The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick. New York: Pantheon, 2011. 526 pp. $29.95 (cloth). ISBN 978-0375423727

Near the beginning of The Information, James Gleick writes that “[i]n the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself” (12). Upon reading such a statement, one might fear facing yet another breathless hype piece, which heralds the coming of a brave new Information Age that will change our lives forever. Thankfully, this is not that book.

The Information is, in fact, a difficult book to categorize or summarize. To the extent that it puts forth a central argument, the argument is that information is not just a tool or a metaphor, but the essence of reality, of everything from the organization of life, to economic relations, to matter itself. Gleick, however, does not devote much energy to buttressing this rather dubious Platonic premise. The book is better understood, via its sub-title, as consisting of three loosely bound parts: a history of the problematic relationship between symbols and meaning; a narrative overview of the origins of information theory and its influences on science, social science, and mathematics; and a discussion of the ever-growing flood of information in contemporary life.

The first section is a series of historical essays and vignettes that center primarily on the problem of extracting meaning from symbols, a problem that can be found everywhere in history when one begins to look: in talking drums, dictionaries, Charles Babbage's imagined computing engines, and telegraph codes. This material is fascinating, but Gleick's information-centric view of the past leads him to occasional anachronistic pronouncements such as, “Babbage's interests . . . did possess a common thread that neither he nor his contemporaries could perceive. . . . His true subject was information” (121). This attribution to Babbage of some unconscious foresight into the nature of information theory derives, it seems, from a misguided desire to see him as a man before his time.

Next comes the largest portion of the book, which tackles information theory itself. Claude Shannon's development of a quantitative theory that described information in terms of bits and entropy forms the central pivot of this section, and indeed of the whole book. A series of chapters follow on the rapid spread of information theory into psychology, biology, mathematics, physics, and the marginal science of memetics.

The section of the book on the information flood, although by far the shortest, will be of particular interest to readers of Libraries & the Cultural Record.* Here Gleick discusses Wikipedia, the Internet domain name system, and the closely interrelated problems of information overload and historical memory. If he makes no novel intellectual contribution to these topics, Gleick does present this material in an engaging and even beautiful fashion, interwoven with references to Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel.” Ultimately, he comes to a sober but optimistic conclusion: “No deus ex machina waits in the wings; no man behind the curtain. We have no Maxwell's demon to help us filter and search. . . . As ever, it is the choice that informs us (in the original sense of that word)” (425).

Despite all the technological devices Gleick touches upon, his primary interest is in the intellectual realm. In measuring historical significance, he gives Shannon's information theory pride of place over the roughly contemporaneous invention of the transistor. If there is one theme or leitmotif that ties the book's three parts together, it is the problem of meaning and the growing distance between symbols and their referents. The creation of that distance generates powerful new tools for approaching the world (including writing itself), but simultaneously generates new problems of understanding. Gleick seems to suggest Shannon's provocative statement that “semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem” opened this gap wider than ever before, and thus unleashed more power and greater difficulties than ever before (222).

The Information is not a good starting point for delving into the scholarship on information theory and information overload. The references to secondary sources in the text and endnotes are scanty: ironically so, since Gleick himself points out that one of the prime advantages of written culture over oral “was the power of looking inward upon itself” (47). Moreover, the book contains a few minor errors of fact, the oddest of which is the identification of California-born physicist William Shockley as an Englishman. Nonetheless, The Information is a book well worth reading, not least for its excellent prose. Non-specialists wanting a broad overview of the origins and applications of information theory will find it at the core of the book. Almost everyone will find something stimulating in the discursive essays on the history of language, codes, and the “information flood” that surround that core.

Christopher McDonald, Princeton University

*Now, Information & Culture: A Journal of History. The journal was formerly published under the titles, Libraries & the Cultural Record (2006-2011), Libraries & Culture (1988-2005), and The Journal of Library History (1966-1987).