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I like big books.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood - James Gleick The Information is so comprehensive and so multifaceted it almost defies categorization, unless that category you're looking for is: awesome. It's a history, a paradigm for looking at the development and future of human culture, a conception of the physical universe and much, much more besides. Gleick writes tremendous prose that gives a sense of how epic the development and processing of information throughout human history has been. The work is a mix of hard science and a softer narrative that tells the compelling story of the scientists, mathematicians and great minds that helped to foster the information revolution and usher in the Information Age.

The Information is certainly ambitious. Gleick begins by examining the interplay of communication and the transmission of knowledge, tracing information preservation from the oral history phase of Classical culture and, earlier yet, to the talking drums of Africa, straight on to the development of symbols as writing systems. What's great here, is that The Information doesn't read like pure history, though that would be good as well. Throughout, especially beginning with the chapter on writing and mathematical symbology, Gleick begins a process of reflection which mirrors the self-reflection that writing allowed human beings to pursue for the first time - it allowed for the development of logic and for language to become aware of itself. One thing quickly becomes apparent and thematic: each successive historical development in communication or information transmission/preservation led to a sort of crisis of culture; a war developed between those that championed the new technology and medium and those that were resistant. Interestingly enough, this dated all the way back to Plato, who feared that the new medium of writing would forever damage the development of knowledge and wisdom by fixing words, stories, lessons static. He puts it much more eloquently by saying that the element of interaction is removed. In the Socratic sense, knowledge was constructed by dialogue, by questioning and answering. A book, Plato quipped, gives the same answer no matter what question is posed to it. People feared the same thing with telegraphy and telephony, that the new medium changed the way people communicated - for the worst. One hears echoes of the criticisms of texting, tweeting, and blogging, destroying "proper" modes of communication. I found the cycle presented to be comforting and enlightening to say the least. It's too easy to get caught up in the present age and take for granted that the revolution you're experiencing, while new and fundamentally different from anything before, is felt the same way by human beings nonetheless. We persist.

Embedded in the historical narrative are biographical sketches that give the narrative character and charm. Each age had it's information prophet from Charles Babbage and the admirable and witty Ada Byron-Lovelace to the greatest of all information scientists, Claude Shannon. Each has a rich personal history and personality, well-told by Gleick too, that left an imprint on the age they were a part of, deterministically and inexorably leading to the Information Age that has enveloped the planet.

Alongside the narrative are neat departures into the hard and soft sciences. Gleick succinctly captures the role that information plays in the transmission of culture (particularly good is the chapter on memetics and memes in general), the preservation of knowledge and the physio-psychological impact so much preserved information has on the human system, information's role in biology, especially in the transmission and retention of genetic information, the economic effects of cheaper and more prolific and detailed information, and lastly, and most provocatively, the role that information plays as a physical part of the universe through bizarre and mysterious physical phenomena like entanglement and entropy. Each reflection neatly accompanies a natural historical progression that unfolds in a way that makes you eager for the next development in the same way that one is eager to complete a suspenseful novel. There's a sense that another major revelation is right around the corner, and the book is unputdownable.

The book closes with some rather thought-provoking questions, which might have been better, if Gleick deigned not to answer. Most importantly, and most chillingly: What is the effect of living in a culture or society in which all information is preserved, regardless of value? Is it harder to construct meaning? Is it harder to wade through the refuse and detritus, ridiculous, nonsensical Youtube videos, banal tweets, blog posts that begin and seemingly get no further than, "Today was a good day. The sky was blue"? Every bit of information gets locked away, preserved and must be sifted through to find relevance. Will we drown in a deluge of doggerel? As we become more and more reliant on filters and search engines, are we ceding control over this information to a relative few, such as Google? As a trained historian, I tend not to be so pessimistic. A deeper record will allow for greater cultural analysis, economic analysis, and in short, just better self-reflection for us as a species. If we find that most of what we preserve is useless and foolish, what does it tell us about ourselves? More importantly, what do we intend to do about it?

Great book.