process, but this book makes me want to write more.  I listened to The Information, but I now plan to read and study it carefully.  This book is a gold mine of learning, and I’ve just barely taken away some quick riches, but there are billions to be learned in it still.  While researching this review I discovered that several other books essentially covering the same topic, or extensions of it.  I’m going to have to buy and study them too.  Read the reviews and comments on them here:

But returning to The Information, I’d also like to outline the essential topics that Gleick covers.  I want to list them to help people decide about reading the book, and to make a handy-dandy reference for myself to the subjects I want to further study.  Wikipedia covers these topics wonderfully, probably because if you’re geeky enough to work on Wikipedia you are also probably interested in these topics.  Plus Wikipedia was an important topic in The Information.  Furthermore, many of these Wikipedia articles cover the topics in more detail than Gleick does in book.

Other Reviews


JWH – 9/24/11

3 thoughts on “The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood by James Gleick”

  1. James Gleick is one of my all time favorite writers. His book on Chaos theory is still one of my favorite science books of all time…Jim

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