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`What is information?',
This review is from: The Information (Hardcover)
`We can see now that information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle.'
Information takes many forms, and relies on different technologies for its retention and dissemination. I struggled at first with the definite article in the title, but the more I read the more sense it made, most of the time.
`Writing comes into being to retain information across time and across space.'
In this book, James Gleick covers the development and different forms of literacy. From Chinese script (between 4,500 and 8,000 years ago) to the development of the alphabet around 1500 BCE, literacy enables information capture and transmission. But many of the developments that surround us today can be pinpointed to work undertaken by Claude Shannon and published in his paper called `A Mathematical Theory of Communication' in 1948. For Claude Shannon, communication was an engineering challenge unrelated to the content of the message. What was important was that the message could be transmitted so that someone else could recover it. The field of information theory was created.
Information theory may originally have been perceived as having applications in engineering and computer science (how fortuitous that the first `point contact' transistor was discovered around the same time), but its impacts were far greater. Information theory has reshaped fields such as economics and philosophy, and has resulted in changes to thinking in biology (the structure of DNA) and physics (the paradoxes of quantum mechanics).
`Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought. In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.'
While I found many of the scientific concepts challenging, the book is written in such a way that the story remains clear. I enjoyed the anecdotes, especially the one in which Charles Babbage wrote to Alfred, Lord Tennyson to take point out the inaccuracy of the arithmetic in the couplet: `Every moment dies a man/Every moment one is born' (in `The Vision of Sin') suggesting this change: `Every moment dies a man/ And one and a sixteenth is born.' `I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.'
Fascinating as the science is, it is the human history of information that most interested me: the various writing systems invented; the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary (thirty different ways to spell `mackerel' is so triumphantly human); the stories of coding and communication (including the semaphore system invented by the Chappe brothers in France during the late 18th century).
`We may wish to understand the rise of literacy both historically and logically, but history and logic are themselves the products of literate thought.'
There's plenty of information and food for thought in this book, and it isn't necessary to agree with everything James Gleick writes in order to appreciate the broader points made. Perhaps the biggest question for me is how we decide what constitutes meaningful information, and how we manage information flow effectively at a personal level.
Is information knowledge? Where is the balance between process and outcome?