Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

James Gleick writes in his Prologue:   “We can see now that information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle.”  He has undertaken his task of writing the natural history of information with an audacious sense of adventure.  For many chapters, the reader shares the excitement of discovery, of suddenly coming up over a hill to view a new horizon. 

Initially we move from African drums to literacy and how writing changed our thinking to dictionaries and taxonomies of all kinds.  These chapters raise some of the essential issues:  how are messages transmitted with accuracy?  Does writing change the way we think? How does language structure experience? Yet within these chapters the central dilemma of Gleick’s work rumbles like thunder in the background: information is not knowledge. 

Admirably, Gleick distills huge swaths of intellectual history to serve his theme, and he is witty as well as thorough as he does so.  For the first third of the book: from drums and cave paintings to the use of the telegraph, each of the tools used to transmit information is examined both in its function and as an abstraction, or expression of a theoretical approach to information.  Dictionaries and logarithmic tables become fascinating illustrations of human ingenuity.  What we take, according to the author, is a journey from things to words, from words to categories, and from categories to metaphor and logic.  Gleick treats this journey as inevitable linear progression, the goal of which is to unite logic and mathematics (39).

The premise is now clear, and the reader knows that Gleick is not telling the natural history of an idea, rather, he is showing where the technology and theories we use today have come from.  He is looking back from the perspective of the successful tools of an information technology to examine the evolution of such tools.  The early chapters of reflection on messaging and categorization move into heroic biography: Gleick is fascinated by the individuals who invented the tools. 

One of the most moving of the stories he tells is that of Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage.  Together they sought to ‘abstract information away from its physical substrate’ (109) in the quest to develop an analytic machine.  The frenzy of activity of these nineteenth-century thinkers even astounds Gleick, but he is impatient to reach the real focus of the book, and that impatience shows in the discussion of the telegraph and its impacts on society.

Picture the pioneering and homesteading communities of Western America: with the introduction of the telegraph both the time horizons and the real horizons of those communities changed.  Gleick concentrates his discussion of this stage in the story on the development of codes and of the compacting of information.  The reader senses a much greater tale waiting to be told about the human aspects of this new capacity to share rapidly and at a distance.  For Gleick, this is a story of Morse, and then of Boole, and of the advantages of abstraction.

With chapter 6, New Wires, New Logic, Gleick has reached the core of his book, a biography of Claude Shannon and the impact of his work at Bell Labs on the creation of our current state of information technology.  Parts of the early biography are charming, and we come to care deeply about Claude Shannon.  At times this reader wished that this biography was itself a book, not the central core embedded in a more ambitious, and less successful, text.

Often Gleick refers to the failure of imagination in the face of new technologies, and he illustrates well that the first evaluations—such as the telephone would primarily be of use to musicians—are both ignorant and confined to what is already familiar, not evocative of what can be.  The author is particularly convincing as he recounts how quickly amusement turned to business possibility as the users of the telephone began to explore its efficiencies.  The italics are mine, as it is important to understand that it is the users of technology who take the new technologies forward, not the initial inventors or theorists.

Within the several chapters on Shannon, Turing, Weaver, and others there are numerous stories of how mathematicians work, how abstraction can be explained, and why the evolution of abstractions of signal processing into binary logic revolutionized the transmission of information.  For many readers this will be the most important and engaging aspect of Gleick’s book. It requires a considerable amount of mathematical training to follow the logic which created the field of cybernetics.  Even without that training it is intriguing to learn where the vocabulary we now take for granted—feedback, machine learning, and digitization—comes from, as well as what these thinkers anticipated.

The chapters on genetics, memes and quantum physics are far less engaging than the biographical chapters, and to this reader it seemed as if Gleick needs the engagement with a heroic figure like Shannon in order to become passionate about a subject.  Certainly the reader understands that the whimsicality of quantum physics is less satisfying for a writer engaged in the translation of abstraction for a lay audience.  However, by the conclusion of chapter 13, and the admission that there is no clear definition of ‘bit’ and therefore of what we now understand as information, the writer (as well as the reader) is exhausted.

On page 403 Gleick dedicates a few paragraphs to the issue of information overload, and equally briefly mentions that the key to this sense of overload must lie in the separation between information and knowledge.  For the remaining few pages of the text, Gleick’s hero is the fabulist Jorge Luis Borges and his fictional “Library of Babel.”  It is both strange and sad that after this very lengthy history, the author turns away from his theme of the logic of information to the dark fantasy created by Borges. Gleick reflects briefly that the technology now makes facts ‘cheap’ but wisdom and learning remain as rare as they have ever been.  The audacious adventure comes to an end like a hiker returned from a mountain trek: the burdens of laundry and exhaustion seem far more important than any exalted experience just gained.  There are another hundred pages of detailed notes, and an extensive bibliography. 

James Gleick has accomplished a hugely difficult task in this book. He has written the history of the tools we use in our everyday lives, knowing that for most of us, the abstractions on which those tools depend are irrelevant to the ways we apply them.  It is the abstractions and the scientists who conceived them which intrigue Gleick.  But the rest of the story: how information becomes knowledge, and how we humans discover meaning, has yet to be written. 


Heather Wood Ion is a chief executive and cultural anthropologist who holds dual degrees from Oxford University and specializes in turning around troubled organizations. She currently serves with Athena Charitable Trust, is Founder of the nonprofit Epidemic of Health and is a contributing editor to Conversations on Philanthropy.

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