Review of The Information, by James Gleick

At long last, I’ve finished James Gleick’s The Information: A History. A Theory. A Flood. As those of you who are regulars here know, I’ve been on a bit of a Gleick kick over the last six months, so I had high expectations for his latest work.

I’m happy to say that The Information doesn’t disappoint. This book is a tour de force, even for Gleick, who specializes in tours de force. His scope is sweeping, from Plato to quantum computing, and, as we’ve come to expect from Gleick, he gets deep into the details of long-forgotten science and technology innovations.

The subject (not surprisingly) is information: Gleick is interested in how information became both a distinct concept as well as something that could be measured.

He begins the book with an overview of the fascinating story of Claude Shannon, a researcher at Bell Labs who pioneered the concept of the byte. With the stage set, he steps back to give readers the long view of the emergence of information in the West.

From the decoding of West African drumming by colonial powers, the invention of formal logic, Charles Babbage’s difference engine, and the history of the dictionary in English (all of which are interesting enough to be books in their own right but seemingly tangential to Shannon’s work) Gleick starts to more obviously hone in on his main subject.

Chapter by chapter, Gleick traces the ascendance of information in a range of scientific disciplines, from biology to electrical engineering and physics. And as these pursuits became less and less about processes or things and more and more about the information that structured things and processes, new disciplines almost wholly build on information began to arise, such as genetics.

The result is a challenging but eminently rewarding work of intellectual history that manages to both give readers almost overwhelming detail in conjunction with a solid grounding in the big picture—largely due to Gleick’s adept prose and narrative skills.

This book is essential reading, not only for information professionals across a range of fields but simply for anyone who wants a better appreciation for the historical roots of our current information-based society—neither will be disappointed.


Review of What Just Happened, by James Gleick

I’m on a bit of a James Gleick kick right now, and before I dig into reading The Information in earnest, I figured I’d step back and write up my thoughts on What Just Happened, a collection of his technology essays from 1990 – 2001.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Gleick, he’s a fantastic science and technology writer, best known for his biographies of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman…although when you’re a polymath like Gleick, “best known for” oversimplifies the breadth of your accomplishments.

During the nineties, he was at the forefront of those who understood just how profound the changes taking place to the information landscape were. He may not have been right 100% of the time (more on that in a minute), but he was always willing to see past the immediate wow factor of any given technological innovation to get at the larger implications for us as individuals, for our culture, and for society as a whole.

As you might expect, he covers a lot of ground in WJH, from the joys and frustrations of being a WinWord power user, to the radical transformation of telcos, the growth of Microsoft, the Internet and politics, the death of money, Y2K, and even the state of Internet porn circa 1995.

All the essays are excellent here, although some are more substantial than others. And while Gleick is always well-informed on his subject matter, you can definitely tell which topics he’s engaged with more deeply (especially the history of telephony, which is the starting point for The Information).

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