Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood: “When Information is Cheap, Attention is Expensive”

Gleick's The Information

Gleick's The Information
The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick (Pantheon, 2011)

Written by Pulitzer short-lister and National Book Award-finalist James Gleick, The Information sets out to offer an informative information history. Beginning in a pre-literate world when any “information” vanished as soon as it appeared, Gleick presents an account of talking drums in Africa, a widely misunderstood but incredibly advanced mode of communication. Gleick then moves through various histories including the odd story of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (a pre-electric, crank-and-gear operated computer weighing 15 tons and containing 25 000 parts), and on to the modern development of information theory during and after World War II.

Gleick attempts to tell “the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness.” Through the 426-pages of extensive stories, angles, and anecdotes, one begins to extract a recurrent notion at the base of information theory: that information is difference, or that which is unexpected.

In the narrative Gleick has carved out, one can trace the development of humans from hunters of food to hunters of information. “Information has become the modern era’s defining quality,” he says. “The blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.”

Gleick’s book examines how to find the more refined forms of the substance that has named our age; yet if we are indeed hunters of information, Gleick might have crafted a better map. His trajectory is somewhat vague, and an information hunter using only his book as a guide may go hungry. Fortunately, information abounds in our technological forest, and hunters need not worry, for the tracks lead in all directions.