BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

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Propaganda [Common Meter]

The words were whispered down the line,
but changed at every turn.
Some words were written down in time,
but gathered up to burn.

And no one knew unvarnished truth --
only some stray excerpts.
They tried to cobble together 
the judgments of experts.

But truth was not to be retrieved 
by way of slick guesses
and in the end all they had left
were their burning messes.

Merchants of Misinformation, or: After the Infocalypse

People were too high on pseudo-vindication to mourn the death of journalism. Each day they got a tsunami of information and information-like content that confirmed the world was as they believed (and wanted) it to be.

No matter where one fell on the political spectrum, one could find a site that would ensure that not a single wrinkle of cognitive dissonance would ever befoul one’s brow. Uncomfortable and inconvenient facts were weeded by roving teams of hourly workers.

One might think being a merchant of misinformation would be easy work, having no concerns about factuality. Verification — at most — required a positive focus-group score, rather than time-consuming and often unfruitful research.

But, the shear volume of keeping people hip-deep in content required off-shoring to destinations where one’s readers’ heroes and villains were often unknown. It was hard for the meme-makers in Moscow and Manila to keep square who pleased which Americans. How could the cubicle-dwellers construct appropriate quotes to attach to pictures if they weren’t sure if that person was on the naughty or nice list. Heaven forbid a staffer mislabel a photo — putting it in the “loved” and not the “loathed” folder. Worse yet, what if an actual quote from the pictured person was attached? Talk about egg on the face.

Headline: Meme-Maker Mistakes Condoleeza Rice and Maxine Waters, Human Head Explodes

[Fortunately, the explosion was captured on video and will make a sweet meme.]

***

In the past, archaeologists had few fragments with which to reconstruct dead civilizations. After the Infocalypse, the archaeologists will be in an ocean of information, thirsting for a fact.

POEM: Information Madness

Metainformation is information about information [or, sometimes, about metainformational information,] and it colors the insanity.

Humanity was infected by a viral strain.

It spread.

It mutated,

becoming more virulent & more truculent.

Ideas itched inside brains —

where they couldn’t be scratched.

The itch could only morph into a burn

that morphed into dopamine-drip madness.

Beamed memes until meaninglessness became meaningful,

the phone-wielding Zombies shambled in a trance dance.

They bumped into people they couldn’t recognize the humanity of

in the absence of the screen’s reassuring confirmation.

If there is a cure. Perhaps, it lies in the metainformation.

Find it.