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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2011
Beautifully written and very relevant overview of "information" from the early days of telegrams all the way to quantum computing, including works from Morse, Russel, Turing, Shannon, Van Neumann, Kolmogorov, Bennett and... Gilles Brassard (U of Montreal).

The central topic remains Claude Shannon's Information Theory and fundamental questions such as "what is information" and "how to measure information". But this books features a very appealing balance between history, short biographies, anecdotes and hard theory. Challenging topics such as Gödel's Theorem, Russel's Paradox, Cryptography, Complexity, etc. are very well articulated, with enough depth and substance and no overly boring technical details or mathematical proofs.

Of particular interest is the chapter on the birth of Cognitive Sciences: The clash between early humanists for whom a strong intuition was good enough to build knowledge upon versus more prosaic scientists who'd insist on testing hypotheses before declaring them good for consumption. There are interesting excerpts from Shannon politely suggesting "more research and less exposition" and Shrödinger advocating for "more rigor over speculation".

Cognitive Sciences are at this crossroads today between fraud and science. Luckily, Gleick reminds us of the time when Biology too used to be a loosely experimental science, and how it became an exact science during the course of the XXth Century.

Not a small book (544 pages) but definitely a Must-Read.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I wasn't sure if this was a four-star or a five-star book, so I went with the more conservative rating. The idea behind this book is simple: explain information from a historical and scientific perspective. The book covers the history of information, from spoken word, to written word, to the telegraph, telephone, etc. Along the way it discusses relevant scientific issues surrounding information theory. Information theory attempts to understand the form, function, and transmission of information. It's not at all my area of research, but I nevertheless found it to be really interesting to actually consider "what is information"? How does one create systems of information. African drum languages, really languages based on drumming, are my favorite example from the book. At times the book gets fairly heavy as it starts to meld information theory with modern quantum theory from physics. That's mostly in the last few chapters, and I found that going a bit dense. I did really enjoy the sections on genes and memes, which were very interesting reviews of how important information is for life (indeed, life may be all about information).

My only quibble with the book is that it really is a flood. This book covers so much ground that at times I felt a little lost trying to get through it all. Generally speaking, the author is a good writer and the pages flew by pretty quickly. But still, there's a lot to try and soak in, especially once one hits the 20th Century and the proper beginnings of a real scientific theory of information. That stuff is pretty complicated for people outside of the field, and the many historical anecdotes thrown in sometimes hindered, rather than helped, comprehension. Overall, this book passed my basic test of quality- I enjoyed going back to it as I read through it. If you are interested in information (and if you read non-fiction, I assume you are), this is a very interesting book that will likely change how you view and understand information.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon August 13, 2011
Many great insights as to "The meaning of life, the universe and everything" begins with a vision or a universal concept that was just under our nose but required someone to tell us what we already knew and bring this to our forethought. Think back to economics classes before the classes economics was just to term for money handling. Now today we see that every Great War every great invention and even the small ones were encouraged and even made available due to economics. Before reading such books as "Homo Evolutis" by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, we knew of evolution and its controversies but never thought that we would see it all around us and realize much of it is our doing. Now there is "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood" by James Gleick also the author of "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything." The title of this book is definitely an understatement of what you're about to be presented. Just keep in mind that as much fun as this book is to read it is how you use this" information" that gives the book its worth.

We will see that every little "bit" of the universe and everything in it is "information." Do not over look the prolog for an encompassing hint as what the book is about. No information related subject is glossed over we het extensive history and in-depth views of what information is, how it was all-around ups and where t is going. I will not go into every detail of you would not need to read the book

Be prepared for over 400 footnotes and an extensive bibliography which will take some time to "look the references up."
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on May 29, 2013
I loved this book. I loved this book so damn much. So full disclosure, I say in my reviews I’m a librarian. This is true. The more fun thing is my degree is actually a Masters of Information. Yes. I am a Master of Information. This is a thing. So I got this book because how could I not? So yes I geeked out a million percent while reading this book, and my review is 100% biased in that this is a topic I love.

So. Things about this book. The title is exactly what the book is about the history of information which is SO DAMN FASCINATING because honestly guys, our ability to comprehend is staggering. How we transmit, perceive and underestimate information is fascinating. Seriously, it is and I don’t think just to people who generally geek out over it. Think about it – what we’re doing, understanding and thinking about not long ago would have been considered actual miracles. We can find out anything, and not only can we, but we now expect it to be easy. We can change, transmit, edit and argue over what information is and how we understand it and those of us who know are scared equally of the struggle to contain and provide access to it.

To be honest again I actually picked up this book back when it was released in 2011 and I didn’t read it then because at the time I was just finishing up my Masters and honestly couldn’t emotionally handle the idea of reading anything else about it. But the thing is, I’m SO glad I found it and read it. I don’t think it’s written in a particularly high style, it was an easy-ish read and I sincerely think it’s worth a grab for everyone. This is cool stuff guys.
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on February 26, 2012
This is by far my favorite book. At times hard to read (when it gets technical), it is my sacred treasury of ideas. Despite its dry and unattractive title, the book is full of meaning. I would even go so far as to say that it gave more meaning to my life...

In the first half of the book, James Gleick shares some curious historical facts and anecdotes about the discoveries, inventions, and developments of some important information technologies, such as telegraph and computers. While these stories are very interesting, the second half of the book is even more thrilling and exciting. The author managed to synthesize the history, the theory, and the flood of information to produce actual knowledge, an understanding of the role information plays in the world of human beings. I was particularly thrilled to learn about the influence information theory had on the development of modern physics, evolution and biology, as well as library studies and social media.

By the end of the book, it felt like I learned everything I wanted to know about, as if I had a glimpse of the essence of the universe. But most importantly, the book made me hungry for more information, for a deeper understanding of the meaning of life... And this is how my reading list got so much longer...
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`We can see now that information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle.'

Information takes many forms, and relies on different technologies for its retention and dissemination. I struggled at first with the definite article in the title, but the more I read the more sense it made, most of the time.

`Writing comes into being to retain information across time and across space.'

In this book, James Gleick covers the development and different forms of literacy. From Chinese script (between 4,500 and 8,000 years ago) to the development of the alphabet around 1500 BCE, literacy enables information capture and transmission. But many of the developments that surround us today can be pinpointed to work undertaken by Claude Shannon and published in his paper called `A Mathematical Theory of Communication' in 1948. For Claude Shannon, communication was an engineering challenge unrelated to the content of the message. What was important was that the message could be transmitted so that someone else could recover it. The field of information theory was created.
Information theory may originally have been perceived as having applications in engineering and computer science (how fortuitous that the first `point contact' transistor was discovered around the same time), but its impacts were far greater. Information theory has reshaped fields such as economics and philosophy, and has resulted in changes to thinking in biology (the structure of DNA) and physics (the paradoxes of quantum mechanics).

`Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought. In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.'

While I found many of the scientific concepts challenging, the book is written in such a way that the story remains clear. I enjoyed the anecdotes, especially the one in which Charles Babbage wrote to Alfred, Lord Tennyson to take point out the inaccuracy of the arithmetic in the couplet: `Every moment dies a man/Every moment one is born' (in `The Vision of Sin') suggesting this change: `Every moment dies a man/ And one and a sixteenth is born.' `I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.'
Fascinating as the science is, it is the human history of information that most interested me: the various writing systems invented; the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary (thirty different ways to spell `mackerel' is so triumphantly human); the stories of coding and communication (including the semaphore system invented by the Chappe brothers in France during the late 18th century).

`We may wish to understand the rise of literacy both historically and logically, but history and logic are themselves the products of literate thought.'

There's plenty of information and food for thought in this book, and it isn't necessary to agree with everything James Gleick writes in order to appreciate the broader points made. Perhaps the biggest question for me is how we decide what constitutes meaningful information, and how we manage information flow effectively at a personal level.

Is information knowledge? Where is the balance between process and outcome?

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon June 8, 2011
The history of information doesn't sound interesting but it turns out to be interesting indeed in Gleick's capable hands. He introduces the drum talkers of Africa to get us thinking about how widespread and global this concept is. He introduces us to historic characters like Charles Babbage and takes us through the development of the telegraph and of course the computer and the explosion of information on the Internet. A learned and fascinating read.
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on September 8, 2014
Flawed but the best your going to get I think. Lots of meat but too much garnish.
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on August 10, 2014
Great book! If you like learning about random topics its fantastic
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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
"Then it will be, if they do not believe you, nor heed the message of the first sign, that they may believe the message of the latter sign." -- Exodus 4:8 (NKJV)

If you love books about the history of science that tie many ideas, theories, and developments together and aren't a scientist, you'll have a good time with The Information.

If the subject is in your field, you'll find it much too elementary to be of interest.

If you don't know much about information theory, some parts will seem impenetrable to you . . . but that's okay. Just keep reading. You'll eventually read something that you can understand.

I thought that two aspects of the book were unusually fine: the ability to connect developments in so many scientific and engineering fields to common themes . . . and providing a single illustration that nicely crystallized the essence of a major idea, theory, or development.

If you don't get to the book's end, you may be wondering why some of the material is included. For instance, the book opens by explaining about African drumming. That example seems quite isolated at the time, but the concepts then are applied to many more detailed examples from cryptology to information sampling to enable signal compression.

Although there was no aspect of the science that was new to me, I came away with a new appreciation for bridges among the paradigms that I hadn't thought about before. That was well worth the time I spent in reading.

I was also glad that the book ended up by focusing on the "glut" of so-called information . . . most of which isn't worth recording . . . or still worse, which may mislead people.

If the book has a glaring weakness, it's that it doesn't venture into enough speculation about what the future may hold for information, storage, analysis, and verification . . . especially in an increasingly non-reading society.

My figurative hat is off to Mr. Gleick. I admire him for conceiving of and accomplishing so much in this area.
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