Thursday, May 10, 2012

Meaning. What? The Information by James Gleick - review

In the Summer of 1949, a young electrical engineer took a pencil, a sheet of paper and drew a line from bottom to top. He marked off a number of sections, and labelled the axis "bits storage capacity". At the bottom was a single 'bit' , and this rose in powers of ten to the largest collection of information he could think of: The Library of Congress at 100 trillion bits.

His name was Claude Shannon, and at about ten to the power five, he wrote "genetic constitution of man".

As far as we can tell, this was the first time anyone had stated that the information required to 'build' a human could be measured. The discovery of DNA lay several years in the future.

Whilst he may have been four orders of magnitude out, it was still a sublime moment of discovery, and this is one moment in this remarkable man's life that author James Gleick makes the central character in 'The Information', a tour-de-force of popular science writing that seeks nothing less than to tell the entire history of the Information Age.

Gleick weaves Claude's story into a history of communication 'technology' which - until relatively recently - was simply the struggle to process, package and send more information, faster and more securely than ever before. Starting with the compelling stories of the African drumming networks (with their highly evolved language, redundancy and error checking), and taking in the history of dictionaries, Charles Babbage and the Telegraph along the way, Gleick skillfully takes us through the waypoints of Information Technology as knowledge transmission taxis along for several thousand years before suddenly - and spectacularly - going exponential.

The aftermath of this explosion is one we are grappling with today - as we daily struggle to cope with emails, blogs, tweets and status updates - not to mention a variety of media intrusions, the background information noise of a society clamouring for our attention.

Gleick - along with perhaps John Gribben and a couple of other science writers - is a master of the art of science writing, following Einstein's recommendation to 'make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler'. As the vast list of references is testament to, Gleick has done heroic levels of research to pull together the key historical moments in the story, and does so in a way that is delightfully readable whilst demanding some intellectual effort (the best type of writing, IMHO).

Gleick picks (and tells) his stories brilliantly. The Quixotic French Telegraph is a compelling tale of human ingenuity, the power of dictatorial patronage, hubris and cruel obsolescence. The story of Charles Babbage seems fresh (even for someone who is very familiar about his Difference Engine), but for me the story of Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron) is the standout one. Her fierce intellect grasped the potential of Babbage's machine on an intuitive level, and though it remained largely in Babbage's imagination, through very touching letters between them, she theorised the need for algorithms and programming languages, and developed the rudiments of computer programming. She's a true British female pioneer and one deserving of wider recognition.

But Shannon is the undoubted star. He shares lunchbreaks with Alan Turing in 1943, and although secrecy meant they were unable to discuss specific projects, they swapped tantalising theories as they ate.

As Gleick moves in the 1970s and 80s, however, there is growing unease about the direction in which the research is taking. The earliest worries about 'information overload' appear (a warning concerning the ease of copying, or forwarding, email appears in 1983). But a far subtler - and darker - concern was unwittingly sown by Shannon himself in his original work. Concerned only with the transmitter, receiver and potential noise in the system, Shannon himself consciously sought to remove meaning from the equation - it's all about accuracy and efficiency, bandwidth and 'Shannon Limits'.

Fair enough, Shannon was an engineer, and had to generalise. But when Dawkins appears with his Selfish Gene, characterising human beings as nothing more than carriers of genetic information, the stripping away of meaning, the reduction of humanity as simply by-products of replication strategies, Information seems to have a dark side.

Genes are one thing, memes are quite another. Little capsules of information - a tune, a snippet of text, an idea, proverbs, chain letters and email hoaxes. Gleick is liable to leave you seeing these little artificial lifeforms everywhere, and I was left thinking that, somewhere, there must be a mimetic theory of consumerism, in which the 'stuff' of life is little more than physical memes filling our understairs cupboard and filling up landfills.

Gleick's conclusions are, oddly, a bit lightweight. He seems to dismiss the risks of information overload, with some justification, as humans seem to be remarkably good at 'chunking' - grouping together information for summarising and processing, and that will probably dig us out of the current hole. But I couldn't help reading something slightly more sinister - that humans seem to find transmitting information at some level addictive, because there are rewards built in as we are co-opted by our genes to replicate at all costs.

And that's certainly a sobering though next time you feel a frisson of excitement over a retweet or a repin...

(What do you think about Information Overload? Permanent or temporary? Post your thoughts below, and we will select one of you to receive a free copy of The Information by the end of play on Monday, 14 May.)


  1. Gleick is pretty good at weaving a narrative through complicated subjects and I highly recommend his biography of Richard Feynman.

    I haven’t yet read ‘The Information’ but as far as the information overload problem is concerned it’s not something we’re going to get over any time soon. Data/ information pollution is already shaping up to be the environmental disaster of the information age.

    20 years ago data was hard to collect, store, process and share. As the European Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinix, said at the University of Edinburgh in the summer of 2011:

    "Before 1995, the confidentiality of communications was a widely practiced rule. Interception or monitoring of communication was only allowed under strict conditions, subject to a series of safeguards."

    Conversations were ephemeral and soon/easily forgotten. Now data and Shannon’s meaning-independent information are by-products of everything we do and it seems confidentiality of communications is a widely ignored rule by both the public and private sectors. Collection, storage, processing and sharing of information is the default status on and offline.

    We’ve become addicted to the instant gratification provided by our engagement with technology without sufficient regard for the longer term costs or consequences of creating our all too public digital shadows.

    That’s before we even think about the formally packaged content delivered by the publishing, media and entertainment industries – any attempt to get a handle on being the intellectual equivalent of trying to drink from a firehose.

    On the plus side, the potential to create a digital library of Alexandria, and give everyone on the planet efficiently indexed access to the whole history of recorded human knowledge, is incredible. I just hope I don’t end up having to explain to my grandkids how we, as a society, let it all get out of control.

    FYI John Naughton did a nice review of the book and interview with the author in the Observer last year

  2. Ray, Thanks for the Guardian review link, and for your comments. It does feel a little that humanity is scrabbling to put together the skills needed for an 'always-on' world, and I definitely think we will need to be weaned off our addiction to instant connectivity (well, some of will anyway!)

  3. Congratulations to Don Ferris, who is the winner of our James Gleick giveaway. A copy of the book will be arriving shortly...

  4. Update 27 November - congratulations to James Gleick for winning the Royal Society Winton Prize. Richly deserved.