Review: James Gleick’s “The Information”

Review of The Information by James Gleick (2011)

James Gleick jumped into my small circle of favorite authors this month. “The Information” reveals a hidden pattern, a signal to be discovered amid the noise of 21st-Century information overload. It tells the story of information technology’s rise through an elegant, though not overly-simplified, history of two things:

  • communication technology
  • information theory

The latter forms the book’s organizational thread. Information theory weaves through African talking drums, books, semaphore, telegraphs, wartime code-making and breaking, telephones, and finally the flood of digital platforms that now send information coursing through our lives. Like a bot crawling the web, this thread extends backward into the past and forward to the present. It makes its entry point is 1948, when an American engineer and theorist named Claude Shannon wrote a paper called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” that coined the term bit as the fundamental unit for measuring information.

The book is a masterful synthesis of everything that led to this idea–the physics of Newton, the rise of the telegraph, the emergence of quantum mechanics and uncertainty in both physics and mathematics–and everything that flowed from it, which includes how we interpret DNA and RNA a la Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene.” Although the details of this history are scarcely relevant to the life I live, I couldn’t help but feel that knowing this history provides a cogent context for how we live today. In other words, it provides powerful insight.

For example, I’m more inspired to write this blog by knowing the larger context for its technology. I am adding this book to Jaron Lanier’s two, more-opinionated, books, “You Are Not a Gadget,” and “Who Owns the Future,” to my short list of indispensable guides for understanding IT — its humanistic potential and potential abuse. I’m sure that Gleick opposes Lanier about certain things such as the desirability of Wikipedia. Gleick is far less strident, though he quotes Lanier in “the Information,” and likely appreciates his perspective. He’s more on the sunny side of the street, whereas Lanier sees darkness in the “hive mind.”This makes “The Information” more of an uplifting read. At the same time, he doesn’t fall into the temptation that Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, does for internet triumphalism in his books.

A good example of this is the pros and cons Gleick sees in the idea of “the wisdom of crowds.” Humans indubitably benefit from crowd-sourced effort, but they are also indelibly individual. Gleick captures this well:

It remains difficult to know when and how much to trust the wisdom of crowds–the title of a 2004 book by James Surowiecki, to be distinguished from the madness of crowds as chronicled in 1841 by Charles Mackay, who declared that people “go mad in herds, while they recover their sense slowly, and one by one.” Crowds turn all to quickly into mobs, with their time-honored manifestations: manias, bubbles, lynch mobs, flash mobs, crusades, mass hysteria, herd mentality, goose-stepping, conformity, groupthink–all potentially magnified by network effects and studied under the rubric of information cascades. Collective judgment has appealing possibilities; collective self-deception and collective evil have already left a cataclysmic record. But knowledge in the network is different from group decision making based on copying and parroting. It seems to develop by accretion; it can give full weight to quirks and exceptions; the challenge is to recognize it and gain access to it.

Far from rah-rah cheerleading about the potential of IT and big data, Gleick’s perspective includes the pitfalls. “The Information” can stand shoulder to shoulder on a bookshelf alongside Nassim Taleb’s thorny “Incerto” triology, which includes Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile, and Jaron Lanier’s contrarian works. He’s too smart to become a blind IT partisan/optimist, but it’s clear that he is an IT partisan and, ultimately, an optimist. He thinks that what humans have built is of tremendous value for those who can “recognize [knowledge] and gain access to it.”

Being able to harness “the information” is essential for humans. This ability is central to performing one of our fundamental tasks–perhaps the fundamental task–introducing and preserving order amid the universe’s entropy. This is part of what it means to be alive. In describing this purpose, Gleick is eloquent:

Not only to living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways–miracles of pattern and structure, It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in this universe.

This observation lies at the heart of “The Information.” It is the signal, at least for me. I could not recommend a book more highly.