James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, released March 1, may be the most accessible work yet on information theory. (Think, if you are familiar with it, of a more-sweeping Grammatical Man (Jeremy Campbell, 1982), with the rise of the Internet and the inexorable march of Moore's Law to contend with.) No book today is likely to have the same effect as Gleick's 1987 bestseller, Chaos, which helped bring that theory into public consciousness. Nevertheless, The Information stands an excellent chance of being another popular-science classic.
This is thanks to the almost-poetic style Gleick adopts as he chronicles the history of communication, beginning with its ephemeral nature in preliterate societies and ending, for now, with bits — Plato's "external characters which are no part of themselves" par excellence. (Gleick is referring to the passage from Phaedrus in which Socrates disparages writing, fearing it will lead to the atrophy of memory as, by themselves, letters are meaningless.) The invention of writing, printing, telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting, the computer (both analog and digital, mechanical and electronic), and the Internet are all brought to life with enough technical detail to satisfy those already familiar with Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener. Yet Gleick never loses sight of real-life Alices and Bobs, whether they be talking drummers or contributors to Wikipedia, and ties in cosmology, psychology, genetics, memetics, and even music along the way.
Two weeks after The Information's publication date, Gleick will "[show] how information is our era’s defining quality" in a talk sponsored by the Town Hall Center for Civic Life with the Elliott Bay Book Company. The conversation promises to be a good one. He is not among the doomsayers of our age; nor does he dismiss out of hand those who fear change. But he demonstrates that such change is constant, and that "the library will endure; it is the universe."
If you go: James Gleick speaks on information technologies past, present, and future at at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 14, Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5.
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