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Reviewed by:
  • The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
  • Michael E. Hobart (bio)
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. By James Gleick. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. Pp. vii+ 526. $29.95.

Since the seventeenth-century beginnings of modern science, certain terms have captured the imagination not only of scientists, but also of a broader, intellectual public. One thinks of natural “law” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “energy” in the nineteenth, or “relativity” and “evolution” in the twentieth, terms whose scientific and technical uses have spilled over into the world of cultural metaphor. “Information” is the latest candidate for such capacious service. Its mushrooming from an esoteric theory in communications technology during the 1940s to current pundits’ declaration that ours is “the information age” is the core of James Gleick’s narrative. Information is everywhere, he intones, pervading the “sciences from top to bottom, transforming every branch of knowledge.” It supplies the “blood and the fuel, the vital principle,” that runs our world (p. 8). Through its lenses, we even can re-write our history.

Gleick rightly shapes his story around Claude Shannon (1916–2001), “progenitor of the information age” (p. 372), whose work bridging mathematics, electrical engineering, and computing encouraged successors to understand information as a set of symbols and signals that encode, store, and transmit messages in many guises and formats. To demonstrate the new metaphor’s promiscuous scope, Gleick romps somewhat anachronistically through early antecedents to Shannon’s work, stretching from African drumming (signals sending information) to the inventions of writing and the alphabet (symbols encoding it), and thence to the printing press, dictionaries, and encyclopedias (means of storing it). He gathers strength in the industrial age, whose assumptions he shares, where the telegraph and the telephone, the eccentric Charles Babbage’s machines, and other primitive computing devices laid the groundwork for Shannon’s technological breakthrough. As his readers have come to expect, Gleick excels in explaining to a literate audience many intricacies and nuances of information’s early history, and of information theory itself. Now commonplace, that theory was summarized in the model Shannon devised in a confidential cryptography paper: message origin—transmission—channel—reception—message destination (p. 222).

Shannon insisted that “meaning” was “irrelevant to the engineering problem” of communication (p. 416), thus giving rise to the division between the technoscientific (micro) and human-scale (macro or cultural) dimensions of “information,” as well as to the blurred line between them. He cautioned against the “danger” in unfettered speculations beyond the micro level of mathematics and experiments that functioned at the heart of [End Page 489] the theory (p. 263). His was the universe of electronic “input” and “cost constraints,” noisy and noiseless channels, symbol efficiency and redundancy, “feedback” and “memory,” order and entropy (a measure of uncertainty about the message), coding theory, mathematical abstractions, and statistical probabilities (pp. 263–64, 280). Though intertwined with it, the medium (“channel” in Shannon’s parlance) was not, nor would ever be, the message. Although Gleick cites the warnings of Shannon and others, and voices his concern for retaining human meaning in the “flood” of macro information that both enlightens and overwhelms us (an achievement of the micro world of engineering and computers), the weight of his reportage places him soundly on the side of the enthusiasts of the age.

Gleick’s enthusiasm masks deeper problems pertaining to information—culture and context. In the first place, information abstracts from context; culture situates us in it. Fads come and go, cultures and practices evolve, children assimilate their parents’ world, ideologies and religions influence people’s lives. A “meme,” the “bodiless replicator” (p. 312) of culture, adds nothing to our understanding of these historical processes. Observers are pumping a dry well in applying micro communication models to the transmission of culture, which we learn through experience holistically—growing up with smells, tastes, sounds, sights, expectations, and comparable features in our worlds. Like Dorothy, we “know” when we’re not in Kansas. Secondly, while internal histories of science and technology are perfectly legitimate, “information,” as Gleick insists, is ex hypothesi a cultural phenomenon. Simply tracing information’s internal expansion cannot suffice to place it in...