Sunday, November 8, 2020

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

This review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = Philosophy, Epistemology

Elaborate Description

Information is the means of communication. Gleick not only explains the evolution of how we express information but also shows the way in which the information was communicated. From drums to the internet as the means of communication, and from the necessity of linguistic redundancy to its impotence, the books’ coverage crosses various regional bounds with an enormous history. The progeneration of information changes by the means of communication and its very recording, with results varying from its origin. Technology, math, quantum mechanics, cyphers, linguistics, Maxwell’s demon, DNA, memes, randomness, and rise of smart machines all make an appearance in this book.

Early communications methods, talking drums in Africa, had few types of sounds. The lack of differentiation could have easily led to errors in communication, but that problem was fixed via redundancy. Extra sounds provided more information, clarifying the information sent in the message. Seeming redundancy prevented miscommunication. Quantification of language from sound to characters created many written redundancies.

Writing did more than just separate the original information from its time and space. Writing separated abstraction from experience. Information about realities not witness was capable of being spread and be believed. New descriptions and words needed to be formed to spread information, causing new words to be invented to describe words and information. With more information such as books and news, not only sorting the information was needed, but having consistency in spelling. When information was scare, every word had to have meaning, but now information is over abundant leading to a dearth of meaning.

The history of writing is part of the history of information. Math and numbers are the other part. From Babbage’ and Ada Byron’s computing machine which changed characters to code, to wires creating the telegraph to transmit the code, lead to incremental improves to the speed and amount of information which could be communicated. Technological communication which lead to the Morse code and the enigma machine.

Cryptography, the act of making information indecipherable to all but the intended audience, is a major theme in this book and is as old as writing. Writing itself was initially a cryptograph for royals and officials to relay messages. The coding methods such as substituting letters for symbols was initially used for cyphers, but was also later needed for sending information via wires and electricity.

Topics easy or technical are written with such prose and detail that the reader ends up learning so much from each page. The sequence of chapters makes some parts of the book difficult to understand. Each chapter is better viewed as individual essays rather than a continuous explanation. Some chapters are highly correlated such as a particular technology being a fundamental step for the next chapters technological breakthrough, but many chapters have a major break from the preceding chapter. Alternatively, some chapters which should go together, are separated by seemingly unrelated chapters. It seems that Gleick uses the chapters as timestamps, but the transition from chapter to chapter is lacking.

Book Details

Edition ISBN:  9781400096237
Pages to read:   424
Publication:     2012
1st Edition:      2011
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5