Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

As the full title of James Gleick's book implies - The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood - this is a book with ambitious intentions. It is a history of communication and information technology, a history of information theory, a historical perspective on our own information age, and predictions on where that age is going. It's a complex and multifarious book, sometimes engrossing, sometimes extremely challenging, usually very interesting.

In The Information, you'll read about Ada Lovelace, a mathematical genius, the biological child of the poet Lord Byron, and the first programmer, from the time when a "computer" was a person who added up numbers; the Jacquard Loom, a mechanical weaving loom that was a proto-computer, the pattern of an weave determined by punchcards; and the visionary Charles Babbage, a man so far ahead of his time that he said he would exchange all his remaining years to live only three more days, five centuries in the future. Babbage was trying to construct a true computer in the Victorian age: steam-powered, running on wheels and cogs.

The Information, true to its subtitle, is divided into three interrelated sections. I highly recommend the first and the third segments. Gleick walks the reader through math and engineering concepts with elegant analogies and well-chosen quotes. Where else will you read about cuneform tablets, the first dictionary, the effect of the internet on lexicographers, the talking drums of Africa (the world's first technology for complex long-distance communication), and how language contributes to the formation of consciousness, all in the first 50 pages?

The middle of the book was rough going for me. I found myself reading about complex math theory well beyond my comprehension. That was I was able to follow this at all is a great credit to Gleick's writing. He is quite brilliant at explaining complex concepts in simple terms.

I followed along much farther than I would have thought, but when quantum physics - whatever that means - intersected with information theory to become quantum information theory, I was completely lost. For me, the last part of the book's second segment was incomprehensible. After that, The Information became understandable, enlightening, and fascinating again.

If you're comfortable with higher theoretical science concepts, you might love the entire book. If you're more interested in the historical, social and personal aspects of our information universe, at some point you'll probably want to skim or skip pages, then resume careful reading with the final chapters. (Portions of this review were originally published here and here, on wmtc.)

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