Book Review: The Information: A history, a theory, a flood

The Information: A history, a theory, a flood. James Gleick, New York: Vintage Books, 2011.

Review by Emily Powers

"Organisms organize...We sort the mail, build sandcastles, solve jigsaw puzzles, separate wheat from chaff, rearrange chess pieces, collect stamps, alphabetize books...We propagate structure...we are reducing entropy, piece by piece. Bit by bit." - Gleick, The Information

In this pop-science examination of the history of information theory, Gleick looks at the development of information theories and technologies, writing that "every new medium transforms the nature of human thought...history is the story of information becoming aware of itself." He successfully engages the reader in topics ranging from lexicography to cryptoanalysis. Cory Doctorow described the book as "vibrat[ing] with excitement."

While readers may be familiar with many of the scientists and thinkers profiled in The Information, it's unusual to see a popular book that unites the work of computer scientists, mathematicians, lexicographers, and geneticists under the broader umbrella of information theory. Gleick has a gift for connecting ideas and concepts and examining relationships between the work and ideas of scientists like Claude Shannon and Vannevar Bush or Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. The book attempts to cover a huge swath of human history, from the invention of writing up to memes and our present internet-enabled information glut.

Gleick begins with an examination of sub-Saharan African talking drums, an astonishingly effective technology of long-distance communication. Using systems of repetition and built-in redundancy, drummers could communicate messages using a two-tone drum. While only a few learned to drum, most people hearing the drums could understand their message. The built-in redundancy described in this system recurs in Gleick's discussion of DNA's discovery. In a similar echo, Alan Turing's conceptual tape-reading machine is mirrored later in the book by the action of the RNA polymerase enzyme.

The history of information is also the history of communication, and Gleick discusses the development and adoption of the telegraph and telephone in depth--far more depth than the spread of the internet, interestingly. This implies that the initial spread of distance-communication technology had a greater effect than the start of the internet age--or maybe just that we do not have sufficient distance from the latter to examine it from a historical perspective.

Parallels can be drawn between the early history of women in libraries and the hiring of cheap female labor as telephone operators. Women were not only cheaper to hire but were assumed to be more biddable and quiet. Gleick writes that the physical labor of connecting switchboard calls was also presumed to be good for the women's figures.

Some of the concepts he deals with are complex, particularly Shannon's theory of information. The quantum mechanics chapter is a bit of a mind-bender. Generally, Gleick's explanations of these complex topics are accessible, but readers may find themselves slightly overwhelmed by sections discussing, for instance, information loss in black holes.

Gleick's book is recommended for librarians, information scientists, and IT workers as an approachable but thorough look at the history and influences of our field. Librarians may particularly enjoy his look at the Borges' Library of Babel and the chapter on Wikipedia.

Emily Powers is currently a MLIS student at Simmons College in Boston (graduating May 2013). She works at a news research library and in academic technology.