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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

David Latchman - Interview

Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic and author of a number of science titles, currently holding the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London.  As Vice-Chancellor, Professor Latchman is the chief academic and administrative officer, and has been responsible for the development of the university since his appointment in 2003.   Professor Latchman serves as Chairman of the trustees of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, an organisation dedicated the empowerment of the Jewish community through education, employment, medical advancement, and welfare. He also serves as a trustee of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, as well as a number of other committees centred around education, and scientific and medical research in the UK and Israel.  This interview is for National Book Lovers' Day (August 9th). Why should books be important to us? Books have always been a big part of my life, and for many reasons. My love for them sta

Hothouse Earth - Bill McGuire ****

There have been many books on global warming, but I can't think of any I've read that are so definitively clear about the impact that climate change is going to have on our lives. The only reason I've not given it five stars is because it's so relentless miserable - I absolute accept the reality of Bill McGuire's message, but you have to have a particularly perverted kind of 'I told you so' attitude to actually enjoy reading this. McGuire lays out how climate change is likely to continue and the impacts it will have on our lives in a stark way. Unlike many environmental writers, he is honest about the uncertainty, telling us 'Despite meticulous and comprehensive modelling, we just don't know how bad things will get, nor can we know.' But any climate change deniers seeing this as an escape clause entirely miss the point. The uncertainty is over how bad things will be, but not over whether or not things will be bad. As we are told, 'tipping poi

Philip Ball - Four Way Interview

Philip Ball is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and wider culture, including H 2 O: A Biography of Water, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour , The Music Instinct , and Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. Ball is also a presenter of Science Stories, the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of science. He trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford and as a physicist at the University of Bristol. He is also the author of The Modern Myths . He lives in London. His latest title is The Book of Minds . Why science? As the pandemic has shown, there has never been a time when an understanding of science is essential for making informed decisions. But Covid-19 has also revealed the process of science in action, with