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General, Technology

The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood

James Gleick's The Information

James Gleick's The Information

I’ve just finished reading James Gleick’s latest book, The Information. The blurb inside the cover describes it as:

a fascinating history of information from its earliest forms and uses to the emergence of a theory of information

But it’s a lot more than a dry, historical record of how we moved from no-verbal communication method, like drums through to quantum computing.

Gleick’s main focus is on the underlying principles of information, understanding how we transfer data, to communicate messages, tell stories. It looks at how information is bound up in the world of physics and mathematics, and how our understanding and study of information flow has opened up new vistas and opportunities.

It was a massive undertaking and its to Gleick’s credit that it is also massively entertaining. It’s packed full of interesting snippets about how the race to understand the nature of information has shaped the world around us – Skyscrapers would not have been possible but for the telephone,  how much computing space all the money of the world would occupy since the dawn of time (around a petabuck) – even its relationship with black holes.

If biographical account of communication can have a hero, it also has one in the shape of Claude Shannon, a scientist who is the founding father of information theory. Without Shannon the world might be a very different place.

Though Shannon is perhaps the leading man in Gleick’s tome, the supporting cast isn’t bad either. Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Einstein, Schrödinger all crop up in the story.

It also considers how our understanding of information has created a world in which we have never had som much information at our fingertips. For some it’s created anxiety about how we keep abreast of this vast trove at our disposal, how we prevent ourselves from drowning in the deluge of flood of data.

It’s not a new fear, Gleick describes how Robert Burton, an Oxford academic, wrote about a new age of information as far back as the 17th century. Burton was positive about the opportunities that access to ever more information afforded, and the book’s author seems to be of a like mind.

As someone who has spent the last 16 or so years involved in the communications business, as variously a journalist, product developer, online editor and latterly blogger, it’s a particularly fascinating and well written read.

The book ends with a nod to the future, of teleportation and quantum mechanics, it’s to its great credit that everything that precedes it, is just as geekily exciting, interesting and , yes, informative as the prospect of being beamed up by Scotty.

The book is available at Amazon

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