A History, A Theory, A Flood
By James Gleick
Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished? Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end? Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?
By the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land. To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.
‘The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information. How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it. How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies. Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.
Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information. He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few). He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.
There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies. I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context. The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.
For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:
(∀x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) and∀x(¬Q(x)→S(x)))→(∀x(P(x)→S(x)))
but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:
- Babies are illogical;
- Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
- Illogical persons are despised.
Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.
Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)
If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong. This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information. If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.
But it’s my bag, for sure. Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.
This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity. ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable. It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part). It’s a very, very good book.
But it has filled me with despair. There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know. Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn. And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.
“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison. After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)
I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy. I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me. I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).
And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction? How will I distinguish good information from bad? Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me. Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.
“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)? It was mechanistic. It was desiccated. A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst. “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.
“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen. A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”
That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived? A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging. Incessant chatter. The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)
Gleick does not believe so. He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad. Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared. Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)
And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it. Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.