James Gleick, The Information
A grand history of the world’s most precious commodity
Amidst our endless, web-enabled, Twitter-truncated chatter about how we’re surrounded by vast oceans of information, one question is rarely asked: How did things get this way? James Gleick’s answer is fascinating, compelling and remarkably complex. In his telling, information is the commodity at the heart of human civilization — the least common denominator of everything in our world — and it has come to permeate every last bit of our lives. He traces this story back to Ancient Greece, where civilization took the fateful — but by no means inevitable — step of switching en masse from oral to written communication. From there, humanity concocted increasingly complex ways of representing information via symbols: letters, numbers, ones and zeroes, Morse Code, musical scores, mathematical formulae, graffiti.
Per Gleick’s brilliant, sweeping argument, the upshot of all this is modern Information Theory, concocted by Claude Shannon in 1948. To quote John Wheeler, whom Gleick calls “the last surviving collaborator of both Einstein and Bohr,” Information Theory has brought our world to a place where we can get “the it from bit.” Put another way, information is “the blood and the fuel, the vital principle,” the very reality that we inhabit. Gleick vividly brings to life scores of individual who played key roles throughout the centuries in the evolution of information, telling one stunning story after another. They include such tales as the brilliant polymath Charles Babbage, who worked for decades — and failed — to build a mechanical computer in the 19th century, and Alan Turing, who proved to the world the astounding proposition that some numbers cannot be calculated. At length, the book is a remarkably clear, lucid account of virtually every major system humans have come up with for archiving and transmitting information. As Gleick argues, to know these systems is to know how we think — and where our world of information is headed.