PW Best Books 2011: The Information by James Gleick

Alex Crowley -- October 25th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Until James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood came up in “best books of the year” discussion I’ll admit to having entirely forgotten about it. When it was published earlier in the year I was a graduate student working in a bookstore and under those circumstances there were no “available” slots on my reading list. A co-worker seemed to enjoy it, as I had two of his previous works (Chaos: Making a New Science and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything), but I knew it would be a while before I would have a chance to pick it up, particularly given it’s slightly intimidating size.

Fast forward to September and I tore through it over a weekend. At first I couldn’t tell whether The Information really was one of the year’s best books or that I just happened to be fascinated by the material and appreciated it for that reason alone. Admittedly it’s not “light” reading, though once again Gleick demonstrates his remarkable ability to not only illuminate obscure mathematical & philosophical concepts, but also to then utilize milestones within the development of those concepts as the basis for the narrative. Instead of foregrounding the scientists or philosophers he portrays them as vessels or transmitters for some larger, undirected scheme: a curious, yet profound decision whose repercussions are fully realized later.

The central revelation Gleick lays out in the beginning is that our story, is really one of information becoming aware of itself. However, though we may live in the “Information Age”, the ubiquity of that idea doesn’t make it any easier to define. As he points out early, what we recognize today as “information” refers to a fairly young concept that, much like a computer, would be wholly unrecognizable to anyone alive before the World Wars. He quotes intercellular communication specialist Werner Loewenstein: “[Information] connotes a cosmic principle of organization and order, and it provides an exact measure of that.” Histories of language and measurement come into play as do that of obscure topics like African talking drums.

Some of the most enjoyable and mind-bending sections of the book happen as Gleick explores the mathematical and logical paradoxes (from Godel’s incompleteness theorems to properties of quantum mechanics) out of which our modern conceptions arise. For instance, information’s relationship to “surprise” or “uncertainty” is counterintuitive: if one can deduce what symbol is to come next in a pattern, that symbol is redundant and contains no actual “information”. Towards the end of the book these abstractions become entwined with biology and things come full circle. The study of genetics ultimately reveals the evolutionary pressures that operate on information in the form of “memes”.

While it may seem helpful to be familiar with some of these topics before reading, Gleick’s history turns so much common sense on its head that a blank slate may actually be preferable. However, regardless of how “informed” you believe yourself beforehand, you’ll finish the book with an enlightened and expanded perspective on the universe in which we find ourselves.

One thought on “PW Best Books 2011: The Information by James Gleick

  1. Dave Wittekind

    I’m in the middle of “The Information” and finding it to be a facinating journey. I’m familiar with some of the material having read (twice) Charles Seife’s introduction to information theory “Decoding the Universe”, which I’d also highly recommend.

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