The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick


By James Gleick(4th Estate)

The flood of information has long had its detractors. In 1889, the Spectator carried a hand-wringing article about the deleterious effect of the age's internet, the telegraph. "All men are compelled to think of all things, at the same time on imperfect information, and with too little interval for reflection," it claimed, bemoaning "the constant diffusion of statements in snippets".

With that gripe in mind, James Gleick's new book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood attempts to tell the story of how a trickle turned into a deluge. He starts in Africa with the beating of drums. With just taut skin or hollowed-out wood, a drummer could send a message that would be repeated for miles around, faster than the carrier pigeons the Rothschild banking family used to send and receive financial information. Only in 1914 did a missionary finally decipher for the Western world what had seemed primitive and inexplicable.

The drums worked by stripping out meaning and reducing content to a code, copying the tonal changes in African words.

In Europe and America, a different beat had emerged, the dot-dash-pause of Morse code humming through the telegraph wires, pushing messages across of hundreds of miles and, in turn, collapsing distance.

It was not just language that was being repackaged into alternative units. So, too, were mathematics and physical sciences. The 18th-century early computer, never quite finished by Charles Babbage, was designed to process numbers through its cogs and latches. Its inspiration was the punch cards used in Jacquard looms to create repetitive pattern, the simple information that would create beautiful textiles. (The punch card would return for early IBM computers.)

When the genome was finally understood, it was found to carry a code for life in a neat double helix, deceptively simple given the complexity of what it creates. Computers and the internet, the great diffusers of "snippets of information" run on a binary code, where every state is either on or off. Shrunk down, simplified and codified, information began to move and multiply endlessly.

That's the history, and it is told elegantly by Gleick, helped along by a patchwork of entertaining anecdotes. However, The Information loses its way when it moves into the second half of the 20th century, and into theoretical territory. A hectic journey through quantum physics, randomness, Alan Turing's proof of uncomputability and the question of whether information is finite or infinite leaves one swamped, and Gleick's usual ability to elucidate the most complex ideas seems to have escaped him here.

After the theory comes the deluge, which Gleick illustrates with Wikipedia, the infinite digital library once imagined as the Library of Babel by Borges. Gleick is not the first to use that analogy but it is a useful route into discussing a website that embodies the crisis of the glut of information. Facts grow on trees, Wikipedia editors argue about what is worth preserving, and truths and falsehoods rub shoulders too readily.

The Information begins with the human drive to transform a chaotic world into a clear system of signals and codes that can spread easily. It ends, echoing the Spectator's fretting from a century ago, in a new chaotic meta-world of information where we have to search for meaning anew.

The Information is not a masterpiece of the order of Gleick's 1987 book Chaos. Although some parts convey his excitement - he has something of a crush on Charles Babbage's collaborator Ada Lovelace, and also introduces the obscure but brilliant 1950s information theorist Claude Shannon to a wider audience - many of the big ideas Gleick puts forward get lost in the background noise.

Evening Standard, 07 April 2011.