Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Information

by James Gleick


Communication is an astonishingly broad field. James Gleick tracks the history of mankind's attempts to send messages, making the link between African talking drums and early forms of writing, through to Charles Babbage's difference engine, cryptography, and eventually cyberspace.

This is a six-degrees-of-separation kind of book, only the unexpected Kevin Bacons are between concepts and branches of science and maths, rather than between people. There are lots of surprising nuggets of information in this substantial but not dense study. The author explains how moving from an oral to a written culture changed the way people thought. Later on he goes into how dictionaries and fixed spellings emerged and had a similar impact. There's also a lot on why redundancy and compression matters. Long-winded messages may seem like a waste of energy, but sometimes reducing a communication to the smallest length possible is a really bad idea.

The book moves from language to cryptography to computers and even genetics, and on the surface it seems as if they're linked by a mere linguistic accident, the word code. But it isn't accidental, and the text highlights parallels that go far beyond the fact that they're all to do with conveying some kind of message. The language of African talking drums turned out to be very inefficient and full of redundancies, rather like DNA and its mysterious "junk" sections, featured in chapter 10.

The story of communications is a predictably accelerating one: whilst the Chinese script could be between 4500 and 8000 years old and is still in use, more recent technologies have come and gone in a comparative flash. Telegraph towers, for instance, flowered and then became obsolete surprisingly quickly. The same thing happens all the time with modern technologies, but it's more unexpected to read about something like that happening during the early 19th century. This book emphasises how little is really new, in spite of the vast changes we are living through. People were predicting the death of newspapers way back in the 19th century as a result of the electric telegraph. And there's an anecdote about a scholar complaining about information overload as early as 1621. We may be baffled by the pace of change, but this response is reassuringly familiar.

Fortunately The Information is anything but baffling. Even when it's dealing with subjects as diverse as entropy, early computers, logic and cryptography it's always clear and accessible. It's a fascinating read. The way James Gleick connects his topics is also impressive, but I appreciated the uplifting tone most of all. It's easy for science writers to represent the march of progress as an ever-accelerating, scary freefall into the unknown, and perhaps that approach appeals to some readers. But by teasing out the hidden patterns in the history of the way we communicate the author has written an encouraging book that makes sense of the modern information explosion.

18th June 2012

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books



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