Review of The Information by James Gleick

Nov 07 2014

In The Information, James Gleick surveys the impact of information, and information revolutions, throughout human history providing a sobering perspective on today’s “big data” revolution. Covering talking drums, and Morse code, to the human genome, and Wikipedia, he shows the evolution of ‘information’ from ideas of language and communication through to the stuff of life itself.

The story starts with the invention of pictograms – James Gleick says that this was 30 thousand years ago, although recent discoveries in Indonesia provide evidence that this happened much longer ago (even 60 thousand years or more). Picto-graphics developed into ideo-graphics (showing ideas) and eventually logo-graphics (writing the word).

James Gleick discusses the differences between written languages based on symbols and those based on words, describing the latin alphabet as the most reductive and subversive of scripts and Chinese as rich and complex with the largest set of symbols that have meaning individually and can create new meanings when combined with one another. In an interesting aside, a Chinese contemporary of Aristotle called Gonsung Long seems to have anticipated ideas from semiotics and science of signs, and George Magritte’s work “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” (in Gonsung’s case, a horse is not a horse).

He moves on to the development of dictionaries that revolutionized the way that the information of language was perceived – the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary had 414,825 entries! James Gleick follows with a discussion of Charles Babbage and the development of computers, telegraphs and mathematical logic. I was struck by a quote claiming that the telegraph had “eliminated distance and time”. Morse code was developed as a useful tool, much in the same way as others argue all languages are simply cultural tools to solve local problems.

The book makes clear that much of the current information explosion goes back to the growth of the telecommunications industry and, in particular, the (often very speculative) research and development program of Bell Labs in the first half of the twentieth century.  It was there that ‘information theory’ was fully developed, with Claude Shannon and Alan Turing (the subject of the new film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch) key figures. Intriguingly, Shannon and Turing used to meet daily when Turing spent time at Bell Labs, although they were both working on secret projects (on ciphers and encryption) and were not supposed to discuss their work.

These developments had much in common with ideas in linguistics, and there is a fascinating discussion of the relationship between information and redundancy. James Gleick explains how redundancy in normal language actually helps understanding – put another way, most communication can be made more efficient, but at the cost of accuracy of interpretation.

Shannon estimated that around 50% of most spoken language was redundant (that is, you could remove half of the information and still be understood – the brain can extrapolate and interpolate where information is missing). However, this assumes that there is no ‘noise’ intervening between the original signal and the receiver of the signal. Shannon is famous for developing ideas of signal to noise, and for the use of the word ‘bit’ to describe a single piece of information.

The concept of entropy looms big in The Information, both as a way of describing information that has order or disorder, and as a link between the focus of science on understanding energy and its gradual shift to the focus of science (including life sciences) on understanding information. James Gleick quotes Richard Dawkins, “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’. It is information, words, instructions.”

From genes, James Gleick (like Richard Dawkins) moves to memes and the transmission of ideas. In the final parts of the book, he discusses issues of ‘infobesity’ or ‘information overload’, or what David Foster Wallace called Total Noise (“the tsunami of available fact, context and perspective”) that he described as a drowning man. He finishes by asking if the problem of information is a problem of source or target. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, “A man how has something to say and no listeners is bad off. Even worse off are listeners who can’t find anyone with something to say to them.”

The Information is a great read for anyone who wants to understand the role of information and communication in human society. Above all, it shows that every age has been disrupted by information revolutions, and the twenty first centure is no different.

[This review first appeared in Asia Research Online.]


The Information: A history, a theory, a flood by James Gleick

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