12.07.2011

what i'm reading: the information, by james gleick

I've started reading a book that I cannot put down: James Gleick's The Information.

The book's full title is The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, and it is indeed a book of many intentions: 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, and to spare myself the challenge of writing it about for you, I'm going to cop out and link to people who have already done so. Here are reviews in The Guardian and The Globe and Mail.

The New York Times reviewer has the same problem I do: this book is really difficult to write about.
“The Information” offers this point-blank characterization of its author: “James Gleick is our leading chronicler of science and modern technology.” This new book goes far beyond the earlier Gleick milestones, “Chaos” and “Genius,” to validate that claim.

“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. “The Information” is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.

In this relaxed setting, take the time to differentiate among the Brownian (motion), Bodleian (library) and Boolean (logic) while following Mr. Gleick’s version of what Einstein called “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” or “spooky action at a distance.” Einstein wasn’t precise about what this meant, and Mr. Gleick isn’t always precise either. His ambitions for this book are diffuse and far flung, to the point where providing a thumbnail description of “The Information” is impossible.
I've just been reading about a few people and things I encountered in my first semester of iSchool, in those dreadful "information and society" lectures: course: 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 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.

So far, though, I must disagree with the Times writer's assessment that readers need "the mettle to tackle" this book. That is, unless The Information is subject to what I think of as The Hawking Effect. Years and years ago, I tried reading A Brief History of Time, deciding I could handle the science if I read slowly and carefully enough. Concept A. OK, got it. Concept B, I'm still with you, Stephen. Concept B is followed by... Concept F. Hmm, that was a bit of a leap, but I think I'm OK. Concept F is followed by Concept QZW4t589TZZXpft. I'm gone. Can't understand another thing. Although that book, supposedly, was meant to be understood by people without a hard science background, it was beyond me.

But if Gleick continues walking the reader through math and engineering concepts with elegant analogies and well-chosen quotes, I'll read every word of this 425-page book. Because where else will I 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?

I used to be an avid reader of Gleick's "Fast Forward" column in the New York Times, where he helped me understand the case against Microsoft. I remember him as the first writer (that I knew of, anyway) to understand the value of the simple URL: he still lives at around.com.

While writing this post, I checked out Gleick's website for the first time in years, and who do I see staring me in the face but my friend Samuel Pepys! Gleick reads Pepys Diary online, as I do. He is also a union man (my words, not his), on the board of the Author's Guild, and has been known to stand up publicly for the rights of writers.

I have not read Gleick's best-known book Chaos, although I might one day, and I tried but couldn't get into Faster. So far The Information feels like a must-read. OK Gleick, don't pull a Hawking on me.

17 comments:

laura k said...

Did you know there were telegraphs before electrical, Morse-code style telegraphs? Giant towers were built on hills. The towers had arms that were positioned in various ways by cranks and levers, in a kind of semaphore code.

Telegraph operators would look through binoculars, and copy (or try to copy) the message, the next operator would see it, copy it, etc. The operators at the beginning and end of the line had code books, and they had to look up what the message meant.

An imperfect system, very error prone, plus it didn't work in rain or fog. But much faster than the alternative - a man on horseback.

Telegraphs were sent this way for 50 years or so, mostly to transmit big government or military news. Place-names like "Telegraph Hill" are from that time.

Meanwhile, dozens of people were separately working on different kinds of electric telegraph inventions.

Amy said...

The book sounds fascinating. It sounds like something my father would enjoy especially. I am sure I would also---though it sounds like the kind of book I'd want to read when I am fully awake, not late at night like most of my non-work reading is during the school year. I think I will add it to my summer list.

I know exactly what you mean about the Hawking effect! I had the same experience. I kept wondering how the book made it to being a best seller---did a lot of those people who usually read Stephen King and Jacqueline Susann also read Hawking? Was I stupider than the typical American reader? At any rate, I gave up on it.

impudent strumpet said...

How did the telegraph operators know when the telegraph was going to transmit a message? Or did they sit there watching it with binoculars literally all day?

laura k said...

Good question. There were pre-arranged times when signals were given, like "when the clock tower chimes six times," people would climb the towers to take watch.

In the search for true long-distance communication, one of things inventors were after was to lose the need for pre-arranged times.

laura k said...

Amy, I do think you would really like this book - and you're right, best read when your mind is fresh.

Re Hawking effect, my guess is most people bought the book and didn't read it, or perhaps tried to read it and gave up. Still, it's comforting to hear you had the same experience!

Amy said...

I just added it to my Amazon Wish List so I don't forget! :) Thanks!!

James said...

I've never been disappointed with Gleick -- he's one of the best science-for-the-general-audience writers.

Hawking, of course, isn't a science writer -- though I'm told that an editor worked with him on "The Universe in a Nutshell" specifically to avoid the Hawking effect.

I'll have to add this one to my Kobo queue.

Check out the video of Babbage's engine in action at the Computer History Museum. It's amazing to see working.

BTW, the web comic "2D Goggles" has some great (and silly) adventure stories which play with fictionalized versions of Lovelace and Babbage. Lots of fun.

laura k said...

James, thanks for the links, great stuff!

Speaking of your Kobo queue, this book is making me miss having an e-reader. It's very big and heavy, so I don't carry it around, so I end up not having it when I could use something to read. And it's from the library, so I wouldn't have it on the shelf (yet) anyway.

laura k said...

Of course, reading fat books is nothing new for me. I used to walk around with a giant tome in my backpack all the time. That was one of the ways I damaged my shoulder. An e-reader would have helped in those days too. :)

laura k said...

For those subscribing to this thread, I am pleased to report that Gleick does not pull a Hawking. :)

I am reading about logic and math and paradoxes - subjects that usually make MEGO - and I am still following it.

It's a brilliant book. The chapter on the advent of the telegraph - alone - is worth the read.

James said...

Some good Bertrand Russell stuff? :)

There's a great graphic novel, Logicomix, about Russell's work, with some Hilbert, Wittgenstein and Gödel thrown in. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the foundations of logic.

laura k said...

Claude Shannon, Bertrand Russell, and now Godel. My previous encounters with Godel made my head explode, so this is really great.

And I know Bertrand Russell as a socialist and one of the world's great conscientious objectors, so this is a very different encounter!

Come to think of it, perhaps the only treatment of paradoxes that didn't make my head explode were in a Futurama movie! :)

laura k said...

By the way, those 2D Goggles stories of Babbage and Lovelace are amazing pieces of mock Victoriana, a subgenre I adore.

James said...

Russell's politics show up in Logicomix as well, though they're a side-story in that book.

I trust Gleick spends some time on Alan Turing as well? If you're familiar with Turing's story, check out the Turing Memorial in Manchester -- a tribute to Turing both as a scientist and as a GLBT icon.

I love the 2D Goggles stories. Unfortunately, it's been a while since the last major tale, but I'm hoping for more.

Oh, and here's a nice little song about the abuse of steampunk on the net these days.

laura k said...

I trust Gleick spends some time on Alan Turing as well?

Oh yes. That's later in the book, I haven't gotten there yet.

I remember the brilliant Masterpiece production of "Breaking the Code," starring Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing, an important piece of queer history and liberation history in general. In my mind, Alan Turing is Derek Jacobi.

James said...

And to tie this "What I'm Reading" to a previous one: Derek Jacobi played himself in the introduction to the recent Oxfordian Hypothesis film, Anonymous, promoting the idea that de Vere wrote the plays.

laura k said...

I read about that! I was shocked when I saw him mentioned in Shapiro's book. I suppose the Shakespeare deniers feel it gives them great credibility.

I saw Jacobi as Prospero in a Royal Shakespeare production, my first time in London. He is a brilliant actor. Just goes to show you...

I don't know exactly what it goes to show, but something!