We were taught that atoms and the quarks that compose them are the fundamental building blocks of nature. Gleick teaches how bits—discrete pieces of information—are a more helpful way of understanding the world.
Gleick’s book is ambitious. It weighs in at 426 pages with 98 subsequent pages of notes, bibliography, and index. The size of the book reflects the scope. In it, Gleick begins surveying information by considering the birth of language and ends with Wikipedia. He traces the understanding and transferring of information through all of human history!
There are many fascinating insights throughout the book. Have you ever considered the task the first dictionary compiler faced in standardizing regional spelling? Did you know that Napoleon had a system of mechanical signal towers that could pass messages throughout France (at least on a clear day)? How many repeated numbers would you expect in a long random number? Did you know that Beethoven would have only heard a small amount of Bach’s musical output, but we can now hear it all? Have you ever considered what effect knowing everything has on us?
Gleick has written more than a history here—he reveals insight into the human condition. Take this meditation on forgetfulness:
Forgetting used to be a failing, a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering. (407)
The Information is a book from a Renaissance man who has though deeply about the human quest to relay and understand information. I found something interesting on every page.
—James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2011).