Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review of The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate, 2011)

The Information is billed as the ‘story of how human beings use, transmit and keep what they know’, discussing a series of information revolutions: ‘the invention of writing, the composition of dictionaries, the creation of charts that made navigation possible, the discovery of the electronic signal, and the cracking of the genetic code.’  At best it only does a fraction of this and from a very particular perspective.  The book is principally a treatise on information theory within mathematics and physics and how information is encoded and communicated in a technical and theoretical sense.  It is especially concerned with the reduction of information to constituents parts, how this is encoded and transmitted, and the notion that information is the constituent component of life and the universe.  This is a view of information shorn of meaning and context.  Consequently the reader does not get the full story of information revolutions with respect to the written word, and the visual (art, maps, photography, television, film) and aural (voice, music) is all but absent.  Oddly, there is no discussion of broadcast media such as radio and television, though there is a fair amount of discussion dedicated to the telegraph and internet.  There is no discussion of discourse or how information is used.  The book then is filled with absences.  What is included, however, is often fascinating and intriguing, although my feeling is that the level is often not for the average lay reader - it is quite advanced and requires a fair degree of pre-requisite knowledge.  In this sense, it’s sold as a popular science book, but given its technical nature and length I suspect it has far more sales than readers who manage to get from start to end.  Overall, an interesting book but doesn’t quite live up to its billing.

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