The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick took me forever to read. This is not because it is a plodding book or a difficult book or a boring book. It is because it is a fat book, a fascinating book, a book crammed full of, appropriately enough, information. The book is about the history and theory of information, which incorporates the history of communication, the history of computers, the history of science, the history of code writing and everything that grew out of those things like writing and books and telephones and understanding DNA and quantum computing.
The book begins slowly and with the basics and picks up steam so that we start with the alphabet as the founding technology of information and end with quantum information theory, a place where information is divorced from meaning and turned into complex quantum mathematics. It is a fun and fascinating ride and I can’t begin to tell you everything so I will tell you about some of the things I wrote down in notes instead of just sticking a page point in to mark a page.
Modern information theory was revolutionized by Claude Shannon. Arguably, he is to the twentieth century what Darwin was to the nineteenth. His ideas about information allowed us to make great leaps forward into the coding, transmission, and storage of information.
The advent of electricity and wires and the study of the human nervous system about the same time begins the comparison between the two, especially with telegraph and telephone carrying messages. The telegraph and telephone began to turn human society into a coherent organism. With the advent of the telegraph, the world suddenly got a lot smaller.
The telegraph created the ability to report on the weather. Weather became an abstraction instead of a local phenomenon. It allowed the U.K. government to establish a meteorological office in 1854.
The available amount of information also changed the creation and study of history as large quantities of minutiae were transmitted via telegraph message and saved.
The Morse system ushered in a public comfort and familiarity with codes and encoding. To save money on telegraph messages, English was cut to bare bones. It was like the nineteenth century version of texting. Newspapers came up with code systems that would allow reporters to send messages in 10 words what would equal 100 words in print.
People were allowed to register code names on the telegraph registry. It was kind of like what making usernames for us is today.
Interesting stuff, yes? I also learned about random number theory, something I had not read much about before and which took a bit of work to wrap my mind around. How it relates to information theory is quite interesting. Random numbers are information heavy and non-random numbers carry little to no information because they are predictable. There is lots more to it than that, I assure you, but that is what it boils down to only it takes a whole chapter to explain it.
The Information is probably not a book for everyone. As much I liked it I realize that it’s appeal will be for librarians of a technical bent, those who enjoy reading science books written for a general audience, and tech nerds who did not major in computers at university. However, if you don’t fall into any of those categories but still think the book sounds interesting, don’t shy away! Give it a try! It is rewarding read. Promise.