Skip to main content

The Information – James Gleick *****

A new book by James Gleick is a much-anticipated thing. Admittedly he hasn’t always lived up to the promise of his excellent Chaos, but most of his books have been top notch.
In The Information, Gleick gives us a full bore account of the defining feature of our age. We explore the nature of information, how it has been communicated from the written word and jungle drums through to the internet, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, Gleick takes us through the social historical impact of a burgeoning quantity of information. It’s fascinating that the whole idea of information overload was first brought up not as a result of the internet, but hundreds of years earlier as a response to the flood of information that the printing press released on the world. And then again for microfilm.
Rather oddly for someone who has made their name as a science writer, Gleick comes across best in the social history sections. The more detailed the science, the more he loses us. In part this is down to the Claude Shannon effect. Shannon is an absolutely central figure in information theory, and yet every book I’ve ever read that featured him gets dull when he is mentioned. I don’t know why, exactly, but Shannon is like one of those people at parties who can be talking about the most exciting subject and yet make it depressingly boring.
You can’t write a book like this without having a lot of Shannon turning up, but it does make it difficult for the writer to keep the reader’s attention. I also thought that Gleick could have made more of the whole ‘it from bit’ cosmological theory – it comes across very vaguely, without the scientific backing you might expect. But there is so much more to enjoy, whether it’s one of the best accounts of Babbage and Ada King (not Lovelace) and the emerging concept of computing, or Turing’s work, or telegraphy wireless and otherwise. It’s a rich (if not always well-structured) concoction of information about information.
There’s so much information in there, you suspect that Gleick’s research was occasionally a bit thin. So, for instance, he refers to the transistor pioneer William Shockley as an Englishman. Shockley was an American, brought up in America. The only reason I can imagine anyone calling him English is that when you glance at his Wikipedia entry (and yes, Wikipedia gets a fascinating write-up in the book), it jumps out of you that he was born in London. Read a little further, though, and you’ll see this is just because his American parents happened to be there at the time.
I do also have a couple of small issues with this book as a whole. Firstly it’s a doorstop. I seriously dislike books this thick, and it’s a mark of how good the good parts are that I put up with a 526 page tome. There are a couple of chapters that could be done away with entirely, and there’s a lot of unnecessary flowery text. The other issue is that it can stray a little into the pretentious. This comes across perhaps most strongly in the title – putting ‘The’ upfront feels very calculated.
However, The Information does squeak in as a five star book, partly because the subject is so central to twenty-first century civilization (I find it difficult to think of a day when I haven’t used the internet or touched a book) – and partly because when Gleick’s writing is going brilliantly, which is for well over half the book, he is compelling to read. This is a truly interesting book, even if you may have to skip a few bits to get through it. And it is one you ought to have on your shelf. (Just make sure it is reinforced first.)
Paperback:  
also in hardback:  
also on Kindle:  
also audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…