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The information : a history, a theory, a…

The information : a history, a theory, a flood (edition 2012)

by James Gleick

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1,753664,025 (3.95)30
Title:The information : a history, a theory, a flood
Authors:James Gleick (Author)
Info:Fourth Estate, London, 2012
Collections:Your library
Tags:non-fiction, information, history, history of science, computers, science

Work details

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

  1. 30
    Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter (Popup-ch)
    Popup-ch: Gleicks book makes innumerable references to this classic.
  2. 30
    Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick (bj2211)
  3. 10
    The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (davesmind)
  4. 00
    Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes by Charles Seife (waitingtoderail)
    waitingtoderail: Gleick looks at information theory with more of a view from a mathematical side, Seife more from a scientific side. They complement each other wonderfully.
  5. 00
    The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) by Tor Nørretranders (Popup-ch)
    Popup-ch: Both books address the fundamental problems of communication, but in a slightly different manner. Where Gleick concentrates on the encoder, and Shannon's coding efficiency, Nørretranders instead looks at how this is perceived by the receiver, and ultimately at how the human brain makes sense of the world around us.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 63 (next | show all)
The premise of this book is rather fascinating and the author has obviously done his research on the topic and structured it well. The material covers the whole of history of information and humanity's relationship with it. It certainly contains plenty of ideas and insights to get one thinking about larger philosophical implications of information as a concept and how it has come to shape human society.

My problem with this book is partly rooted in the fact that I started off with some wealth of information about the topic already under my belt. If you have read a bit about computer science and information technology then you might find the passages on Turing and von Neumann monotonous. In addition, at some points the author went somewhat too deep into particular areas. For instance the parts on entropy, thermodynamics and quantum physics are in my opinion too far removed from the context of information theory and break up the otherwise well-paced flow of the narrative.

Nevertheless the book is well written, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in information science who is yet to delve deeper into the topic. ( )
  ilokhov | Mar 30, 2015 |
well-written and comprehensive. this history of information includes people and ideas from all the appropriate scholarly fields and understands the contributions those fields made to information theory. Claude Shannon is given his proper place at the center of this new paradigm. Like the Annales school historians, Gleick focuses not so much on human events as on the commodity involved. he seeks to explain what and how the study of information itself evolved and transformed our world rather than just following a ragged timeline of historical happenings.

this book will help you understand our modern world as virtually no other can. it is not profound or poetic but it is informative. ( )
  keebrook | Mar 10, 2015 |
Not surprisingly, the subject of James Gleick’s The Information is the field of knowledge known as “Information Theory.” The theory’s origin can be traced to a seminal article written in 1948 by Claude Shannon, an engineer employed at that time by Bell Laboratories. The article, entitled "A Mathematical Theory of Communication," appeared in two parts in the Bell System Technical Journal. Shannon focused on how to optimize the amount of information a sender wants to transmit. His theory is important because, inter alia, its use and practice greatly improves the speed and amount of content that can be transmitted or communicated electronically. As Gleick points out:

"Satellite television channels, pocket music players, efficient camera and telephones and countless other modern appurtenances depend on coding algorithms to compress numbers—sequences of bits—and those algorithms trace their lineage to Shannon’s original 1948 paper.”

But getting a feel for how the theory works or why it is so important isn’t easy, so Gleick takes the reader on a 180-page historical tour of various earlier forms of communication between remote sites. For example, Europeans were amazed to find that tribes of sub-Saharan Africa were able to send remarkably detailed messages to one another by means of drums. The fact that their languages were tonal (like Mandarin, but unlike any European language) facilitated their “translation” into drum sounds.

In another example of comparatively long-range communication, European war fleets were able to transmit messages by way of visual flag signals, but the range of possible messages was limited to a few pre-arranged commands. By the late 18th century, the French were able to send messages long distances by way of “telegraphs.” The first devices known as telegraphs were series of signaling devices like semaphores spaced with sight of one another. Signals could be sent from one device to the next, but complicated messages were difficult to transmit because there was no known efficient method to encode the message succinctly.

The invention of the electrical telegraph provided the opportunity to send signals much faster than the visual “telegraphs.” However, it was not until an efficient code like the one developed by Samuel Morse was generally put in use that the transmission of complex or just long messages became practical.

Just why Morse Code was efficient is is related to a well-defined concept conventionally called the “entropy of a message” or the “Shannon entropy.” It encourages the removal of as much extraneous data as possible from a message to shorten it but without a loss of meaning. Most of you will be aware of this process even without knowing the history and theory behind it. The meaning of “I lv u” is clear, and takes less space than “I love you.” Conventions such as “twitter-speak” allow for even more economy: when someone only says “OMG” you know what that person is communicating, and six spaces have been saved.

The initial thrust of Shannon’s theorizing was to condense the quantity of data to be transmitted over telephone lines, greatly enhancing the capacity of the lines to transmit ideas (content) without increasing the amount of physical assets needed to transmit. But the concept of quantifying the extraction of information from raw data soon flowed from telephone engineering into other fields such as psychology, genetics, and quantum physics.

Gleick also discusses the tension between the concepts of information and meaning. Although Shannon famously said that meaning is “irrelevant to the engineering problem,” meaning remains the thing humans most want to convey or transmit in communication. The problem remains a sticky philosophical one, and Gleick does a nice job of analyzing it, although he does not solve it.

Gleick is a master of elucidating daunting scientific concepts. Just like his earlier book, Chaos, The Information brings to light an intellectually challenging set of ideas and makes them understandable to the layman.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Dec 11, 2014 |
This book is like Disneyland for intellectuals. So many attractions, so much joy. ( )
  NatalieAsIs | Oct 23, 2014 |
Interesting and entertaining look at the history of information and a few of the key people who helped birth our info-thick world.
4 stars oc ( )
  starcat | Aug 11, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 63 (next | show all)
The heart of Gleick’s book is his treatment of the new information theory that Shannon — and computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing, noisily brilliant pioneer Norbert Stuart Wiener and many others — created in the middle decades of the 20th century. But Gleick loops backward to discuss early efforts at messaging and storage, from drum messages to dictionaries, and forward to make clear the massive consequences of what Shannon and the others wrought. ...

Gleick is a technological determinist, in a moderate way. He argues elegantly that the telegraph promoted everything from the weaving of networks to the building of skyscrapers and the creation of a new “telegraphic” style of communication.

It seems a pity, accordingly, that he does not say more about the ways in which information theory and its technical progeny have changed our ways of reading and writing, doing research and listening to music. ...
Shannon's take on language is disconcerting. From the outset, he was determined to divorce information from meaning. That's why a random string of letters is more information-rich, in Shannon's sense, than a coherent sentence. There is a definite value in his measure, not just in computing but in linguistics. Yet to broach information in the colloquial sense, somewhere meaning must be admitted back into all the statistics and correlations...

Gleick too readily accepts the standard trope that genes contain the information needed to build an organism. That information is highly incomplete. Genes don't need to supply it all, because they act in a molecular milieu that fills in the gaps. It's not that the music, or the gene, needs the right context to deliver its message – without that context, there is no message, no music, no gene. An information theory that considers just the signal and neglects the receiver is limited. It is the only serious complaint about a deeply impressive and rather beautiful book.
A highly ambitious and generally brilliant effort to tie together centuries of disparate scientific efforts to understand information as a meaningful concept. For a society that believes itself to live in an information age, the subject could hardly be more important. That the project doesn't fully succeed has more to do with the limits of our understanding than with Gleick's efforts.
added by Shortride | editSlate, Tim Wu (Mar 28, 2011)
This is all engagingly told, though Gleick’s focus on information systems occasionally leads him to exaggerate the effects technologies like printing and the telegraph could have all by themselves. For example, he repeats the largely discredited argument, made by the classicist Eric Havelock in the 1970s, that it was the introduction of the alphabet that led to the development of science, philosophy and “the true beginning of consciousness.”

Such errors are mostly minor. But Gleick’s tendency to neglect the social context casts a deeper shadow over the book’s final chapters, where he turns from explicating information as a scientific concept to considering it as an everyday concern, switching roles from science writer to seer.
“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.
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Anyway, those tickets, those old ones, they didn't tell you where you were going, much less where you came from. He couldn't remember seeing any dates on them, either, and there was certainly no mention of time. It was all different now, of course. All this information. Archie wondered why that was.
-- Zadie Smith

What we call the past is built on bits.
-- John Archibald Wheeler
For Cynthia
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[Prologue] After 1948, which was the crucial year, people thought they could see the clear purpose that inspired Claude Shannon's work, but that was hindsight.
[Chapter 1] No one spoke simply on the drums.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375423729, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2011: In a sense, The Information is a book about everything, from words themselves to talking drums, writing and lexicography, early attempts at an analytical engine, the telegraph and telephone, ENIAC, and the ubiquitous computers that followed. But that's just the "History." The "Theory" focuses on such 20th-century notables as Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, and others who worked on coding, decoding, and re-coding both the meaning and the myriad messages transmitted via the media of their times. In the "Flood," Gleick explains genetics as biology's mechanism for informational exchange--Is a chicken just an egg's way of making another egg?--and discusses self-replicating memes (ideas as different as earworms and racism) as information's own evolving meta-life forms. Along the way, readers learn about music and quantum mechanics, why forgetting takes work, the meaning of an "interesting number," and why "[t]he bit is the ultimate unsplittable particle." What results is a visceral sense of information's contemporary precedence as a way of understanding the world, a physical/symbolic palimpsest of self-propelled exchange, the universe itself as the ultimate analytical engine. If Borges's "Library of Babel" is literature's iconic cautionary tale about the extreme of informational overload, Gleick sees the opposite, the world as an endlessly unfolding opportunity in which "creatures of the information" may just recognize themselves. --Jason Kirk

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:18:07 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long misunderstood "talking drums" of Africa, James Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He also provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information, including Charles Babbage, Ada Byron, Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, and Claude Shannon.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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