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James Gleick
James Gleick

Review: Non-fiction

Is the medium the message after all? Add to ...

The problem with information is that there is always too much of it. And, as is often the case when technology is involved, the poets knew this first. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in A Defence of Poetry that "we have more moral, political and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice." For Shelley, the trappings of the burgeoning information culture of the 19th century, "the accumulation of facts and calculating processes," were the problem, not the solution. What culture needed, he argued, was "the creative faculty to imagine that which we know" and "the generous impulse to create that which we imagine."

James Gleick's particular gift as an author addresses the need that Shelley outlines: the ability to imagine and express the significance of important aspects of contemporary cultural knowledge. The Information, Gleick's sixth book, recounts the history of the concept of information itself, ratifying his role as one of our most readable explicators of Big Ideas. Information theory is well-trodden territory in communication studies, media studies, computer science and cultural studies, which have produced a vast and daunting literature on the subject. Nevertheless, Gleick winnows it down into a thick executive summary that's accessible to a general audience, while remaining of interest to experts in the field (as Freeman Dyson's essay in the March 10 New York Review of Books demonstrates).

Like all good storytellers, Gleick begins in the middle, with Claude Shannon. Along with Warren Weaver, Shannon is one of the creators of what we now call the Shannon-Weaver "Mathematical Model of Communication." This model was a direct product of the American military-industrial complex assembled by Vannevar Bush during (and immediately after) the Second World War, with the goal of speeding up data processing to aid the Allied war effort. Gleick contends that the development of the Mathematical Model was more important even than the production of the transistor, which occurred during the same period.

What was - and remains - radical about the Mathematical Model of Communication is that it asserts that information is a measure of quantity, not meaning. On one hand, this degree of abstraction allowed engineers to imagine new techniques for manipulating data as systems, which helped to bring about contemporary networked society. On the other hand, the notion that information has nothing to do with meaning is a stark reminder that communication can and does take place all the time without any human input whatsoever, at speeds too fast to comprehend and scales too small to observe.

Gleick's chapter on memes (highly contagious units of information that Richard Dawkins argued propagate through our minds in a manner analogous to the spread of a virus) also suggests that information can and does spread in ways that have nothing to do with human intentions and desires. The implication is, as Gleick suggests throughout the book, that while we remain important components of the circuits of communication, we have long since ceased to be in control of them.

True to Gleick's subtitle ("a flood"), there is simply more to say about the subject of information than one book can contain. He skips backward and forward in time from Shannon to give us a Cook's tour of information history, touching on subjects as diverse as early print culture, telegraphy, James Clerk Maxwell's study of entropy and the work of Sir Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace on mechanical computing. It's all germane and entertaining but, inevitably, there are some omissions.

Perhaps the oddest of these omissions is that there is no sustained discussion of the role of journalism - Gleick's own profession - in the development and popularization of the notion that information is important. Walter Benjamin argues in his essay The Storyteller that information, an artifact of turn-of-the-century modernity, is characterized by appearing self-evident and promptly verifiable (whether it is or not) and that information is therefore at odds with traditional practices of storytelling.

Noted journalism historian Michael Schudson builds on Benjamin's argument to describe how "serious" newspapers came to champion the provision of information over storytelling ("just the facts, ma'am") and tabloids moved toward telling highly personalized stories through celebrity columnists. Gleick's closing thoughts on the merits of Wikipedia versus encyclopedias and other traditional knowledge sources would have benefited from this sort of context.

Despite the foreboding thoughts along the way, Gleick does manage to end on a positive note. A world of boundless information, he writes, is a world of endless possibility. However, he writes, no one or no thing is going to save us from Twitter and LOLCats and ChatRoulette and the other artifacts that contribute increasing amounts of data to the glut of information we have created. We have to be our own librarians now. How successful we are at that task, Shelley might observe, will be the difference between the best common world we can imagine and the one we are able to build for ourselves.

Darren Wershler writes and teaches about technology and culture at Concordia University in Montreal.

 

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