The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

Article excerpt

How humans handle information has been a theme - and a concern - throughout the ages.

"The past folds accordion-like into the present," James Gleick

writes in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, his sweeping

survey of how humans use information and how this practice, in turn,

has shaped humanity. Gleick's book defies easy summary, but its

most abiding insight is, in fact, its reminder that the so- called

"Information Age" of the present has deep historical parallels

dating back to the dawn of time.

Gleick concludes that information, now seen as the currency of the

modern world, has always been the animating force of the planet,

though in ways we have only recently begun to understand.

"We can now see that information is what our world runs on: the

blood and the fuel, the vital principle," he tells readers. "It

pervades the sciences from top to bottom, transforming every branch

of knowledge.... Now even biology has become an information science,

a subject of messages, instructions, and code. Genes encapsulate

information and enable procedures for reading it in and writing it

out. Life spreads by networking. The body itself is an information


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Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell.... DNA is the

quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message

processor at the cellular level - an alphabet and a code, 6 billion

bits to form a human being."

The idea of the bit as a fundamental building block of information

came from Claude Shannon, the man behind the theory of the book's

subtitle. Gleick credits Shannon with creating the conceptual

framework that allowed today's information economy to emerge.

Gleick's treatment of Shannon is the most technically challenging

part of the book. E.B. White once warned that analyzing humor was

like dissecting a frog, leaving one with an array of parts that

seemed only dimly related to the subject. Gleick's narrative

sometimes feels equally reductionist, particularly in the passages

about Shannon, but "The Information" isn't always or even

usually concerned with dry empiricism.

There's sheer pleasure in these pages, too, with many chapters

resembling a Victorian curio cabinet, an intimate universe of items

that have lively and unlikely connections. Gleick, who approvingly

describes his hero Shannon as someone who "gathered threads like a

magpie," proves quite a magpie himself, crafting a story that

includes not only Aeschylus but AT&T, as well as Beethoven and

Bell Labs, Darwin and domain names, "The Iliad," the telephone,

and "The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. …


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