Gleick’s “Information: A history. A theory. A flood.” details, how, in today’s internet, one is overwhelmed with information, yet can find little to use. Anyone and everyone can, and does communicate, on the internet. To find information, one now uses search engines like Google, to filter out the information to find the information you want. To find the needle in the haystack. Gleick describes the internet as a library, where all the books are miss shelved.
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With search engines, we filter, give value to specific information we want, need, and seek. Yet, the information we search through, and filter, is neutral. In its totality, all the information lacks value unless we place value on it. The concept of neutral information comes from the work of mathematician Claude Shannon. Shannon described the simplest, fundament, piece of information as a “bit” a word we are familiar with in the age of the computer. In 1948 he wrote a paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” and in that paper introduced the word “bit” to our lexicon. A “bit” is either a “0” or a “1“; a “yes” or a “no“. “The Information” retells how Shannon wrote the paper, while at New York City’s Manhattan Bell Labs, in the late 1940’s, That paper, and other work done by Claude Shannon, are a common thread that runs thought Gleick’s book, to describe the way Shannon saw information communicated.
Gleick puts Shannon’s paper in historic perspective, when he points out, that he was part of the same Bell Labs where Walter Brattain and William Shockley invented the first transistor. We know the transistor well. Yet “The Information” puts Shannon’s concepts on a par with the invention of the transistor, and that his concepts have had an equal impact on the world we know of today. When Shannon published his paper on the “bit”, he was a young scientist, with academic experience in the 1930’s at MIT that included work on Veneer Bush’s Differential Analyzer. When at the Bell Labs, in the midst of the Lab’s Second World War efforts, his work included cryptography and consultation with Briton’s Alan Turing, creator of the concept of the first computing machine known as the Turing Machine. From this background of experiences, Shannon’s paper on the “bit” went on to described how a “bit” is the best way to communicate information over telephone lines.
“The Information” looks at how we have progressed through various forms of communication and information, and what we have done to preserve communicated information over time. One time the way to communicate was with drumbeats. For Victorians it was the telegraph. Alexander Graham Bell gave us the telephone, as well as, the recorded cylinder. Today we have the radio where we have gone from cylinders to long play records, and music in the “cloud”. Encyclopedias have gone through similar changes. We all know Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia, the contemporary descendant predecessor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In his history of the encyclopedia, Gleick traces its history all the way back to Dominican Vincent of Beauvais‘ 1502 “Speculum Maius”.
We are in the midst of a flood of communicated information. Between the spoken word and the invention of the alphabet were eons. Between the alphabet and books were millennia. Between hand written books and printed books are centuries. Between libraries of books like the Library of Congress and the internet are decades. With each jump, it has became harder to find information, until today, anyone and everyone communicates information on the internet, with much on the internet unused. In the world of the internet, if you wish your information to be found, you have to give people value. Make people want your information. Without value, want, your information is neutral, a cipher, a “0” or a “1“; a “yes” or a “no“.
“THE INFORMATION: A History, A Theory, A Flood.”, by James Gleick, © 2011, Illustrated. 526 pp., Pantheon Books, NYC, NY., hardbound $29.95.