Reading James Gleick’s ‘The Information’

20Feb16

Information seems such a central word today, it is hard to imagine it has not always been subject of scientific inquiry. Still it was not until the 1950ies scientific information theory developed, although it would soon penetrate many other sciences including such fundamental ones as biology and particle physics. As Donna Haraway remarked, until the eighties information was the dominant metaphor for most sciences only to be replaced by the network since then. In The Information Gleick traces the science of information from its birth through its golden years, in a compelling, exiting popular science text.

The book has a more or less chronological structure, featuring chapters about tribal long-distance communication with ‘talking drums’, writing, automatic calculation, telegraphy, telephony, entropy, computing, DNA, random numbers, quantum computers and the Internet. In particular in the first chapters of the book it highlights the enduring intercourse of technology and intellectual progress that is so characteristic of information theory. Writing, telegraphy, telephony and computing are all technologies, and these inspired human thinking by offering metaphors for understanding the world and proposing challenges which needed a solution based on theory. In a bit more cursory way, Gleick also talks about the impact of these technologies on society. Gleicks real interest is theory though, so societal changes are more a context from which he explains intellectual progress.

‘The information’ is in many ways a coming of age novel. In its childhood, information theory might have needed information technologies to support and sustain its development, nowadays information theory can stand on its own feed and in turns support many other fields. As the book progresses, it topics become more and more fundamental an abstract. Gleick discusses information as the opposite of entropy in physics, he discusses several incarnations of Gōdel’s proof that formal systems like mathematics must be inconsistent, and their application to the calculation of random numbers. And he starts discussing the utility of information theory in other fields. First and foremost genetics but also quantum mechanics culminating in a vivid discussion of nascent field of quantum computing.

In the last two chapters Gleick returns to the everyday reality, by discussing Internet and Wikipedia, but there is something offbeat to this part of the book. Although, in particular the chapter about Wikipedia, is well researched and exiting to read, the connection with information theory is lost in this chapter. I am not sure if Gleick intended it this way but the heroes journey of information theory ends in quantum computing. These wrap up chapters show the birth of the new hero theory: network theory. The 21st century is about networks as much as the second part of the 20ieth century, the era of telecommunication and computers was all about code.

Although the golden age of information theory may be behind us, I consider the information a must-read for anyone working in a field related to information, communication or computing, which is many us. And if network theory becomes mature enough, soon enough for a treatment like this, I surely hope Gleick picks it up.

Reading more?

My review of Donna Haraway’s Apes, Simians and Cyborgs is good entry into her ideas about the (mis)use of information theory in Biology.

I write several blogs about the way the internet changes our information bias. In particular: Thinking Internet & Thinking and Cognitive Bias in the Global Information Subway

I also wrote a series of post about network theory: Networktheory, Networks, the new flogiston?, Digital Networks,…, and real ones and Network flatness

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