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.

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