Information : A review

Posted by on October 12, 2011

I just finished reading Information by James Gleick.

Its a dense book that is by no means an easy read. (Try reading it on vacation) But its a worthwhile read. It covers the broad topic of information, which I describe initially as the encapsulation and reduction of facts or representations about “things”. This started with language. The word (think of this as spoken) “tree” represents and reduces the all the complex reality of what a tree is. Then the alphabet as a written representation of language had another level of abstraction and representation. The printing press was another revolution in the spread of information.

Then we enter the modern age with the rapid changes that took place with the invention of the telegraph, which encapsulated alphabet as dots and dashes. We accept the nature of the telegraph without thought. But it took them quite a while to figure out a scheme to represent language via an electric pulse. Now try to imagine how you would do this for Chinese a pictographic language. How would you transmit this phrase 我是中国人 via a telegraph?

Then came the telephone, which was able to represent via waves and pulses the actual spoken language across distances. With the telegraph and the telephone we finally begin to have the need for synchronized clocks and the idea of simultaneity was first realized, that it could be the same time in New York as it was in Boston.  Quote : “Formerly all time was local: when the sun was highest, that was noon. Only a visionary (or an astronomer) would know that people in a different place lived by a different clock.  The railroads required standard time, and the telegraph made it feasible”.  This became a trend where information was transmitted fast, and then faster and then faster still.

And finally the binary representation and digitization of information, which originally came from the desire to build machines that do complicated math calculations that were laborious for human computers.  “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam” : Charles Babbage.  They worked out how represent in the simplest fashion numbers and state transitions and calculations.  Gleik then shows how this computer was used to store information and how that process was exponentially revolutionized with the internet and the furthering of the network that first began with the telephone.

There are many biographies, anecdotes and examples along the way to illustrate his points and demonstrate how information has changed and grown through civilization until now.

Things that struck me as I read :

  • written language : the transformative power of written language on civilization is astounding, its so common place for me I’d never really considered it.  I won’t discuss it much here but I found these chapters illuminating.
  • redudancy : all information systems have built in redundancy.  Example of the written English alphabet : 0vr m1nd5 c4n d0 4m4z1ng 7h1ng5!
  • rejection : each generation has trouble adapting to and grasping the importance of the next “big thing”.  Plato distrusted the written word : “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory”.  The church disdained the printing press.  The age of the telegraph thought the telephone was a toy : “Business people thought it unserious. Where the telegraph dealt in facts and numbers, the telephone appealed to emotions.”
  •  “information overload” is a complaint that is not new, it first started happening just after the printing press.  “there are too many books to read” to “there are too many emails to read”.  Our pace is rapidly expanding the flood of information though.  Makes me want to really really hone my email filters.
  • balance : I do need better balance in how I connect with and interact with information.  Its not like I don’t get out in the outdoors enough, but in the time when I am not outdoors I am definitely a information junkie and sometimes its unhealthy and out of control.  Management, balance and priorities are important.  I didn’t really unplug on my vacation last week until I turned off my work email on my iPhone.
  • irony : the fact that I read this book on the Kindle, on my iPhone and iPad though, and am writing a review on the internet is not lost on me.  This section of the book : “Most literate persons, when you say, Think of a word, at least in some vague fashion think of something before their eyes, Ong says, where a real word can never be at all. Where do we look for the words, then? In the dictionary, of course. Ong also said: It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language”.  This read in a book where I could click on any word and instantly get the definition

One Response to Information : A review

  1. Stacey Griffith

    I appreciate your blog and description of the book but I think I’m going to pass on reading it. 🙂

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