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The History of Information

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 18, 2011 09:12 AM

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We live in an "information age," surrounded by and immersed in data - words, numbers, images, and voices. It's an age characterized by high speed and high technology, in which every year draws us more tightly into the global network.

But it's not necessarily technology that defines the information age. In his new book, The Information, James Gleick argues that it's the idea of "information" itself that's new - the idea that words, numbers, images, and voices are, despite their differences, all the same sort of stuff. Gleick tells the story of how "the raw material" of the pre-information age - "letters and messages, sounds and images, news and instructions, figures and facts, signals and signs, a hodgepodge of related species" - came to be reimagined as one single, integrated universe of information.

Gleick's account is extraordinary in its sweep: it stretches over three millenia, starting with the invention of writing, describing early forms of communication (the telegraph, the African talking drum), then moving on to the invention of the computer and to the set of networked technologies that shape our lives today. Along the way he introduces famous and not-so-famous thinkers and inventors, from Aristotle to Charles Shannon, who invented information theory at Bell Labs in 1948.

Gleick sees all of these inventions and individuals as part of one big story: the story of the invention of information as a way of thinking about the world and its contents. For Gleick, the essence of information is abstraction. Information exists where one thing (an idea) is abstracted into another thing (a word). But it's also important that information be granular - broken down into what Shannon called "bits." It's this combination of abstraction and regularity that makes the idea of information so useful. The information age arrived, Gleick explains, not with the alphabet, the telephone, or the internet, but when, after it was "made simple, distilled, [and] counted in bits, information was found to be everywhere."

Now there's nothing that can't be understood, ultimately, as a kind of information. Books, statistics, and so on have always seemed like kinds of information - but it's surprising to discover that cells are processors of DNA-based information; that money is a kind of information about "who owns what"; that atoms themselves might be understood as a kind of information, such that physicists can ask, about the universe's "total information capacity" and "memory space," and about the energy cost of "flipping a bit." At the heart of Gleick's book is a sense that this view of the world isn't capricious or arbitrary. The things that exist in the universe really do exist in a layered structure of interrelated abstraction, and that structure is best captured by the idea of information.

Heady ideas? Definitely. But Gleick's story is beautifully told, extensively sourced, and continually surprising, whether or not you find it ultimately convincing.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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