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The information : a history, a theory, a…

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

by James Gleick (Author)

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1,605None4,520 (3.97)28
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. 20
    Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter (Popup-ch)
    Popup-ch: Gleicks book makes innumerable references to this classic.
  2. 20
    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 58 (next | show all)
The Information is a sweeping historical / scientific / technological account of information across time and disciplines. From talking drums, language, DNA, telegraphs, and bytes to Claude Shannon, Charles Babbage, Ada Byron, Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and John Archibald Wheeler. It’s all very fascinating although it gets more complex for a lay reader (that is, me) to understand as it goes along ( )
  Othemts | Mar 30, 2014 |
Information overload is fittingly the topic towards the end of Gleick's great flood of information topics - language, writing, code, encyclopedias, dictionaries, computing, naming, mathematics, logic, computer science, genetics, the internet. Too much for me to take in, no less do justice to in writing. ( )
  ohernaes | Mar 10, 2014 |
Breathtaking. ( )
  Mithril | Feb 17, 2014 |
We were taught that atoms and the quarks that compose them are the fundamental building blocks of nature. Gleick teaches how bits—discrete pieces of information—are a more helpful way of understanding the world.

Gleick's book is ambitious. It weighs in at 426 pages with 98 subsequent pages of notes, bibliography, and index. The size of the book reflects the scope. In it, Gleick begins surveying information by considering the birth of language and ends with Wikipedia. He traces the understanding and transferring of information through all of human history!

There are many fascinating insights throughout the book. Have you ever considered the task the first dictionary compiler faced in standardizing regional spelling? Did you know that Napoleon had a system of mechanical signal towers that could pass messages throughout France (at least on a clear day)? How many repeated numbers would you expect in a long random number? Did you know that Beethoven would have only heard a small amount of Bach's musical output, but we can now hear it all? Have you ever considered what effect knowing everything has on us?

Gleick has written more than a history here—he reveals insight into the human condition. Take this meditation on forgetfulness:

"Forgetting used to be a failing, a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering" (407).

The Information is a book from a Renaissance man who has though deeply about the human quest to relay and understand information. I found something interesting on every page. ( )
  StephenBarkley | Nov 13, 2013 |
Seeing the other gushing reviews, maybe I just didn't make it far enough into this monstrosity book. Maybe it's just that I went into this with the wrong expectations. I expected a cohesive, persuasive, and above all, entertaining story. I expected a focus on mathematics and its complexity. Given the author's background, I expected an infectiously enthusiastic tale of maths, its story put into context by the stories of the surrounding characters: Shannon, Turing, Babbage, heck, maybe even Van Neumann, Schelling, and that whole crowd.* And maybe the book gets there...eventually. What would I know? I only made it through the first 200 pages. Maybe the author was just getting into his stride.

From the portion I read, I felt that the author's passion and obsession was with words and history rather than with mathematics. The book is probably a historian's wet dream: lots and lots and lots of tiny extraneous details, from the fact that Charles Dickens based a character in Little Dorrit on Charles Babbage to the various patronizing imperialists early anthropologists trying to understand the usage of talking drums. Yes, I know the details sound fun and interesting. But there are just so many! The book feels more like a trivia collection than a narrative. The author literally spends chapters on the development of the dictionary. Almost an entire chapter is spent on the joys and tribulations of the Oxford English Dictionary. Pages and pages lovingly detail the many spellings of the word "mackerel" and the vast significance of these permutations. If I was interested in linguistics, this book would probably be a jewel. Gleick clearly savours the minutiae of history; unfortunately, my interest just don't lie in this area.

My other significant issue with the book was its lack of cohesion. Gleick becomes almost lyrical as he rhapsodises about the brilliance of alphabetical ordering, when grouping by theme and meaning gave way to dull syntax. I feel that if this book's topics had indeed been grouped alphabetically, the level of coherence would have been about the same. The book felt so disjointed that I kept wondering if I was skipping sections. Each chapter might have had some sort of theme, but it felt incoherent to me. The chapters themselves didn't respect chronological ordering either internally or externally. We skip from African drums to Morse code, then back in time to Babbage and his predecessors. Internally, take the chapter on Babbage as an example. We first learn, in tedious detail, about Babbage's differential engine. Then, for some odd reason, it makes sense to (finally) go back and discuss Babbage's childhood and upbringing. Then we skip to his education, parties, and analytical engine. Then we move over to Ada Lovelace. Then we move backwards into her chronology, then jump forward to her meeting Babbage. Confused? I was.

Perhaps I don't really have the right to form these judgements since I didn't make it all the way through the book, but I feel like close to half the book is enough for me to decide that this just isn't for me. I would definitely recommend it for people who are less interested in maths or theoretical concepts and more interested in linguistics and the history of scientific invention, however.

*Whoops, now that I look back at his background rather than his publishing record, it makes more sense: he majored in English and linguistics.
  page.fault | Sep 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (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)

» see all 4 descriptions

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