Blog, Clio 1

Review of The Information

Information overload (pre-Information Theory) at the Austrian National Library

In The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick succeeds in weaving a digestible and engrossing narrative of a subject that might strike most people as hopelessly esoteric and bland—Claude Shannon’s information theory. At Bell Labs in the 1940s, Shannon was working on an efficient way to transmit messages over long distances. In the process, he transformed “information” from a word almost meaningless in its ambiguity into a word expressing the degree of randomness in a message. Shannon made “information” scientific, something that could be measured in exact units: bits. Zeros and ones. These zeros and ones, passed from circuit to circuit as open or closed, have made possible our favorite digital technologies. However, these zeros and ones have also made possible the information overload that we experience when sifting through the content of the internet. Moreover, zeroes and ones don’t care about the meaning of our information, and neither did Claude Shannon. Statistically, a random sequence of letters has more information than a real sentence because redundancy is built into language, and redundancy is compressible. Information theory doesn’t just make meaning irrelevant; it is contingent on making meaning irrelevant. These are some of the ramifications of information theory that Gleick broaches as he traces a long history of information that includes inquiries into the history of language, communication, mathematics, logic, computers, genetics, and more. Yet for all of the context he provides, I don’t think Gleick does much more than skim the surface of information theory’s ramifications.

The irony of The Information is immediately apparent. Although the book’s subject concerns efficient modes of communication, compressing redundancy, and detaching meaning from information, the book itself is a circuitous narrative, suffused with redundancies, that seeks meaning in the smallest bits of information. I’m not complaining, though. Gleick’s detailed, piece-by-piece approach is exactly what kept me hooked. As Gleick asserts, “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself,” and as I read, I felt like I was watching this unfold (Gleick 12). Through his broad approach, Gleick presents information theory as no less than the key to understanding the secrets of the universe, and this makes for a truly fascinating read.

As much as I appreciated Gleick’s ability to seamlessly link together seemingly disparate historical developments and biographical minutiae, he does so at the expense of critical analysis of information theory’s implications and technical explanation of difficult concepts. I’m not saying that Gleick doesn’t do either of these things, but, in general, his priorities are elsewhere. While he manages to make the basics of such complicated concepts as entropy and qubits accessible to a lay audience, the basics aren’t really enough to provide readers with a firm grasp on the science; I often found myself needing to look up more information on the internet. As a history student, I approve of Gleick’s focus on context over the inner workings of math and science, but someone looking for an in-depth explanation of the details of information theory will likely be disappointed.

More troubling to me is that Gleick merely gestures at the philosophical issues at stake in the practical application of information theory. In the “flood” of information that is the product of information theory, “where all bits are created equal and information is divorced from meaning,” Gleick does not see a “hellish world” of “false driving out the true” (403-404, 418). Instead, he argues, “Infinite possibility is good, not bad. Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared… We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened” (419). As heartening as this sentiment is, the closest thing Gleick provides to a prescription for how to navigate the floodwaters is filtering and searching, selecting the genuine and forgetting the rest. He highlights the significance of Google’s idea that the rank of a page could be determined by the value of its incoming links. Yet this is the perfect demonstration that the tension between meaning and information is more than a theoretical problem, and Gleick doesn’t interrogate it. Google and its peers operate on Claude Shannon’s principle that meaning is irrelevant to the transmission (and the proliferation and the commodification) of information. How is that we view something that completely eschews meaning as a solution to the “meaningless disorder” of the internet? Information theory promotes efficiency over everything else, and, in the extreme, that efficiency can manifest as efficient killing in the form of drone warfare. Are we blindly accepting the priorities of information theory as the priorities of humanity? Or does information theory only become dangerous because it is in our hands? By divorcing meaning from information, information theory professes to be beyond morality, but it cannot be put to practical use without moral entanglements. I don’t make these statements and ask these questions in order to imply that I think information theory and the internet are sending humanity to hell in a handbasket; I just think that Gleick doesn’t give enough serious consideration to these issues to render his optimism convincing.

One of the most important themes to take away from the book is that every new information technology “transforms the nature of human thought” (12). Gleick explains this well in his examination of the development of written language. He calls written language the “first artificial memory” (31). This is what Socrates was suggesting when he (as written by Plato) warned that for people who learn to write, “Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them” (Quoted in Gleick 30). Despite this sacrifice, it is exactly this detachment from the individual that gives the written word its power. According to Gleick, abstract thinking—logic—is made possible by writing because information must first be detached from a person’s experiences in order for that person to create categories and make sense of logical syllogisms. As Gleick explains, “The new channel [written language] does more than extend the previous channel [spoken language]. It enables reuse and ‘re-collection’—new modes. It permits whole new architectures of information. Among them are history, law, business, mathematics, and logic” (32). In examining the invention of writing, Gleick weighs the modes of thought that are lost and the modes that are gained; in a literate society, memory is weakened but abstract thinking flourishes. It is this kind of insight into the nature of human thought that is underdeveloped in Gleick’s analysis of the post-information-theory world. What have we gained and what have we lost? And for what reason? How have technologies based on information theory changed the nature of human thought? Perhaps Gleick’s historical approach limits his ability to explore these questions. The internet hasn’t been around for very long, and as we’re living through its infancy, it’s impossible to maintain a historian’s distance from the subject. Discerning the impact of information theory on our intellectual culture might be an exercise that future historians tackle, but how can we attempt to understand it now? Can we look at the brain? [Enter Nicholas Carr, The Shallows