Skip to main content

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 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…