The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

by James Gleick

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400096237
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/06/2012
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 194,475
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 8.54(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JAMES GLEICK is our leading chronicler of science and technology, and the author of Chaos and Genius, both nominated for the National Book Award, and Isaac Newton, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. His books have been translated into thirty languages.

www.around.com


Read an Excerpt

DRUMS THAT TALK
(When a Code Is Not a Code)
 

Across the Dark Continent sound the never-silent drums:
the base of all the music, the focus of every dance;
the talking drums, the wireless of the unmapped jungle.
—Irma Wassall (1943)
 
No one spoke simply on the drums. Drummers would not say, “Come back home,” but rather,
 
Make your feet come back the way they went,
make your legs come back the way they went,
plant your feet and your legs below,
in the village which belongs to us.
 
They could not just say “corpse” but would elaborate: “which lies on its back on clods of earth.” Instead of “don’t be afraid,” they would say, “Bring your heart back down out of your mouth, your heart out of your mouth, get it back down from there.” The drums generated fountains of oratory. This seemed inefficient. Was it grandiloquence or bombast? Or something else?
 
For a long time Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa had no idea. In fact they had no idea that the drums conveyed information at all. In their own cultures, in special cases a drum could be an instrument of signaling, along with the bugle and the bell, used to transmit a small set of messages: attack; retreat; come to church. But they could not conceive of talking drums. In 1730 Francis Moore sailed eastward up the Gambia River, finding it navigable for six hundred miles, all the way admiring the beauty of the country and such curious wonders as “oysters that grew upon trees” (mangroves). He was not much of a naturalist. He was reconnoitering as an agent for English slavers in kingdoms inhabited, as he saw it, by different races of people of black or tawny colors, “as Mundingoes, Jolloiffs, Pholeys, Floops, and Portuguese.” When he came upon men and women carrying drums, carved wood as much as a yard long, tapered from top to bottom, he noted that women danced briskly to their music, and sometimes that the drums were “beat on the approach of an enemy,” and finally, “on some very extraordinary occasions,” that the drums summoned help from neighboring towns. But that was all he noticed.
 
A century later, Captain William Allen, on an expedition to the Niger River,(1) made a further discovery, by virtue of paying attention to his Cameroon pilot, whom he called Glasgow. They were in the cabin of the iron paddle ship when, as Allen recalled:
 
Suddenly he became totally abstracted, and remained for a while in the attitude of listening. On being taxed with inattention, he said, “You no hear my son speak?” As we had heard no voice, he was asked how he knew it. He said, “Drum speak me, tell me come up deck.” This seemed to be very singular.
 
The captain’s skepticism gave way to amazement, as Glasgow convinced him that every village had this “facility of musical correspondence.” Hard though it was to believe, the captain finally accepted that detailed messages of many sentences could be conveyed across miles. “We are often surprised,” he wrote, “to find the sound of the trumpet so well understood in our military evolutions; but how far short that falls of the result arrived at by those untutored savages.” That result was a technology much sought in Europe: long-distance communication faster than any traveler on foot or horseback. Through the still night air over a river, the thump of the drum could carry six or seven miles. Relayed from village to village, messages could rumble a hundred miles or more in a matter of an hour.
 
A birth announcement in Bolenge, a village of the Belgian Congo, went like this:
 
Batoko fala fala, tokema bolo bolo, boseka woliana imaki tonkilingonda, ale nda bobila wa fole fole, asokoka l’isika koke koke.
 
The mats are rolled up, we feel strong, a woman came from the forest, she is in the open village, that is enough for this time.
 
A missionary, Roger T. Clarke, transcribed this call to a fisherman’s funeral:
 
La nkesa laa mpombolo, tofolange benteke biesala, tolanga bonteke bolokolo bole nda elinga l’enjale baenga, basaki l’okala bopele pele. Bojende bosalaki lifeta Bolenge wa kala kala, tekendake tonkilingonda, tekendake beningo la nkaka elinga l’enjale. Tolanga bonteke bolokolo bole nda elinga l’enjale, la nkesa la mpombolo.
 
In the morning at dawn, we do not want gatherings for work, we want a meeting of play on the river. Men who live in Bolenge, do not go to the forest, do not go fishing. We want a meeting of play on the river, in the morning at dawn.
 
Clarke noted several facts. While only some people learned to communicate by drum, almost anyone could understand the messages in the drumbeats. Some people drummed rapidly and some slowly. Set phrases would recur again and again, virtually unchanged, yet different drummers would send the same message with different wording. Clarke decided that the drum language was at once formulaic and fluid. “The signals represent the tones of the syllables of conventional phrases of a traditional and highly poetic character,” he concluded, and this was correct, but he could not take the last step toward understanding why.
 
These Europeans spoke of “the native mind” and described Africans as “primitive” and “animistic” and nonetheless came to see that they had achieved an ancient dream of every human culture. Here was a messaging system that outpaced the best couriers, the fastest horses on good roads with way stations and relays. Earth-bound, foot-based messaging systems always disappointed. Their armies outran them. Julius Caesar, for example, was “very often arriving before the messengers sent to announce his coming,” as Suetonius reported in the first century. The ancients were not without resources, however. The Greeks used fire beacons at the time of the Trojan War, in the twelfth century BCE, by all accounts—that is, those of Homer, Virgil, and Aeschylus. A bonfire on a mountaintop could be seen from watchtowers twenty miles distant, or in special cases even farther. In the Aeschylus version, Clytemnestra gets the news of the fall of Troy that very night, four hundred miles away in Mycenae. “Yet who so swift could speed the message here?” the skeptical Chorus asks.
 
She credits Hephaestus, god of fire: “Sent forth his sign; and on, and ever on, beacon to beacon sped the courier-flame.” This is no small accomplishment, and the listener needs convincing, so Aeschylus has Clytemnestra continue for several minutes with every detail of the route: the blazing signal rose from Mount Ida, carried across the northern Aegean Sea to the island of Lemnos; from there to Mount Athos in Macedonia; then southward across plains and lakes to Macistus; Messapius, where the watcher “saw the far flame gleam on Euripus’ tide, and from the highpiled heap of withered furze lit the new sign and bade the message on”; Cithaeron; Aegiplanetus; and her own town’s mountain watch, Arachne. “So sped from stage to stage, fulfilled in turn, flame after flame,” she boasts, “along the course ordained.” A German historian, Richard Hennig, traced and measured the route in 1908 and confirmed the feasibility of this chain of bonfires. The meaning of the message had, of course, to be pre arranged, effectively condensed into a single bit. A binary choice, something or nothing:  the fire signal meant something, which, just this once, meant “Troy has fallen.” To transmit this one bit required immense planning, labor, watchfulness, and firewood. Many years later, lanterns in Old North Church likewise sent Paul Revere a single precious bit, which he carried onward, one binary choice: by land or by sea.
 
More capacity was required, for less extraordinary occasions. People tried flags, horns, intermitting smoke, and flashing mirrors. They conjured spirits and angels for purposes of communication—angels being divine messengers, by definition. The discovery of magnetism held particular promise. In a world already suffused with magic, magnets embodied occult powers. The lodestone attracts iron. This power of attraction extends invisibly through the air. Nor is it interrupted by water or even solid bodies. A lodestone held on one side of a wall can move a piece of iron on the other side. Most intriguing, the magnetic power appears able to coordinate objects vast distances apart, across the whole earth: namely, compass needles. What if one needle could control another? This idea spread—a “conceit,” Thomas Browne wrote in the 1640s,
 
whispered thorow the world with some attention, credulous and vulgar auditors readily believing it, and more judicious and distinctive heads, not altogether rejecting it. The conceit is excellent, and if the effect would follow, somewhat divine; whereby we might communicate like spirits, and confer on earth with Menippus in the Moon.
 
The idea of “sympathetic” needles appeared wherever there were natural philosophers and confidence artists. In Italy a man tried to sell Galileo “a secret method of communicating with a person two or three thousand miles away, by means of a certain sympathy of magnetic needles.”
 
I told him that I would gladly buy, but wanted to see by experiment and that it would be enough for me if he would stand in one room and I in another. He replied that its operation could not be detected at such a short distance. I sent him on his way, with the remark that I was not in the mood at that time to go to Cairo or Moscow for the experiment, but that if he wanted to go I would stay in Venice and take care of the other end.
 
The idea was that if a pair of needles were magnetized together—“touched with the same Loadstone,” as Browne put it—they would remain in sympathy from then on, even when separated by distance. One might call this “entanglement.” A sender and a recipient would take the needles and agree on a time to communicate. They would place their needle in disks with the letters of the alphabet spaced around the rim. The sender would spell out a message by turning the needle. “For then, saith tradition,” Browne explained, “at what distance of place soever, when one needle shall be removed unto any letter, the other by a wonderfull sympathy will move unto the same.” Unlike most people who considered the idea of sympathetic needles, however, Browne actually tried the experiment. It did not work. When he turned one needle, the other stood still.
 
Browne did not go so far as to rule out the possibility that this mysterious force could someday be used for communication, but he added one more caveat. Even if magnetic communication at a distance was possible, he suggested, a problem might arise when sender and receiver tried to synchronize their actions. How would they know the time,
 
it being no ordinary or Almanack business, but a probleme Mathematical, to finde out the difference of hours in different places; nor do the wisest exactly satisfy themselves in all. For the hours of several places anticipate each other, according to their Longitudes; which are not exactly discovered of every place.
 
This was a prescient thought, and entirely theoretical, a product of new seventeenth-century knowledge of astronomy and geography. It was the first crack in the hitherto solid assumption of simultaneity. Anyway, as Browne noted, experts differed. Two more centuries would pass before anyone could actually travel fast enough, or communicate fast enough, to experience local time differences. For now, in fact, no one in the world could communicate as much, as fast, as far as unlettered Africans with their drums.
 
 
By the time Captain Allen discovered the talking drums in 1841, Samuel F. B. Morse was struggling with his own percussive code, the electromagnetic drumbeat designed to pulse along the telegraph wire. Inventing a code was a complex and delicate problem. He did not even think in terms of a code, at first, but “a system of signs for letters, to be indicated and marked by a quick succession of strokes or shocks of the galvanic current.” The annals of invention offered scarcely any precedent. How to convert information from one form, the everyday language, into another form suitable for transmission by wire taxed his ingenuity more than any mechanical problem of the telegraph. It is fitting that history attached Morse’s name to his code, more than to his device.
 
He had at hand a technology that seemed to allow only crude pulses, bursts of current on and off, an electrical circuit closing and opening. How could he convey language through the clicking of an electromagnet? His first idea was to send numbers, a digit at a time, with dots and pauses. The sequence ••• •• ••••• would mean 325. Every English word would be assigned a number, and the telegraphists at each end of the line would look them up in a special dictionary. Morse set about creating this dictionary himself, wasting many hours inscribing it on large folios.(2) He claimed the idea in his first telegraph patent, in 1840:
 
The dictionary or vocabulary consists of words alphabetically arranged and regularly numbered, beginning with the letters of the alphabet, so that each word in the language has its telegraphic number, and is designated at pleasure, through the signs of numerals.
 
Seeking efficiency, he weighed the costs and possibilities across several intersecting planes. There was the cost of transmission itself: the wires would be expensive and would convey only so many pulses per minute.
 
Numbers would be relatively easy to transmit. But then there was the extra cost in time and difficulty for the telegraphists. The idea of code books—lookup tables—still had possibilities, and it echoed into the future, arising again in other technologies. Eventually it worked for Chinese telegraphy. But Morse realized that it would be hopelessly cumbersome for operators to page through a dictionary for every word.
 
His protégé Alfred Vail, meanwhile, was developing a simple lever key by which an operator could rapidly close and open the electric circuit. Vail and Morse turned to the idea of a coded alphabet, using signs as surrogates for the letters and thus spelling out every word. Somehow the bare signs would have to stand in for all the words of the spoken or written language. They had to map the entire language onto a single dimension of pulses. At first they conceived of a system built on two elements: the clicks (now called dots) and the spaces in between. Then, as they fiddled with the prototype keypad, they came up with a third sign: the line or dash, “when the circuit was closed a longer time than was necessary to make a dot.” (The code became known as the dot-and-dash alphabet, but the unmentioned space remained just as important; Morse code was not a binary language.) (3) That humans could learn this new language was, at first, wondrous. They would have to master the coding system and then perform a continuous act of double translation: language to signs; mind to fingers. One witness was amazed at how the telegraphists internalized these skills:
 
The clerks who attend at the recording instrument become so expert in their curious hieroglyphics, that they do not need to look at the printed record to know what the message under reception is; the recording instrument has for them an intelligible articulate language. They understand its speech. They can close their eyes and listen to the strange clicking that is going on close to their ear whilst the printing is in progress, and at once say what it all means.
 
In the name of speed, Morse and Vail had realized that they could save strokes by reserving the shorter sequences of dots and dashes for the most common letters. But which letters would be used most often? Little was known about the alphabet’s statistics. In search of data on the letters’ relative frequencies, Vail was inspired to visit the local newspaper office in Morristown, New Jersey, and look over the type cases. He found a stock of twelve thousand E’s, nine thousand T’s, and only two hundred Z’s. He and Morse rearranged the alphabet accordingly. They had originally used dash-dash-dot to represent T, the second most common letter; now they promoted T to a single dash, thus saving telegraph operators uncountable billions of key taps in the world to come. Long afterward, information theorists calculated that they had come within 15 percent of an optimal arrangement for telegraphing English text.
 
 
Endnotes
1. The trip was sponsored by the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilization of Africa for the purpose of interfering with slavers.
2. “A very short experience, however, showed the superiority of the alphabetic mode,” he wrote later, “and the big leaves of the numbered dictionary, which cost me a world of labor, . . . were discarded and the alphabetic installed in its stead.”
3. Operators soon distinguished spaces of different lengths—intercharacter and interword—so Morse code actually employed four signs.

Table of Contents

Prologue 3

1 Drums That Talk 13

2 The Persistence of the Word 28

3 Two Wordbooks 51

4 To Throw the Powers of Thought into Wheel-Work 78

5 A Nervous System for the Earth 125

6 New Wires, New Logic 168

7 Information Theory 204

8 The Informational Turn 233

9 Entropy and Its Demons 269

10 Life's Own Code 287

11 Into the Meme Pool 310

12 The Sense of Randomness 324

13 Information Is Physical 355

14 After the Flood 373

15 New News Every Day 398

Epilogue 413

Acknowledgments 427

Notes 429

Bibliography 477

Index 505

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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 88 reviews.
Winterlight00 More than 1 year ago
A word often used with Glieck's books is "scholarly". Thats a good word and usually it means "complete" and "has depth." I can't use that word with The Information, but something close to it, thats maybe not as complimentary; "textbook". The Information needed an editor with a more liberal use of the blue pen. Unlike a scholarly work that you find enjoyment in, The Information sometimes simply plods. I often felt I was working through it, trying to get to the, well, information. Like a textbook. There is a great book in here though. The diamond in this rough is the exposition about Claude Shannon and those that, along with him (like Alan Turing and Norbert Weiner and Jon Von Neumann) devised Information Theory and put it on the straight path towards the future. Here Gleick shines, effortlessly pulling together the personal, professional and theoretical with breathtaking ease. Gleick makes his subjects live, breath, think and argue but also shows you *what* they were thinking and arguing about in an interesting and easy to follow way. Overall its not a bad book, just something you'd more enjoy perusing than going through start to finish. The bottom line for this one is that you should pull out your wallet and go past the credit card...to the library card.
catwak More than 1 year ago
This book is amazing. I liked it a lot, even though much of it was WAY over my head. The level of my non-understanding began to depress me about two-thirds of the way through, but by the end I felt strangely revived. I think that the discussion of Charles Bennett's work helped my frame of mind. It's comforting to hear that some information professionals actually value quality over quantity and that not everyone defines complexity the same way. I believe that Mr. Gleick presumes more knowledge on the part of his readers than most of them possess. But this may just be his way of protecting his work from jumping the shark, bit by bit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Worthwhile for anyone wanting to know the history of information, and how we got to where we are now. The quick summary: it all changed in 1948. The book keeps a fairly tight focus on information theory, including its ties to modern physics. Might be a little technical for some.
St.CroixSue on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Fascinating history of information. How we transmit it, organize it, retrieve it, filter it and the impact it has on how we live and think. I loved this book especially the chapter on Wikipedia. SRH
br77rino on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The early chapters were boring, but the later ones were great.
BillPilgrim on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book covers the history of information theory. Some of it is very technical and although I was able to follow the basics, it was really beyond me. I mostly just tried to keep moving through those parts, and take in as much as I could. But, a lot of the book was fascinating, and held my interest, particularly, stories about the first dictionaries, the use of semaphore to transfer information long distances, until it was replaced by the telegraph, African talking drums, and others.
Katong on LibraryThing 8 months ago
So far, so awesome. If I had a band, it would be called Spooky Action from a Distance
dazzyj on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Fascinating study of the genesis and development of information as a scientific subject in is own right.
BenTreat on LibraryThing 8 months ago
As he did with chaos theory, decades ago, Gleick now attempts to introduce information theory to a popular audience. The book includes lengthy sections on Babbage and Shannon, surrounded by shorter discussions on other important topics (quantum information theory, information overload, etc.).The book includes an early, slightly off-kilter discussion of the origins of information in early writing systems. Some conclusions here seem questionable. The genealogy of alphabet --> information seemed incomplete and perhaps a little Eurocentric. Some parts seem to overreach. On page 16, for instance, Homer, Virgil, and Aeschylus are cited as sources who recount the use of fire beacons in the Trojan War. The Homeric epics are no guide to 12th century Mediterranean technologies, since they are considered to contain numerous 8th century anachronisms. Certainly, Virgil and Aeschylus are even further removed. If the best source for this information was poetry, several centuries removed, then the example (which was not vital to the chapter) should probably have been left out. One could make too much of this, but a misstep occurring so early in the book made me wary (probably unnecessarily so) of other conclusions and summaries offered by the author.The section on the information deluge was appropriate in its length and coverage; so much has been written about this, elsewhere and recently, that this section could easily have been overdone. I would have appreciated attention to Jaron Lanier, here, but this is a personal preference and not a necessity.Gleick's use of Marshall McLuhan was interesting, in that McLuhan merely popped in frequently, rather than having his own spot in the book. This was disappointing, as McLuhan is an interesting character to include when discussing the social impact of information, new media, etc. But at 426 pages (plus the seemingly exhaustive index and the extensive notes and bibliography), the book probably could not bear any additional close character studies.This book would be most useful to a reader who wants to learn about information theory in order to understand other, denser work, or to critique other popular information/Internet-related texts. Gleick excels at humanizing abstract concepts.
waitingtoderail on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This may not be my favorite book of the year, but it's up there, and it may be the most influential. This is an introduction to information theory that isn't perfect, but is pretty understandable - I lost him a bit near the end - and has me wanting to learn more. Anyone who can get me to add a book on hard-core math to my wish list must be doing something right.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing 8 months ago
a very interesting and thoughful book about how we as community have more access to information. this is a great read actually exciting book
SwitchKnitter on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book was fabulous. It looks at everything from African talking drums to the telegraph to quantum computing to Wikipedia. Everything is woven together nicely by the author. It's not what I was expecting, though -- there's way more science and math than I would have thought, but it makes for a fascinating book. I definitely recommend it.
tlockney on LibraryThing 8 months ago
As I just commented to a friend: "Absolutely loved it. The chapter about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage was perhaps among the best chpaters of any book I have ever read. That's the only way I know how to put it -- this book left me wishing it was twice as long."
bragan on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This sprawling volume explores of the idea of information: how we encode and transmit it, how we think about it, and what we do with it. Gleick starts out talking about African drum signals, the invention of writing, and the advent of the telegraph, then moves on through Charles Babbage and his early anticipation of the computer age and into discussions of mathematics, computer science, cryptography, biology, and physics, exploring the ways in which the concept of "information" has evolved in and influenced all of these various fields. Some of this stuff gets a bit technical, but I think Gleick does a good job of presenting it all without making it either too simplistic or too dry. He finishes it all up with a couple of relatively light chapters about the deluge of information we're all now exposed to, thanks to the internet, and how we are or aren't handling it.I was already familiar with a lot of the scientific and mathematical ideas here, so the parts I found most interesting involved the ways in which our worldviews and our ways of thinking about knowledge and information have changed over the centuries. I might almost have preferred more of an emphasis on that, actually, but I'm not really complaining. Overall this was well-written, thought-provoking, and definitely worth reading.
paulkeller on LibraryThing 8 months ago
a bit of a disappointment. there are lots of hidden gems in there (the story about the midwest farmers using fences as local telefone networks!) but all in all it is a rather difficult read. i found it quite challenging to drag myself though the first 13 pr so chapters that primarily deal with advances in theory. It is quite frustrating that this suddenly changes with the last two chapters which deal primarily with anecdotal evidence documenting the information explosion of the last two decennia. It never becomes really clear how the two parts of the book relate to each other (other than that the first part provides some much needs historical perspective on the second). Personally i had expected that more of the first part would come back in the 2nd. [unexpected bonus: i think that i finally understand entropy].
sthitha_pragjna on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Gripping account by Gleick. His section on Babbage (who married Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, who also ran the analytic engine) is excellent. The whole book is a veritable tour de force. Destined to become a classic.
mullerd on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The title is promising, however the book does not live up to the expectations. It's more a story about the influence of Claude Shannon than anything else. The part about the history of the telegraph is great to read.
BookWallah on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Well written, engaging, far reaching romp through information theory. Never thought I would see this as a popular science book. Recommended for anyone with so long attention span, as some of those concepts will require an effort to sort through. Worth the effort.
neurodrew on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Subtitle: A History, A Theory, A Flood.I have read and enjoyed James Gleick's previous books, and also enjoyed this volume, a description of the information theory developed by Claude Shannon. The book starts with a history of information storage and transmission, from the redundancy in African drumming, needed to overcome the problems in transmission, to the printing press, which made information more stable, less subject to errors in copying. Shannon developed his theory while working for Bell labs, in order to improve transmission of phone calls. Along the way are described early telegraph codes, and the use of private codes to reduce telegraph key strokes; the first phone directories; the publication of vast compendiums of calculated answers that are now accessible by computer, and the explosion of information in digital storage.
bookworx on LibraryThing 8 months ago
An engaging journey to the center of the meme, the acceleration of information sharing from the first multi celled organism to abstract mathematics and back. Loved the concept of chickens being the eggs way of making another egg and humans as lumbering robot hosts for gene procreation. Lots of research and reason put in memorable motion.
co_coyote on LibraryThing 8 months ago
James Gleick can make just about any topic interesting and engaging. He is one of the finest science writers of our time. But with information theory he really has chosen a tough row to hoe. It is a confusing, subtle mis-mash of counter intuitive ideas that has to be pulled together into a coherent whole. Glick manages to pull it off with his usual clarity and sense of style. This is one of those science books that I keep thinking about over and over again. Very well done.
love2laf on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Completely fascinating, although, at time, over my head. Would love to own!
janegca on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This was well written but somewhat of a disappointment. Not sure exactly what I was expecting unless it was more than basic accounting of the history of modern communication technology. Perhaps more on the impact of that technology other than the usual Claude Shannon's 'the message has no value' and McLuhan's 'the media is the message'.
librarianbryan on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is book is a history of information theory and an examination of how this theory impacted other scientific fields and society as a whole. The gist of information theory is that it measures information quantitatively regardless of meaning. Thinking about information in this way helps a lot when thinking about quantum physics and molecular biology. The theory originated within electrical engineering and it is there; e.g., digital formats, microcomputers, and the internet, that it affects our everyday lives the most. Or maybe it is our DNA where it affects us the most? You will learn a lot about the unsung heroes who created our conceptions of contemporary scientific ideas. Though Gleick profiles a lot of scientists with nova-like minds, it feels like the book is a tribute to Claude Shannon. If you read between the lines, Gleick feels maybe Shannon hasn¿t gotten his due in popular culture as much as other one name science icons.For subject matter as inherently mathematical (and some would say dry as Jeff Fisher¿s mouth the day he got fired) Gleick¿s book is very engaging. I listened the audio version, so extra kudos to reader Rob Shapiro for enlivening the text. You will learn a heady amount about randomness, codes, symbolic logic and talking drums but Gleick doesn¿t do a good enough job tying it all together. Individual chapters will blow your mind but the whole book doesn¿t hang together well. Nor does it explain how Shannon¿s information theory led to the internet (at least enough to satisfy me) despite the fact the book is marketed as such. Considering the difficulty of the task at hand, I¿ll give Gleick a pass. This book will put a new wrinkle on your brain.Recommended for science nerds, math wonks, snoot librarians, or anyone who made it past the sentence ¿this book is a history of information theory¿¿But yeah, Claude Shannon deserves a postage stamp.
Popup-ch on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Gleicks's book is a historic overview of the evolution of 'information theory', discussing the very concept of communication, from early alphabets to the proliferation of Wikipedia entries.The main hero of the book is Claude Shannon, the engineer who first applied the concept of 'entropy' to information, and showed how this could be used for cryptography as well as for compression - but the book also shows how Samuel Morse had similar ideas when he invented his famous code, and how even the 'talking drums of Africa'¹ employed the same mechanisms of a small code-set complemented by redundancy.There is also a chapter dedicated to the (at the time) unsung duo of Babbage and Lovelace, where he shows how their work - while impractical at the time - also presaged the same general development.Another important subject is formal systems, and their inevitable incompleteness - Here he echoes Douglas Hofstadters Gödel, Esher, Bach, but also another book that deserves mentioning,Tor Nørretranders Mærk verden, (In English rendered as The User Illusion).The book concludes with a chapter on 'information overdose', the case when too much information actually impedes decision-making. Very interesting, as I was listening to Malcolm Gladwells book Blink in parallel; a book that champions the idea that it's more important to consider the right information rather than all the information in order to make the right decision.I think this book well deserves it's place next to Hofstadters tome.¹ The tone is occasionally rather chatty, such as when he comments that the 'talking drums' have recently been replaced by mobile phones in less than a generation.