Three of James Gleick's books—Chaos and his biographies Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton—were Pulitzer Prize finalists. Now comes The Information, “The book” Gleick says, “that all the others were leading up to.” It’s an ambitious, sprawling work, covering the history of man’s intellectual growth through profiles on the people and the technologies that spurred our development.
Your previous books, Chaos and Faster and now The Information, seem to have an eye toward big picture ideas, rather than component pieces. What draws you in that direction?
It’s true that [all three] are in the category of “big ideas.” But in a way, it’s the same idea…I feel like I’ve been writing about the same thing all along. There are pieces of all my previous book in this book…it feels like this is the book that all the others were leading up to, which leaves me stuck for what to do next.
You write about the resistance to new technology, describing dissent as often being “a lack of imagination in the face of radical technology.” Do innovators still deal with that?
One of the things that I wanted to talk about was the ambivalence that people felt in the face of these new technologies—the awareness that, for all the good they might do, there was fear, too, and an awareness of their costs…
There are people who think that the Internet is making us more capable, and there are people saying that the Internet is making us stupid. I’m not trying to take sides against the Luddites. I’m not trying to say, “Oh, don’t worry.” On the contrary, I’m trying to walk a middle path, to say that we’re right to be aware of the downsides, dangers and costs. We’re right not to rush headlong into the embrace of every information technology, and we’re right to hold back a little bit. Still, we need to know that we’re not the first people to confront these challenges.
In the chapter covering Wikipedia, you write about the paradox of “The Library of Babel”: the notion that to have all knowledge is to have no knowledge because it becomes impossible to separate fact from lie. Is Wikipedia our “Library of Babel”?
(Laughs) Well, I did juxtapose those two ideas for a reason. But I’m not saying that Wikipedia is our “Library of Babel.” Actually, Wikipedia is one of many efforts that we’re all engaging in to avoid the nightmare that’s represented by the “Library”—an undifferentiated mass that makes it impossible to actually find anything you know. Everybody from Google to Wikipedia on down is engaged in a great struggle to avoid the nightmare that’s represented in [Jorge Luis] Borges’ great story.
Is it important for people to know how information is created and passed to use it well?
I think it’s important for all of us to understand that the technology and the ideas about information have led us to where we’re at now in order to be smarter consumers of information. We’re all, consciously or unconsciously, developing coping strategies, and if we do it consciously and with awareness, I think our coping strategies are that much better.
Will the next advances come at the hands of a group-style intelligence like Wikipedia, or will it be spearheaded by another singular mind like Charles Babbage or Newton?
I’m romantic enough to think that the individual genius is never going to be obsolete, and we’re all individuals working and thinking on our own. I don’t mean to suggest that we’re all going to become part of the hive mind—far from it. I hope that part of the promise of the information revolution is that individuals, too, can be empowered to be smarter and more creative than before.
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
Pantheon / March 1, 2011 / 9780375423727 / $29.95