The Information, by James Gleick. Pantheon Books. Hardback. 2011.
The Information is one of those books which demands a pre-review in advance of the full review. I’m not sure I completely like the book. I cannot put my finger on why I’m bothered by the book. Could be because I didn’t write it.
The Information has been sitting in my “to-read” pile for about a year or so. My local bookstore went out of business, not due to a lack of business but due to the corrupt business dealings of the owner/landlord. After reading “On the Map,” I was in the mood for another sweeping accounting of an interesting topic, and what better topic than, “information.”
People seem to always resist change. Not simply resistant to change but actively combat change. We call these people, “Republicans.” OK, sorry. Being resistant to change goes back thousands of years. People resisted, for example, the introduction of writing, or systematic and organized forms of symbols and icons to convey meaning. Why would people resist writing ideas, thoughts, or even simple instructions, or details of transactions? Said another way, why would people oppose storing information?
Plato: “…this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory…You offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, and not true wisdom.” (30)
Writing would have many deleterious effects. First, our memory would suffer. Speaking and engaging in oratory debates with each other would no longer occur. Free-flowing discourse and intimate face-to-face conversations would cease. People would be disconnected by time and space. Messages and ideas would not resonate from generation to generation, or between geographies.
I think Plato (and Socrates) would be surprised by conversations today, the communication of thoughts and ideas today, enhanced by Internet. Ideas of democracy, fairness, privacy, subterfuge, dissent spread almost as fast as thought today, something unimaginable 2,500 years ago.
The Information tends to promote a Eurocentric communication perspective. I am bothered by the emphasis on European cultures and technology in as much as the topic of “information” is concerned. All cultures in arguably have information, and unique ways of recording, storing, and communicating information. Mayan calendars record stellar positions, the passage of time, the sowing and reaping of crops. Other artifacts record transactions, amounts and commodity types.
Most African cultures had a means of communicating between villages and among disparate cultures – the drum. The drums, to those handicapped with a Western bias, simply produce a sound which to some sounds nice, or threatening, or pleasing. The vast majority of Westerners did not understand the nuances of African drums, the percussion, the beats, meter, and tone. Sophisticated messages could pass between villages under the ignorant gaze of Western explorers. What we heard as music, was information passing from village to village. News of births, deaths, visitors, fires, water, would pass among villages, as well as calling meetings, and notifying people “dinner is ready.” Later, when Europeans and Americans would figure out drums were carrying messages across the continent, they would proclaim, “Oh, the Africans know Morse Code!” No, they were using coded messages centuries before Samuel F.B. Morse or his ancestors dreamed of transmitting coded messages.
Part of The Information is confirmation bias for me. Each semester I try to hammer home the importance of writing. Writing is communication, writing is information, and information is both knowledge and power. Always has been, and will be into the foreseeable future. Through 125 pages, nothing less than the importance of writing to record, store, and convey information is the primary message of Gleick. But, even as language and writing evolved throughout human society, people still felt compelled to herald the death of thoughts and ideas.
With the advent of Telegraph technology, the death of the printed word was nigh, many felt. The “iron net-work” would soon connect “the brain, New York, and all limbs and members” of the global human society. Newspaper publishers and magnates believe the end of newspapers was a few mere years away, now that information could be transmitted via some substance no one really understand, yet.
One striking theme which stands apart from the concept of information is how varied people’s interests and expertise were. Charles Dickens helped publish the writings of experimenters, and even created a character based on Charles Babbage. Charles Babbage himself, famous for contemplating, documenting, describing, and designing his Difference Engine, and later his Analytical Engine (95) During these years he would also work with railroads in helping improve customer experience and comfort. Babbage rode passenger cars, measuring vibrations, turns and tilts, and relaying the information back to the railroad engineers (114). Babbage also contemplated cryptography, deciphering, and creating secret writings.
Babbage had numerous contemporaries whose names have been recorded for all history: Lyell, Ohm, Dickens, Ampere, Faraday, Rothschild, Morse, and Boole, and I have not covered but a portion of the list. Babbage may be created with being the “father of the computer,” but he also had help from Ada Lovelace, a child of Lord Byron, who was one of few people who could understand his math and designs.
One of the confounding characteristics of Babbage’s time, carried forward from previous generations into this, the “Excited Era,” was the lack of terminology, the deficit of language. How does one communicate new ideas, new concepts, and new math when the language does not contain a lexicon for communicating the information?
Think about this: when working out an algebra problem, who got to decide an “x” meant “multiply” and a “/” means divide? Who got to decide “=” means “results in” or “equals.” How many people realize while Newton may be the father of physics and calculus, his math notation did not survive? The notation we use today is not that of Newton but of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
We take much for granted when we write, for the rules we follow when we write, not simply our grammar, and punctuation, but also the form, function, and styling of our alphabet. We don’t spend much time contemplating the size and shape of our alphabet, the forms and symbols of our mathematical symbols. How does one express oneself in science without using symbology? People have suffered algebra and variables for decades; “if X equals 10 cows,” leads to conversations like, “how can X be 10 cows? That makes no sense!” These conversations have been occurring since the notion of variables, of symbols standing in for other things, was born. People were unable to think abstractly then, just as high school kids wrestle with abstract thinking today.
As of page 168, Gleick paints an intricate picture of people trying to advance technology, science, of trying to disseminate information, to store and retrieve information, at a stage in human history where the language had yet to catch up, had yet to evolve to help communicate the power of information. People did not understand the new meaning of “send;” to them, “to send” meant to literally transport an object. Telegraphs would arrive, “sending a man to the front.” Anecdotally, a woman brought a dish of sauerkraut to the telegraph office wishing the dish to be “sent” to her son.
Anecdotally, I have encountered the same with the word, “hacking.” Recently, I used the word in the sense of “repurpose.” I was proposing turning an empty office into a small “hacking space” for student use, to encourage them to engage and learn about new technologies, drones, RaspberryPi, Arduino, etc. My proposal was met with near-derision; “We don’t need kids up here hacking computers and trying to break the Internet.” Obviously, their concept of “hacking” had not progressed beyond Matthew Broderick’s “WarGames,” circa 1983.
Books like these are nice because they help us maintain our benchmark, they help us keep focus on where we have been and the intellectual struggles of those responsible for pushing society forward have taken on. Some people even paid for promoting technology with their lives.
Even a person with a mature background in information technology would probably enjoy the first 168 pages of “The Information.” A healthy reminder of our history can help us avoid hubris, our technological egotism.
- James Gleick: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (ritholtz.com)
- My First Strange Encounter with Murray Gell-Mann (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- Steven Pinker, James Gleick, Brian Greene, Lone Frank, and Joshua Foer debate what makes good science writing (3quarksdaily.com)