book review: The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

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The flood of information has long had its detractors. In 1889, the Spectator carried a hand-wringing article about the deleterious effect of the age's internet, the telegraph. "All men are compelled to think of all things, at the same time on imperfect information, and with too little interval for reflection," it claimed, bemoaning "the constant diffusion of statements in snippets".

With that gripe in mind, James Gleick's new book attempts to tell the story of how a trickle turned into a deluge. He starts in Africa. With just taut skin on hollowed-out wood, a drummer could send a message that would be repeated for miles around. Only in 1914 did a missionary finally decipher this for the western world. The drums worked by stripping out meaning and reducing content to a code, copying the tonal changes in African words. In Europe and America, meanwhile, a different beat had emerged, the dot-dash-pause of Morse code.

It was not just language that was being repackaged. So, too, were mathematics and physical sciences. The 18th-century early computer, never quite finished by Charles Babbage, was designed to process numbers through its cogs and latches. Its inspiration was the punch cards used in Jacquard looms to create patterns (the punch card would return for early IBM computers).

When the genome was finally understood, it was found to carry a code for life in a neat double helix. Computers and the internet, the great diffusers of "snippets of information" run on a binary code, where every state is either on or off.

That, briefly, is the history, and it is told elegantly by Gleick. However, The Information loses its way when it moves into the second half of the 20th century, and into theoretical territory. A hectic journey through quantum physics, randomness, Alan Turing's proof of uncomputability and the question of whether information is finite leaves one swamped.

After the theory, the deluge, which Gleick illustrates with Wikipedia, a website that embodies the crisis of the glut of information. Wikipedia editors argue about what is worth preserving, and truths and falsehoods rub shoulders too readily.

The Information ends, then, by echoing the Spectator's fretting from a century ago, in a new chaotic meta-world of information where we have to search for meaning anew. Although some parts of the book convey Gleick's excitement, many of his big ideas get lost in the background noise.

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