The Information

May 28, 2014

The advent of the Information Revolution that began in the late twentieth century caused such a significant change in the way we work, play, and even just exist on a day-to-day basis that some context is helpful to understand how these changes came about. Technology changed the way we work: high-tech service jobs are now more prevalent than manufacturing jobs, which were created as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The sharing of information over distances of both time and location are the focus of James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York: Pantheon, 2011).

Gleick’s history begins with African talking drums. (Yes, this is technology—it was one of the very first methods of sharing information over distances that were more than just codes.) Gleick discusses the written word and alphabets and works his way to the nineteenth century, at which point he discusses Charles Babbage, the creation of the Difference Engine and the subsequent Analytical Engine, and Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, and her work with Babbage and his machines. Gleick discusses each new technology as it is invented and its importance.

When he gets to the twentieth century, Gleick focuses on Claude Shannon, the “father of information theory,” and his work for Bell Laboratories regarding the digital computer and secure telecommunications (encryption and decryption). Information theory in biology (DNA and genome information) with Francis Crick and James Watson is covered next. Gleick explores memes (Richard Dawkins) and earworms and then addresses more theories of information.

This book is not only a history and theory of information but one of our culture as well. Gleick develops his material much the way James Burke does in his Connections series: one advance leads to the other in interesting and not always obvious ways. As an information professional, I find this book invaluable; as a teacher, I think it lays the foundations that all aspiring information professionals should know.

Why should you read it? The Information illustrates the sweeping changes that have occurred in our world and shows us how information has become its most valuable commodity.