I just finished The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2011), by historian author James Gleick. This past summer I read his book, Time Travel (2016), which was about time travel in fiction and in our hearts. [see Passing Time (My bad; it should have been titled Gleick: Time Travel, but I can never resist a pun.)]
If you read my post about the time travel book, you know I didn’t care for it, although I place the blame on my expectations, not the book. I do find Gleick, as I said then, “ambling, rambling, and meandering,” but I’m sure many greatly enjoy his excursions. I ended that review mentioning I’d like to read another book of his (a trend takes two data points).
The Information is that book, and I did like it more than Time Travel.
Firstly, forewarned is forearmed, so I was prepared for Gleick’s tendency to meander, and, dear Lord, does he. The book is ostensibly about information and society, with an emphasis on information theory, but it ambles into ancient linguistics, behavioral psychology, biology, and much more.
It’s fairly exhaustive (and exhausting) in its rambling. The library ebook version I read has 900 pages. A complaint I had about Time Travel was, despite his (in my opinion) overly wide net, a number of what I saw as notable things slipped through. His net is equally wide here, but I did not have the same sense of important fish slipping through.
For all of its length, I was — generally — far more engaged than with Time Travel. That said, there were a few sections I skimmed, even page-flipped, through. It might say something that I found the long Epilogue chapter among those. It seemed to me the weakest in the book (Gleick gets downright baroque), but your mileage may vary.
Secondly, I wonder if the material made a difference. Time Travel, in a real analysis, is absurd — it breaks causality. It’s a fictional topic and a fantastic one, at that.
But no one can deny we now live in an Information Age. Part of Gleick’s thesis is that we always have. Information has always been fundamental — just consider DNA. Nothing could be less fictional than information. Further, the history of our understanding of information is night-and-day less fanciful than the history of our understanding of time travel.
So maybe this is simply a better, more grounded, topic. I did feel he was a bit out of his depth in the Time Travel book. Here not so much.
Thirdly, speaking of content, this book was close to being a pop science book which I sometimes found disconcerting. Gleick would start to get into a technical aspect of a topic and then veer off before getting too deep. I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t a science book.
Gleick certainly isn’t a scientist, although he does pretty well. It drove me a little crazy his repeated use of uppercase Π (Pi) rather than the correct lowercase π (pi), because that’s wrong referring to the famous mathematical constant. But it was the only actual error I noticed, so not bad for a historian tackling a technical topic.
Lastly, just in passing, Gleick seems coy with dates sometimes. Some of it is his meandering; a date mentioned pages ago is hard to remember once he returns to the topic. Are historians sensitive to the complaints students make about dates (they’re hard to remember and easy to look up)?
I’ve never cared much for history and have never been good with dates, but I’ve found that the more history I take in, the more I start remembering dates and sequencing events in time. For me it starts with landmark dates, for instance Einstein’s miracle year, 1905; or 1915 when he finally published his theory of General Relativity. After a while one starts to see a historical picture.
Still, it was a bit weird for me to be craving dates while reading a history book. What pod creature has taken over my mind?
Meanderings aside, the backbone of Gleick’s narrative concerns communication between humans. What we communicate, of course, is information, and the nature of this information has changed over time. (Yet, in some ways, we’ve at last returned to our ancient oral tradition.)
The first chapter, Drums That Talk, explores the talking drums of Africa. Early explorers mistook these for a kind of telegraph — that meaning was somehow encoded in the drumming. As it turns out, talking drums literally talk — they imitate, albeit crudely, human speech. Drummers are speaking to each other.
Because drum speech is crude, drum talk is extremely redundant and descriptive. One of the examples Gleick quotes:
Batoko fala fala, tokema bolo bolo, boseka woliana imaki tonkilingonda, ale nda bobila wa fole fole, asokoka l’isika koke koke.
Which he translates as:
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.
It’s birth announcement.
To jump ahead, my typing those two quotes enacted a key information theory concept Gleick gets into later: logical depth, which is different from complexity or randomness, two other key information theory concepts.
Typing the first quote required careful attention to each letter. From my point of view, the sequence was essentially random and complex, and to me has no logical depth. I have no way to predict the next character.
But the second quote has many characters are almost redundant given the ease of predicting them. English has considerable logical depth, which allows me to predict. For instance, a three-letter word that starts with “th” — the third letter can only be “e”. That quote was easy to type.
(“If yu cn rd ths…”)
Gleick spends two chapters exploring linguistics and language. I confess skimming those chapters. At that point, I was beginning to think I wouldn’t like The Information much more than I did Time Travel.
The two chapters after that get into long-distance communication, starting with the visual semaphore signaling towers of Claude Chappe in 1792. (Terry Pratchett uses the idea in his Discworld books.) Those were limited to how far one could see. Once electricity got involved, we began to develop “a nervous system for the Earth.”
With each advance, the semaphore, the telegraph, radio, the telephone, television, and finally cell phones and wireless communication, the world got smaller and faster and more complicated. Our access to information grew exponentially. It became, per Gleick’s title, a flood.
[Cue the John Naisbitt quote: “We are drowning in information, but we are starved for knowledge.”]
It’s chapter seven, Information Theory, where Gleick really digs into the main topic. This, to a great extent, is about the legacy of Claude Shannon.
Many found a key tenant hard to accept: Information is not meaning. Shannon was explicit that his work completely ignores meaning. What the bits mean isn’t relevant to their successful transmission or storage.
Information theory includes the study of entropy, randomness, and complexity, which are all related but different. As mentioned above, the idea of logical depth is also necessary when we consider potential meaning.
I found nearly all of this engaging and worthwhile. (I did skim some of his digressions, though.)
The last chapters get into such topics as Wikipedia (which Gleick casts as a real-life Library of Babel — there are some parallels, but I’m not sure I entirely agree) and our passion for instant news. I found these chapters slightly less engaging, but still interesting.
One aside: Gleick mentions namespaces, which are very familiar to programmers. It’s the idea that, within some context, names must be unique. Gleick points out that (and I love this), rock bands, for instance, comprise a namespace. Boston might be the name of a city or a chowder, but in the rock music namespace, it’s a band. Other namespaces include brand names, baseball teams, and cities.
The final chapter, Epilogue, as I mentioned, didn’t do much for me. I couldn’t decide if he was making an ever thus claim or saying things have indeed become a bit of a mess. Reading the book I was struck by what felt like ever thus as written, but what I kept getting was that maybe those complaints were real and we’ve been sliding into a mess all this time.
I’ve been making that argument for over 40 years. Exhibit A, of course, is POTUS#45 and his 70+ million cultists. I’ve never been less happy about being right.
The thing about a flood is that it can’t be managed. The more information we have access to, the harder it is to find any one piece (and even harder to find accurate pieces).
I do wonder if modern life has gotten to be too much for many people to process. I wonder if our culture has, on average, outstripped our minds.
All in all, I don’t think I’m a James Gleick fan. His first books are about chaos, which I am interested in, but they’re decades out of date now (1987 and 1990).
While I do seem to be finding history a bit more interesting lately (I really enjoyed Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat), I just don’t care for his wide net. That’s totally on me; others may find it far more engaging; I find it unfocused.
But, still, overall I enjoyed this one and would recommend it to those interested in the topic. Some parts of it I enjoyed quite a bit.
Stay historical, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.