Joe's Reviews > The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

The Information by James Gleick
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Feb 14, 2012

it was amazing

Journalist and science writer James Gleick’s The Information takes many shapes, much like its slippery subject. It’s in parts a biography of symbolic logic, a history of the bit and an introductory course in information theory. Yet it also contains tales of ciphers and cryptanalysis, extended description of an ancient communication style – African talking drums – and serious studies of the many innovators who, as theoretical mathematician Augusta Ada Byron King put it, “learned to walk on the threshold of unknown worlds.” The figures populating it (Turing, Byron King herself, Charles Babbage, Claude Shannon and Samuel Morse, among others) have each contributed like monads in the cloud some small measure to the greater whole accounting for the era of “total noise” and extended mind in which we live.

Given, though, the dendritic tendencies of ideas, to spread like Dawkins’ meme from mind to mind like a head cold, not all of these giants knew their efforts, however isolated, were part of this evolutionary process. It’s in teasing out this algorithm from the static that concerns Gleick’s book. Tracing the gradual accretion of knowledge, The Information proceeds from a subtle assertion: “history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” In laying out the propositions underlying this notion, Gleick examines the relation of probability and information theory with innovations in electrical engineering and physics, using Boolean algebra, Turing’s universal machine, the advent of writing and telegraphy as wayfinders. He even delves parenthetically into Heisenbergian uncertainty and Russell’s paradox, as well as never shies from pinning the odd Borgesian or Hofstadterian literary labyrinth onto the page.

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