Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Information by Gleick book review

Nowadays we take information technology for granted. Computers and communication work, for the most part, as they should. But under all this, there is a fascinating story to be told. James Gleick, in his book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, describes all this and more with starry-eyed infectious wonder.

Actually, as the title implies, this is more like three books in one. Starts with the very notion of communication, language both spoken & written, and the meaning of meaning. One is magically transported from era to era as in a time machine to look at what happened and wander around each period . From the jungles of Africa, to Greece, to the lexicographer's desk, to Babbage's workshop, to Shannon's farmfield and more. Gleick conducts the guided tour explaining all and never losing the thread despite the must-see detours. It is very accessible and I believe it could inspire some children to follow in the steps of great men in the field.

With Shannon and Turing, Gleick passes from the history into the theory or more like the immediate history of the theory. This part cranks up the abstraction, but still to a manageable level for the most part. It warrants a careful read to not miss the details. At this point, of particular interest are the first cybernetics summits where the towering figures of the day try to make sense of it all for the first time. It feels like the Philadelphia Continental Congresses all over again.

Information within biology is not forgotten. Two chapters also are devoted to Richard Dawkins' ideas on the selfish gene and the meme and how these two work. Finally, complexity, information and randomness are tied together.

The final part, the deluge, is dealt in the final two chapters. These address the usual suspects, namely wikipedia, namespace and your email inbox. Being an overview, don't expect solutions to your possible information overload.

Colvin, in his book Talent is Overrated, says that an asset of great performers in any field is that they have an ever expanding mental model on which to hang new knowledge. The contents and structure of The Information can be your ready-made model for many wide areas: no need to start from scratch.  From language, to logic, to math, to biology, to computers, to the information. If you ever wanted to have a systematic feel for these areas, this is your ticket.

Totally recommended for those who have a programming, mathematics or linguistics background but just as well for those who just like nonfiction for its own sake.

The only caveat with this book is the psychodelic cover design of the paperback edition.

5 stars


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