The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood
How humans handle information has been a theme – and a concern – throughout the ages.
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And although he deals with what can seem like grimly mechanical formulations of information theory, Gleick is also alert to the human touch. In an opening chapter on the use of African drums to communicate across vast differences, for example, he notes that drummers aspired to something more richly complicated than the bare transmission of facts. Instead of simply saying “Come back home,” drummers would tap out a poetic exhortation:Skip to next paragraph
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“Make your feet come back the way they went,/ make your legs come back the way they went,/ plant your feet and legs below,/ in the village which belongs to us.”
Gleick’s study of drums sets the stage for a continuing theme of the book – namely, the way that information history has been a point of intersection for science and the humanities. He notes the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 19th-century skepticism about the prospect of mechanical calculating machines, asserting that they could be nothing more than a “satire” of human intelligence. Think of it as an earlier version of the recent debate inspired by a computer’s victory on the game show “Jeopardy!.”
In his final chapters addressing contemporary information overload, Gleick reminds readers that here, too, there’s not much new under the sun.
In 1621, reports Gleick, the Oxford scholar Robert Burton complained that in the wake of the printing press, there was simply too much news and literature to keep up with. Here, again, is Gleick: “As the printing press, the telegraph, the typewriter, the telephone, the radio, the computer, and the Internet prospered, each in its turn, people said, as if for the first time, that a burden had been placed on human communication: new complexity, new detachment, and a frightening new excess.”
Gleick’s book has been described as “ambitious,” an earnest compliment that, in publishing circles, is often synonymous with back-breaking heft and ponderous pronouncement.
“The Information” is a long read, and as Gleick himself concedes, “When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.”
But as Gleick also points out, “information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.”
The information glut endures, but wisdom like Gleick’s is harder to come by. That alone makes “The Information” worth the effort.
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