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A review of the book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick.

A review of the book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick.

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Information Book Review Information Book Review Presentation Transcript

  • Book Review of
    The Information:
    A History, A Theory, A Flood
  • Overview
    In the Prologue of The Information, James Gleick states that information has always been present; we as a society are simply more aware of it now.
    According to Gleick, “each new information technology…set off blooms in storage and transmission” and helped to create “the spiderweb of information to which we now cling” (Gleick, 2011).
    Gleick also claims that “history is the story of information becoming aware of itself” (Gleick, 2011).
    Gleick supports these claims by illustrating information as a history, as a theory, and as a flood.
  • Overview
    The chapters in the book are arranged in loosely chronological order.
    Each chapter discusses a topic or technology related to the three main sections mentioned above.
    This presentation provides a sample of the topics mentioned in the book.
  • Information – Early History
    Between 4500 and 8000 years ago, the Chinese made one of the first major developments towards the written word. They developed a system of basic symbols, each representing a unique word.
    While this system allowed people to effectively communicate with each other, the number of symbols required made it somewhat inefficient.
    The Chinese system uses at least 50,000 symbols. Most literate people who use this language know and commonly use around 6000 of these symbols.
  • Information – Early History
    The modern alphabet developed around 1500 BCE in the region of Palestine, Phoenicia, and Assyria.
    This alphabet system is at the other end of the spectrum from the Chinese language. Instead of one unique symbol for each word, the alphabet uses one symbol for each basic sound.
    Each symbol carries less individual meaning than in the Chinese system, but the alphabet as a whole requires fewer unique symbols for effective communication.
  • Information – 19th Century History
    In the 18th and 19th centuries, European explorers and missionaries observed how native Africans could relay various types of information over long distances simply by employing certain tones and rhythms on their drums.
    The Europeans were in awe of what these talking drums could achieve: they could quickly relay information over very long distances.
    Similarly, modern day social media allows us to instantly convey information around the nation or across the globe.
  • Information – 19th Century History
    Claude Chappe developed the optical telegraph in late 19th century France. This device consisted of a crossbeam and two arms, which the operator placed into different positions using ropes.
    The telegraph was called “optical” because the system relied on operators at each station seeing the message from the previous rooftop device and passing it along to the next device down the line.
    Telegraph stations were built around Europe and in the United States; however, by the mid-19th century this system had become obsolete.
  • Information – 19th Century History
    In 1837, English entrepreneur William Cooke partnered with physicist Charles Wheatstone to create an electric telegraph. In this system, an operator pressed specific buttons to cause needles to point to the correct letter.
    Around the same time, Americans Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail created a telegraph “key.” By pressing the key to open and close the electric circuit, the operator could send a message.
    Morse created a language or code to accompany this telegraph key, in which each letter is represented by a combination of dots and dashes.
    As a result of this new system, physical networks of wires sprang up around the country – predecessors to the digital networks that keep us connected online.
  • Information – 20th Century History
    In 1948, scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the transistor, a “tiny electronic semiconductor” that performed all the functions of a vacuum tube but did so more efficiently (Gleick, 2011).
    According to Gleick, the transistor “sparked the revolution in electronics,” in effect making Web 2.0 technology possible.
  • Information Theory
    Also in 1948, Claude Shannon wrote the monograph “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which appeared in The Bell System Technical Journal.
    In this monograph, Shannon introduced the “bit,” a new basic unit for measuring information.
    As a result of this development, entities in various fields, from language to biology, can be measured according to how much information they contain.
  • Information Flood
    We now live in a world of TMI: too much information.
    In 2009, the Oxford English Dictionary included the term “information fatigue,” defining it as “apathy, indifference, or mental exhaustion arising from exposure to too much information, esp. stress induced by the attempt to assimilate excessive amounts of information from the media, the Internet, or work” (Gleick, 2011).
  • Information Flood
    It is possible for social media to contribute to this information fatigue or overload.
    By July 2008, Wikipedia contained 11 million articles in 264 languages. In English alone, there were 2.5 million articles – more than all paper encyclopedias combined.
    Twitter users constantly “tweet” short messages, from updates on daily life to important news alerts.
    According to Gleick, “As the role of information grows beyond anyone’s reckoning, it grows to be too much” (2011).
  • Conclusions
    This book offers an extensive look at information – its history and development, where we are today, and where we may be heading.
    Gleick sometimes provides more detail than the average reader may want to know on a particular topic.
    The language in the book can be cumbersome and difficult to follow, especially for someone who is not well-versed in mathematics or philosophy.
  • Conclusions
    Additionally, the text is a little top-heavy in terms of history versus modern information settings: Gleick devotes a relatively small amount of space to Web 2.0 and the current situation, compared to the text provided on earlier information technologies.
    One could argue that Gleick offers the reader too much information in this one volume. However, by doing so, perhaps the author best illustrates the flood of information that we are now experiencing.
  • References
    Gleick, J. (2011). The Information: A History, a theory, a flood. New York: Pantheon.
    The Information: A History, a theory, a flood. (2011). [Cover illustration]. Retrieved from http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Information/James-Gleick/e/9780375423727