Book Review: The Information

The Information is a sprawling account of how the concept of information came to define and rule not only our computing technologies, but also breakthrough developments in the biological and physical sciences. Our ability to view the world through the looking glass of bits and bytes has signaled a radical change in human consciousness, and by guiding us through the key historical events that have led to the present day, author James Gleick helps us to understand just how encompassing this paradigm shift has been.

If there’s one hero in Gleick’s narrative, it is Charles Shannon, a researcher at Bell Labs in the 1940s who later joined the faculty of MIT. Recognized as the founder of information theory, Mr. Shannon invented the word “bit” to represent a new fundamental unit of measure, something he called “information,” which was itself a term not widely used or understood. His focus on pure information devoid of any meaning was set forth in a highly influential paper titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.”

As the author weaves his way through the history of those individuals who paved a way to the information age, he places particular emphasis on the work of 19th century mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, whose pursuit of a programmable analytical engine was a precursor to the modern computer. Babbage’s original intent was to develop a device that could perform quantitative operations on numbers, but interestingly, his friend, Ada Lovelace, took Babbage’s work a step further by indicating how the computation of numbers could be generalized to include programmable algorithms.

Even before Babbage came on the scene, Robert Cawdrey, in the 17th century, developed a concept that sought to organize the information represented by English words. His landmark dictionary, “A Table Alphabeticall,” was the first attempt to alphabetize words to present them in a meaningful order. Not only was alphabetization a new concept, but so was the very idea of providing a properly spelled word and its definition.

Fast-forwarding to the mid-twentieth century, we find Alan Turning, a colleague of Charles Shannon at Bell Labs, asking the provocative question: can machines think? Reincarnating the spirit of Charles Babbage, Turning sought to design a universal machine comprised solely of logic. Even without the benefit of a physical device, Turning developed the theoretical concepts behind the modern computer, formalizing the use of algorithms and logical computation.

On an interesting side note, the author discusses modern biology and applications of information theory to genetics. Although Mendel discovered the gene in the 19th century, it was Wilhelm Johannson who later coined the word “gene” in 1910. Eventually, biologists began to think of genetics as information. DNA was seen as a mechanism for preserving information as it copies itself from generation to generation. In Richard Dawkin’s 1976 landmark book, “The Selfish Gene,” he made the case that genes and not organisms are the true units of natural selection.

As the information age has come to fruition, new challenges are upon us. As noted, Wikipedia has now overtaken all printed encyclopedias. With over 4 million articles in English, it’s in constant flux. Internet domain names have become so numerous and dense that it’s in fact difficult to locate names that aren’t already taken. And of course, information is rapidly moving to the cloud. With this overload of information, strategies for finding nuggets of information in the mass of data presents a quandary. The old ways of selecting and sorting books with their alphabetical indexes and card catalogs are no longer sufficient. We need to find new ways to filter and search through the data.

Mr. Gleick winds up The Information with a reference to a book published by H.G. Wells in 1938 called World Brain. In this text, Wells called for a kind of a permanent encyclopedia with widespread world intelligence that is conscious of itself and serves as a network of information. With this goal in mind, the author optimistically posits that even with our radical new methods for information storage, the library as a source of knowledge will transform itself and endure.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood
by James Gleick
Pantheon Books, March 2011
526 pages, $29.95

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