Thursday, January 05, 2012

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

The Information is a terrible title, but it disguises a brilliant book.  With clear storytelling and thoughtful analysis, James Gleick demonstrates the power of information and traces its development throughout history. While the prologue mentions the invention of the transistor and the "bit" in 1948, Gleick begins his story with information that was passed along in a pre-literate society through African "talking drums," metaphorical message bearers that share some characteristics of encoded messages today.  From there, he expounds on cuneiform tablets that contain what we would call algorithms, compares the first dictionary ever compiled to the modern online Oxford English Dictionary, and devotes a poignant chapter to the story of Charles Babbage and Ada Byron Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron.  The pair theorized about programming as part of an exchange centered around a mechanical "difference engine" in the 1800s, before electricity was well understood.  Ms. Lovelace died young put peered briefly into the future, and Mr. Babbage never did complete his engine.  Still, they were precursors to modern day computing.  The hero of the book is Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory (a mathematical concept of information that reveals it to be a lack of predictability) and the bit (a unit of information that can be expressed as a binary choice between one state and another -- 0 or 1).  Gleick traces the scientific and mathematical development of information theory, then explains how that theory informs and enlivens the sciences and culture from 1948 forward.  The explanation of the mathematical theory requires an in-depth look at Turing's hypothetical machine, but Gleick does not focus on the advances in hardware throughout history.  Instead, he describes the "software" of information, from the telegraph operator's codes and compressions through to Google's search engine algorithm, which views links among web pages as "recommendations."  In the process, he illuminates science and several scientific theories in a new way -- the gene, for example, is seen as information, while quantum mechanics make an appearance in a chapter on quantum computing.  Gleick's ultimate goal is to guide readers to an understanding of information as a whole, and in the process he puts us through our paces in our efforts to understand him.  It's hard to keep up, but the driving intellect behind this book keeps aiming at a higher and higher understanding of the concept.  Ultimately, he makes his case that information is the key discovery of the 20th century, based on advances in science throughout history, and leading to a "flood" of information in the 21st.  Similar to Newton's discoveries in the 16th century, the "discovery" of information promises a sea change in history.
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