Think your inbox is jammed now, your attention span overtaxed? It’s only the beginning, writes pop-science writer Gleick (Isaac Newton, 2003, etc.) in this tour of information and the theory that goes along with it.
It has been a long progression toward the infoglut of today. The author chooses as a logical if unanticipated starting point the talking drums of Africa, an information technology that delivers a satisfying amount of signal in all the noise. From those drums to Morse code, and indeed to binary signaling, is a pretty short hop—and one that Gleick takes, writing along the way about such things as how Samuel Morse and his partner decided which letters were the most used in English, and therefore merited the shortest sequences of dot and dash. The author tours through the earliest information technologies—the intaglio scratches of stone and bone on prehistoric caves, the emergent ideographs of the first Chinese scripts and so on—before getting into the meatier mathematics of more recent times, which led Charles Babbage, say, to ponder the workings of the first oh-so-clunky computers. As Gleick writes, Babbage surrounded himself with fellow science nerds who agreed to write and send scientific papers to one another every six months, though if a member were delayed by a year, “it shall be taken for granted that his relatives had shut him up as insane.” The discussion becomes more complex with the intersection of modern physics. In the emergence of Claude Shannon and Alan Turing’s first stirrings of modern information theory, the author’s skills as an interpreter of science shine. None of his discussion will be news to readers of Tim Wu’s exemplary The Master Switch (2010) or of the old Coevolution Quarterly, but Gleick covers the ground in a way that no other book quite manages to do.
Gleick loves the layered detail, which might cause some to sigh, “TMI.” But for completist cybergeeks and infojunkies, the book delivers a solid summary of a dense, complex subject.