The Information, a history, a theory, a flood



The Information, a history, a theory, a flood, by James Gleick

Reviewed by Stuart Hopen

Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, The Information, a history, a theory, a flood, by James Gleick is a book about nothing less than everything.   That is what comes of tackling the very notion of information, including the ambiguities inherent in the word.  Most of the book presents on the surface as formal science journalism, but it calls to mind Will Durant’s statement that “All science begins as philosophy and ends as art.”


Gleick introduces us to the prophets, heroes, and martyrs of the information age, casting them as near mythic figures.  There is the story of Alan Turing, who came to understand the nature of data communication by cracking the Nazi Enigma code.   His work was so secret, his substantial contributions to the winning of World War II went unacknowledged at the time of his tragic death.  Convicted of the crime of homosexuality, he was chemically castrated with hormone injections, and driven to suicide.  His intellectual contributions to the development of binary code, the core concept of modern computing, would not be popularly understood for generations after he was gone.

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We meet Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, who is credited with being the first computer programmer, writing functions for a machine that didn’t exist.  Consider the way her words resonate with Victorian poetry and something akin to the ecstasies of prophets:  “Owing to some peculiarity in my nervous, system, I have perceptions of some things, which no one else has; or a least very few, if any… Some might say an intuitive perception of hidden things… immense reasoning faculties… the power not only of throwing my whole energy and existence into whatever I choose but also to bring on any one subject or idea, a vast apparatus of all sorts of apparently irrelevant and extraneous sources.  I can throw rays from every quarter of the universe into one vast focus.”

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And then there is Claude Shannon, the guy with the pop star name, who has a starring role in the book. When Shannon came up with a new theory of information based on the concept of entropy, there was a blithe observation that everyone would accept it because no one would understand what he was talking about.

Information entropy is actually not a difficult concept.  Simply put, the more information one has on hand, the more work one has to do to make the information useful.   One has to search through it.  One has to sort out what is relevant and what is not.  This basic premise gives rise to a history of finding different ways to reduce the information on hand, even as we are trying to find ways to expand it.

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Gleick shows us the ways information is transformed through the process of selection and deletion, a separation of wheat from chaff, using various filters.  We see how Isaac Newton discovered the basic laws of physics by stripping out old notions, distilling down Aristotle’s definition of motion, which included fruit decaying and a baby growing.  We see how Claude Shannon developed information theory by considering information in a format that divorced it from meaning.

We get a glimpse of how densely over-packed the universe is with information.  The entire code needed to make an individual human being is actually condensed into a bit of material the size of a pinpoint.  Geometric infinities reside in the fractal outlines of clouds.   Abstr-6.jpg

Noted physicist John Archibald Wheeler, postulated, “It is not unreasonable to imagine that information sits at the core of physics, just as it sits at the core of a computer.  It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”

Gleick often trespasses out of the realm of what is understandable for the lay reader, and yet these passages seem no less authoritative.  Like Shannon, he is acceptable without being entirely understood, and perhaps because of it.  In the denser portions of the book, the obscure scientific and mathematical jargon has the effect of a liturgy in an ancient language.   As information grows, people are forced to become more and more specialized.  In an age of specialization, fewer and fewer people are able to understand the works of experts, and we are individually forced to rely on learned intermediaries.  In many ways, our acceptance of scientific ideas is based upon faith.  Magic becomes science, but then it turns back again.

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At times, Gleick’s book seems animated by the spirit of a legendary paper titled “Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion.”  The Information has the kind of range and ambition suggested by the title, an all-encompassing methodology for understanding and explaining the universe.

Gleick examines the relationship of information theory to biology, and then he boldly ventures beyond that into religious and theological realms.  But the legendary paper, Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion did not actually exist, and it appeared only as a reference in an entirely different article.  The title was intended to deride these kinds of ambitions.  It was intended to satirize the appropriation of information theory by other disciplines that misunderstood and misapplied them.   And The Information recognizes, somewhat abashedly, the way that faddish intellectual trends color perception.  In the wake of Einstein, everything became relative; in the wake of Freud, everything became subconsciously motivated; and in the wake of Darwin, everything was the result of natural selection or survival of the fittest.   And in the wake of Claude Shannon, everything is the result of information entropy.

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The lament of the new millennium is that there is too much information.  Gleick shows us, in startling fashion, how we have reached this point.  He shows us a history of information growing, shrinking, and being sorted, distorted, parsed, and manipulated in the context of a book that demonstrates the process within the confines of its covers by using a wide variety of intellectual tools.  The book is, by turns, alternately philosophy and science.  And it ends as Art.