2017年7月17日 星期一

"The Information" by James Gleick (2011)


"The library will endure; it is the universe.  As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms.  We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting out thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information."*

James Gleick is the author of Chaos, Isaac Newton, and several other books.  He wrote for The New York Times, and also co-developed "The Pipeline," one of the earliest Internet service providers. 

His book The Information is the second of his works I've read.  Over twenty years ago I read Chaos, and although I can remember liking it (despite its difficulty), I can't remember anything else about it.  I have the feeling that the important (and still relevant) parts of Chaos are summarized in The Information.

As for the book at hand, it's a hodgepodge of theories concerning the nature of information and its role in our lives.  Its exploration of this subject matter is roughly chronological, though there are some awkward shifts between time periods in the earlier parts of the book.  It's full of some truly interesting facts, and is a very quotable book, but as a work of scholarship it lacks focus.

The true weakness of The Information is that it never really makes an argument one way or the other.  It provides one side of an argument, then the other, and the author makes little effort to distinguish his own point of view between the two sides.

For example, try answering the following questions.

1. How did Ada Byron's ideas on computation anticipate modern technology?
2. Why is Claude Shannon important?
3. How is Wikipedia like a library?  And how is it not like a library?

If you struggle with the above questions don't feel bad, because after reading The Information I'm not any closer to answering them.  Lacking more concrete pronouncements as to their relevance, what I'm left with is a list of trivia.  I couldn't tell you much about Ada Byron, Claude Shannon, or Wikipedia beyond what I already knew before reading this book.

All of the above said, The Information is a well-written book with an ill-defined subject.  If you're looking for someone who can get poetic over mathematical formulae then James Gleick's your man, but if you're looking for a practical approach to information theory, look elsewhere.


*The above quote, by the way, sounds a lot like something Stanislaw Lem might have said in his novel Solaris.  Gleick quotes Lem earlier on in the same chapter.

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