on 6 December 2011
In this book Gleick (2001) offers a historical account of information and communicational systems. Showing the technology, the social and cultural impact, the inventors and there environment and a theoretical account on information. Starting with anthropological accounts of communication and signalling, to light and electric telegraph and the ancestors of early calculators and computer he comes to write about the information age. Each of these information and communication technologies, according to Gleick (2011), as the printing press, telegraph, telephone and internet left their mark on our society, most noticeably are the early communicational systems who made the word smaller and globally connected and contributed to standardisation as the time zones.
Several key figures pass by e.g. Charles Babbage who contributed to the early calculator or computer, Ada Byron who started working on the first algorithms, Samuel Morse who contributed to the telegraph and Morse code, Alan Turing who was one of the key persons in the development of computation, algorithm and inventor of the Turing machine and Claude Shannon regards as the father of information theory. Gleick (2011) provides bibliographical information, how some of these people were interlinked, together with accounts how they contributed by innovation, adaptation and research to the different information and communication systems.
Gleick (2011) does not contribute to the history of communication technologies with new research, facts or insights, and refers and quotes several well known authors on the same topic. The interesting bit in Gleick (2011) book is probably not the historical description how different systems came into being, but the adaptation people made to make most of it, which is now largely forgotten. The telegraph resulted in lists of abbreviations and special dictionaries of words of phrases to transmit, as much information as possible, with the least amount of characters. And how the telephone book, with list of persons and numbers were needed to organise and connect people. But that both types of retrieval systems became redundant by new technologies. Despite their disappearance, the quest to develop more efficient signs and media contributed to the development of digital information. And as digital information becomes increasingly more sophisticated and efficient, it leads to a world according to Gleick (2011) of abundance or a flood of information.
Towards the end, the book becomes fragmented. Gleick (2011) tries to show how information is understood in different disciplines as genetics (memes and genes), physics (Maxwell's Demon and randomness), and in literature (Jorge Luis Borges, Library of Babel). Gleick (2011) shows briefly how older communication systems, which transmit, select and filter information, but also provided tools to make sense of information, such as printed books with indexes, table of content and references, special books like catalogues, encyclopaedia, glossaries, book of quotations and anthropologies and entries as book reviews and digests. However, Gleick (2011) does not describe, accept from mentioning that it becomes available in daunting quantities, how people deal with digital information. It would have been more interesting, instead of the theoretical descriptions of information theory, which is not Gleick's strongpoint, to know how people distribute, organise, structure, select and filter information, and make the best of the tools available and contrast this with previous and almost forgotten attempts.
As mentioned, this book is an eclectic collection of interesting pieces and ideas, by times easy to read and amusing, but on the whole incoherent.
Gleick, J. (2011) The information. A History, a Theory, a Flood. London, Fourth Estate