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The Information
Cover of The Information
The Information
A History, a Theory, a Flood

From the bestselling author of the acclaimed Chaos and Genius comes a thoughtful and provocative exploration of the big ideas of the modern era: Information, communication, and information theory.

Acclaimed science writer James Gleick presents an eye-opening vision of how our relationship to information has transformed the very nature of human consciousness. A fascinating intellectual journey through the history of communication and information, from the language of Africa's talking drums to the invention of written alphabets; from the electronic transmission of code to the origins of information theory, into the new information age and the current deluge of news, tweets, images, and blogs. Along the way, Gleick profiles key innovators, including Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Samuel Morse, and Claude Shannon, and reveals how our understanding of information is transforming not only how we look at the world, but how we live.
A New York Times Notable Book
A Los Angeles Times and Cleveland Plain Dealer Best Book of the Year
Winner of the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

From the bestselling author of the acclaimed Chaos and Genius comes a thoughtful and provocative exploration of the big ideas of the modern era: Information, communication, and information theory.

Acclaimed science writer James Gleick presents an eye-opening vision of how our relationship to information has transformed the very nature of human consciousness. A fascinating intellectual journey through the history of communication and information, from the language of Africa's talking drums to the invention of written alphabets; from the electronic transmission of code to the origins of information theory, into the new information age and the current deluge of news, tweets, images, and blogs. Along the way, Gleick profiles key innovators, including Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Samuel Morse, and Claude Shannon, and reveals how our understanding of information is transforming not only how we look at the world, but how we live.
A New York Times Notable Book
A Los Angeles Times and Cleveland Plain Dealer Best Book of the Year
Winner of the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

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  • From the book

    [Due to website constraints, we are unable to include any images that might have been included in the original text.]Chapter 11

    Into the Meme Pool
    (You Parasitize My Brain)


    When I muse about memes, I often find myself picturing an ephemeral flickering pattern of sparks leaping from brain to brain, screaming "Me, me!"
    --Douglas Hofstadter (1983)

    "Now through the very universality of its structures, starting with the code, the biosphere looks like the product of a unique event," Jacques Monod wrote in 1970. "The universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it any wonder if, like a person who has just made a million at the casino, we feel a little strange and a little unreal?"

    Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared the Nobel Prize for working out the role of messenger RNA in the transfer of genetic information, was not alone in thinking of the biosphere as more than a notional place: an entity, composed of all the earth's life-forms, simple and complex, teem­ing with information, replicating and evolving, coding from one level of abstraction to the next. This view of life was more abstract--more mathematical--than anything Darwin had imagined, but he would have recognized its basic principles. Natural selection directs the whole show. Now biologists, having absorbed the methods and vocabulary of com­munications science, went further to make their own contributions to the understanding of information itself. Monod proposed an analogy: Just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an "abstract kingdom" rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this king­dom? Ideas.

    Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recom­bine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.

    Ideas have "spreading power," he noted--"infectivity, as it were"--and some more than others. An example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people. The Am­erican neurophysiologist Roger Sperry had put forward a similar notion several years earlier, arguing that ideas are "just as real" as the neurons they inhabit. Ideas have power, he said.

    Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evo­lutionary scene yet. . . .
    I shall not hazard a theory of the selection of ideas.

    No need. Others were willing.

    Richard Dawkins made his own connection between the evolution of genes and the evolution of ideas. His essential actor was the replicator, and it scarcely mattered whether replicators were made of nucleic acid. His rule is "All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating enti­ties." Wherever there is life, there must be replicators. Perhaps on other worlds replicators could arise in a silicon-based chemistry--or in no chemistry at all.

    What would it mean for a replicator to exist without chemistry? "I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this planet," he proclaimed at the end of his first book, in 1976. "It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting...

About the Author-
  • JAMES GLEICK is our leading chronicler of science and technology, and the author of Chaos and Genius, both nominated for the National Book Award, and Isaac Newton, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. His books have been translated into thirty languages.
    www.around.com

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 2, 2011
    Overwhelmed as we are with today's unceasing gush of information—some essential, some useless, and much falling into the broad middle of the spectrum—a study of how we got here and the innovators who played a part in creating the dazzling web of contemporary communications could not be more timely. Gleick's survey of pioneers of information, from Alan Turing to Claude Shannon, follows the many-layered strands forming the information superhighway. Rob Shapiro, slightly nasal, reads in measured fashion, pausing luxuriously between sentences and paragraphs to allow Gleick's own gush of information to sink in. Shapiro's stateliness makes for an artful contrast with Gleick's study of go-go modernity; listening to the audiobook manages to not add to the feeling of being overwhelmed. A Pantheon hardcover.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 21, 2011
    In 1948, Bell Laboratories announced the invention of the electronic semiconductor and its revolutionary ability to do anything a vacuum tube could do but more efficiently. While the revolution in communications was taking these steps, Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon helped to write a monograph for them, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, in which he coined the word bit to name a fundamental unit of computer information. As bestselling author Gleick (Chaos) astutely argues, Shannon's neologism profoundly changed our view of the world; his brilliant work introduced us to the notion that a tiny piece of hardware could transmit messages that contained meaning and that a physical unit, a bit, could measure a quality as elusive as information. Shannon's story is only one of many in this sprawling history of information. With his brilliant ability to synthesize mounds of details and to tell rich stories, Gleick leads us on a journey from one form of communicating information to another, beginning with African tribes' use of drums and including along the way scientists like Samuel B. Morse, who invented the telegraph; Norbert Wiener, who developed cybernetics; and Ada Byron, the great Romantic poet's daughter, who collaborated with Charles Babbage in developing the first mechanical computer. Gleick's exceptional history of culture concludes that information is indeed the blood, the fuel, and the vital principle on which our world runs.

  • Kirkus

    January 1, 2011

    Think your inbox is jammed now, your attention span overtaxed? It's only the beginning, writes pop-science writer Gleick (Isaac Newton, 2003, etc.) in this tour of information and the theory that goes along with it.

    It has been a long progression toward the infoglut of today. The author chooses as a logical if unanticipated starting point the talking drums of Africa, an information technology that delivers a satisfying amount of signal in all the noise. From those drums to Morse code, and indeed to binary signaling, is a pretty short hop—and one that Gleick takes, writing along the way about such things as how Samuel Morse and his partner decided which letters were the most used in English, and therefore merited the shortest sequences of dot and dash. The author tours through the earliest information technologies—the intaglio scratches of stone and bone on prehistoric caves, the emergent ideographs of the first Chinese scripts and so on—before getting into the meatier mathematics of more recent times, which led Charles Babbage, say, to ponder the workings of the first oh-so-clunky computers. As Gleick writes, Babbage surrounded himself with fellow science nerds who agreed to write and send scientific papers to one another every six months, though if a member were delayed by a year, "it shall be taken for granted that his relatives had shut him up as insane." The discussion becomes more complex with the intersection of modern physics. In the emergence of Claude Shannon and Alan Turing's first stirrings of modern information theory, the author's skills as an interpreter of science shine. None of his discussion will be news to readers of Tim Wu's exemplary The Master Switch (2010) or of the old Coevolution Quarterly, but Gleick covers the ground in a way that no other book quite manages to do.

    Gleick loves the layered detail, which might cause some to sigh, "TMI." But for completist cybergeeks and infojunkies, the book delivers a solid summary of a dense, complex subject.

    (COPYRIGHT (2011) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Library Journal

    March 1, 2011

    We sometimes forget that our information technologies and our desire and ability to communicate have long and complicated histories. Gleick, best-selling author of Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, acknowledges this by exploring the history of information, in all its modern ambiguity, and covering ideas, people, and technologies involved in its development. Gleick discusses African talking drums, information theory and its contributions to physics and biology, cryptography, alphabets and scripts, dictionaries, telegraphs, and more. Although accessible and enjoyable, from chapter to chapter the book sometimes feels loose and unstructured, as the author jumps too quickly from one subject to another. Too often he emphasizes biographical information about historical individuals at the expense of a coherent historical account. VERDICT Despite the disjointed narrative, this is recommended for general readers interested in the history of information technology and enamored of the information age who wonder what it means to characterize our era as such.--Jonathan Bodnar, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib. & Information Ctr., Atlanta

    Copyright 2011 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Douglas Adams "An awe-inspiring book. Reading it gave me the sensation that someone had just found the light switch."
  • Douglas Hofstadter "Enthralling. Full of beautifully strange and strangely beautiful ideas."
  • Richard Holmes "A brilliant and engaging study in the paradoxes of the scientific imagination."
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