Saturday, 23 May 2015

Why Information Grows - César Hidalgo ***

Something that is absolutely essential to understand this book, subtitled 'The evolution of order from atoms to economies', on the fascinating topic of the nature of information in the world, and its relationship with the economy, is that the author is an academic at M.I.T.’s Media Lab.

When I first got involved in IT in the 1970s, we were in awe of the Media Lab and all the ultra-clever, way-out technology concepts that they rolled out, convincing us that we were seeing the future in the visionary work. But over time, none of their concepts really seemed to become a reality. They might have inspired others, but they continued to be ultra-clever, way-out oddities that rarely managed to cross the divide to the real world.

I felt the same about this book. It started out, like a visit to the Media Lab, as a dazzling mix of information theory and economics and philosophy - but in the end it all appeared to be on the surface. It never really got anywhere. And along the way it was often repetitive to the point that I strongly felt that I was being talked down to.

I suppose it's a big point to make, but the author repeats the importance and presence of information so many times in the first few chapters. He also makes statements that just aren't true. He says, for instance, in one of those tedious personal story examples American authors seem programmed to start chapters with that his daughter's birth was 'facilitated not by objects, but by the information embedded in those objects'. What he really meant was 'by objects and the information embedded in them' because the information alone wouldn’t have achieved the goal. There’s a fuzziness here in the expression of the thesis, combined with not particularly effective examples in explaining, for instance, the relationship of information theory and the second law of thermodynamics that gives the book a feeling of something that is imagined to be a lot more effective than it really is.

It’s not a bad book in intent. It is really important to think about the nature of imagination, and the idea that the manufactured objects we use are ‘crystallised imagination’ would be excellent if we were only told it once, rather than what felt like 50 times. It’s also interesting to consider how imagination has shaped our modern world and how it has an impact on national economies. But the Media Lab treatment, rather than illuminating, dazzles us to the extent that it’s hard to see what lies beneath.

Things get a little better, if duller, when Hidalgo focuses primarily on economics - though here the clear flaw is in the description of economics as a science (can anything so inconsistent be a science?), which comes through strongly. What is well worth doing is the examination of why different parts of the world have very different economies, though I don’t think Hidalgo gives enough consideration to aspects like natural resources, stable and (relatively) uncorrupt government and health.

Definitely a book that’s worth a look, but with strong provisos.

Hardback:  
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Review by Brian Clegg

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