By, James Gleick
I love books, both fiction and nonfiction that have a broad scope and great depth at the same time. To me it demonstrates that the author has a deep understanding of his subject matter and can place it in the sort of context that leads to significant insight. This book is one of those types of books. In addition to lots of historical and technical information the author also makes us familiar with influential and odd characters. For instance the prologue describes Claude Shannon of Bell Labs who is quite significant in the development of information technology but was a shy individual who kept to himself. Somewhat ironic for someone who had such an impact on communication after working on anti-aircraft fire control and cryptography during the war. Alan Turing is also prominent in the book, a tragic figure whose contributions perhaps saved more lives than anyone else in World War 2 with his work on code-breaking but who was then prosecuted for homosexuality and ended up killing himself.
Earlier in history, but later in the book there is a detailed and reverent description of Charles Babbage who created the system for the first computers way before the necessary technologies were available to implement his dream. He had a strange working relationship with the Countess of Lovelace who probably goes down in history as the first writer of software (of a sort).
The narrative of the book flows from the underpinning principles of the African Talking Drum to demonstrate systems and redundancy, and on to the development of the Morse code and the telegraph, and then the telephone. One of the best stories in the book is that farmers in South Dakota created a private telephone system by buying transmitters and using 8 miles of existing barbed wire to talk to each other.
Along the way it diverts into the development of symbols, language and mathematics, and we find out that the Babylonians computed linear equations, quadratic equations, and Pythagorean numbers well before the Greeks (Chapter 2). In Chapter 3 there is considerable coverage of the development of the early dictionaries (that did not contain the word dictionary). We also find out that outsourcing has been going on for a long, long time. Beginning in 1767 the England Board of Longitude ordered a yearly Nautical Almanac with position tables for the sun, moon, stars, planets, and the moons of Jupiter. Over the next 50 years 34 men and one woman carried out the necessary work with errors avoided by commonly farming out the same work to two different people and messages were carried between the members of the network by horseback.
Later the book moves into quantum theory, the development of the internet (with particular emphasis on Wikipedia) It finishes with a philosophical discuss on information and meaning, and in particular the issue of us being overwhelmed by information.
There is a fair bit of complicated information theory in the book and extensive discussion of concepts such as entropy. These require the reader to work reasonably hard in sections, and I found myself having to go back over material several times to gain a better understanding of concepts that are built upon later in the book. However the author maintains his system of interweaving interesting stories and emphasising the personal quirks and battles of the individuals involved so it never gets too heavy for too long. One of the interesting concepts that came out of the book for me is that DNA is just pure information looking to reproduce itself and thinking about genetics and evolution in that way provides a different perspective which is useful when trying to reconceptualise ideas. The depth of information and discussion that is present is really necessary to make you think about these sorts of things.
Finally this is a big book with lots and lots of information in it. I read it on the Kindle Application on my iPad and when I got to the end I was only 62% of the way through. The rest of the book is taken up in notes, references, a bibliography, and an extensive index. This provides a treasure trove of information and areas for further search should you want to dig deeper,and is a testament to the level of research that went in to writing the book.
If you are interested in how information and information technology is likely to affect the world and want some deeper understanding and insights into why then this book is well worth reading. It is hard work in sections but worth the effort when you get to the end. I intend to re-read it on my Christmas holiday break. What that says about the quality of the book or the state of my mind I will leave you to figure out for yourself.Paul Higgins
December 20th 2011