Book Review: The Information

Often overlooked among the pantheon of 20th century intellectuals, Claude Shannon is everywhere all at once. In A Mind At Play, Jimmy Soni offered a deep portrayal of the man credited with ushering in the information age, and while Shannon plays a supporting role in The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner’s history of Bell Labs, his part in “inventing the future” is certainly given its due.

But in James Gleick’s The Information, Shannon is only an enabler—albeit a very central one—of a commodity that permeates the very fabric of the universe. Shannon’s foundational work in Information Theory gave shape to previously informal notions of bandwidth, encoding, noise, and error correction, but in Gleick’s telling the theory is just one part of our inescapable relationship with information.

From the “talking drums” of Africa to the French semaphore line; Babbage’s computer to Turing’s tape; and early writing to Wikipedia; The Information takes on a life of its own. Its story is a thought-provoking ride through mathematics, language, and time that chronicles our emerging awareness of information’s centrality in both society and the natural world. Gleick takes time for pointed stops in genetics, statistical mechanics, and the singular problem of black holes, steadily coloring the story while casting doubt on the separation of information from the physical realm.

Popular science authors face a constant struggle between detail and accessibility. The Information is a serious work, well-researched and packed with support, but—while Gleick clearly delights in the theory underlying his subject—goes about its business in a clear, approachable manner. The result is a strong introduction for the uninitiated, with enough depth to satisfy readers already steeped in information lore. It’s information at its finest, and it’s well worth the read.

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Hey, I'm RJ: digital entomologist and intermittent micropoet, writing from the beautiful Rose City.