The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood
Heitman, Danny, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …