Title: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
Author: James Gleick
Publication Date: 2011
LC Call Number: Z665 .G547 2011
I love the history of technology. I’ve barely dipped my toe into it so far, but I really enjoy seeing how certain technologies developed and particularly what they meant at the time. I’m interested in this in lots of different contexts, but I especially like the history of information. I knew a little about it going in; I expected Claude Shannon, who invented information theory, and probably should have expected Alan Turing as well. I certainly wasn’t surprised by the appearance of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, either. The stuff about the telegraph was actually briefer than I expected, and the explanation of what Morse actually contributed to it was of great interest—I was already somewhat familiar with the early optical telegraphs and so on. However, I was taken aback by some of the mathematicians and scientists: Kurt Gödel? Johannes Kepler? Richard Dawkins? …but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. And then there were some people with whom I wasn’t familiar at all, like Norbert Weiner and Gregory Chaitin. I enumerate this list not to show off, but to give some idea of what I knew when I started the book, and where it fits in for me.
I think that I’m really close to being The Information’s target audience. It’s intended to popularize this history, and I think it could be read by anyone who is interested enough in the subject matter to pick up a largish book on the topic in the first place. However, having a little prior exposure to some of the pieces of the puzzle adds an extra dimension to a book like this, that is to say, a book that helps to put it all in context. It’s very wide-ranging and not strictly chronological. Instead, it follows the threads of some important notions like the meaning of information, the importance of randomness, and so on, so that these same figures keep popping up again and again. Shannon is really at the heart of the book, which pleased me, because I had had only minimal exposure to his theory in library school and really wanted to know more about him.
Far be it from me to try to cover the whole of this book. There’s so much ground covered here that it feels longer than it is, and there’s little use in my trying to outline the important ideas. Instead, I’ll do what I always do, which is to pick up some of the threads that are most interesting to me.
Near the beginning of the book, as Gleick is explaining how we came to view information as a thing in the first place, he takes a detour into the rise of literacy. This was intriguing to me, not only because I immediately developed a little crush on Robert Cawdrey, whose Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English words was an early proto-dictionary and had the explicitly educational aim of helping inexperienced readers make sense of their books, but also because it is so astonishing to consider the obvious fact that, before dictionaries were invented, there weren’t any. It’s very difficult to imagine not thinking of words as components of a dictionary, but this is only a step toward trying, as a person from a literate culture, to imagine what it is not to have writing available as a tool. Of course, there are still nonliterate cultures in the world, but in most of the world, even people who don’t have strong literacy skills are still heavily influenced by writing culture all around them.
In a way, we (for some value of “we”) are always already literate. I have no idea how I perceived the world before I learned to read, not only because I didn’t yet have the ability to form long term memories (though I don’t suppose that helps!) but because literacy is such a major and unavoidable component of the way that I was taught to think that it’s impossible to get away from it. I’m reminded of the character in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler who had taught himself not to read. Gleick writes:
When it comes to understanding the preliterate past, we modern folk are hopelessly automobilized.* The written word is the mechanism by which we know what we know. It organizes our thought. We may wish to understand the rise of literacy both historically and logically, but history and logic are themselves the products of literate thought.
*This is a reference to Walter Ong’s comparison of our attempt to understand oral literature in terms of written literature to thinking of horses as automobiles without wheels.
The relationship of history and logic to literacy is discussed further in this part of the book. As there’s some discussion of the role of the oral tradition here, I don’t believe Gleick is being dismissive of the role of the oral tradition in nonliterate cultures. However, the way that literate people understand “history” is as something intimately connected with writing; that is the technology that makes a stable and continuous historical record possible. Formal logic, too, is shown to have arisen with writing.
So this is almost exactly the problem that Butler found so interesting—we can’t get a good view of what literacy does to the way we think, because it’s how we are thinking. It makes me wonder how culture might have developed if some other means of preserving and transmitting it had been transmitted, or if none had. Sounds like a science fiction novel in the making, if an author could get his or her head around it.