What constitutes information? What are its properties? And how have our lives adjusted to its omnipresence? Ambitious though he is in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick does not pretend to answer these questions fully. Rather, he aims to show the possibilities these questions pose for the human race, which evolves from both obvious and obscure forms of information, from the messages carried by drumbeats and emails to the designs imposed on our bodies by our DNA. In the end, he presents the universe as a giant computer that is ever making calculations to dictate its own fate.
In his early chapters, Gleick traces the progress of human language from vocal intonations to distinct units of sound (or words), to the encapsulation of these sounds into written symbols, to the dissemination of these words to every corner of the world. Each advance is at once liberating and disruptive to the existing social order. The shifting of his own culture’s knowledge from oral to written transmission caused Plato to grumble, “This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.” Similar alarms followed the introduction of movable type, the mass production of books, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television and Twitter, the last of which, the author reminds us, is a colossal generator of trivia as well as the vehicle that “provided emergency information and comfort during terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and . . . made the Iranian protests visible to the world in 2009.”
Gleick’s chapters on information theory will be tough sledding for readers not grounded in physics, advanced mathematics or cellular biology. But even these become accessible and valuable when he focuses on the contributions of specific scientists who looked beyond the mere utility of information to discover its measurable essence—people such as Charles Babbage, who conceived and built an ingenious computing machine that never worked as it was supposed to, and Alan Turing, who imagined a computing machine in such detail that it always worked. Then there is the ubiquitous Claude Shannon, who conceptualized the “bit” as “a unit for measuring information.” All of us are now beneficiaries (or victims) of that insight.
The flood of Gleick’s subtitle is, of course, the torrent of words and images that courses through the Internet into our computers, and thence into our consciousness. But this condition doesn’t scare him. “Infinite possibility is good, not bad,” he asserts. “Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared. . . . We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.”