Bit by Bit
James Gleick on the fascinating quest to understand and wield information.
The Bible's human authors are long since dead, along with anyone who knew them. The papers and ink originally used are long gone. Parts may be lost, but most of the text has outlasted not just paper and pen, but cities, governments, entire civilizations, and even many of the languages the text was written in. All decays and turns to dust, but the underlying information survives, immortal in a way different from almost everything else in our experience.
So that's Information. But just what is the stuff? Does it possess traits or properties that you might identify and describe? To answer such questions is James Gleick's goal in The Information, a highly ambitious and generally brilliant effort to tie together centuries of disparate scientific efforts to understand information as a meaningful concept. For a society that believes itself to live in an information age, the subject could hardly be more important. That the project doesn't fully succeed has more to do with the limits of our understanding than with Gleick's efforts.
In The Information the main character is, of course, information itself, or more precisely our understanding of it. That protagonist, over 426 pages, wanders through thousands of years and dozens of places. It starts, like humanity, in Africa, makes a stop in ancient Greece, and spends time in England to witness the writing of the first English dictionaries and Charles Babbage's effort to build a Difference Engine. Along the way our understanding develops, deepens, as information reveals itself bit by bit.
Information, it turns out, is deeply mysterious. Like a rare particle, it shows off tantalizing properties, and even by the end of the book still remains rather beyond our comprehension. We are told by different thinkers at different times that information is "entropy," that it is "physical," equal to "quantum mechanics," that it might be life itself. And the more we learn about information, the more the topic begins to reveal new complications. We change it—for example, by inventing forms of storage or transmission. Yet as we do so, it changes us as well.
Gleick invokes the work of a Russian psychologist who explored that transformation in the 1930s. He asked members of oral cultures in central Asia the following question: "In the far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zembla is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?" Typical pre-literate response: "I don't know. I've seen a black bear. I've never seen any others. ..." Post-literate: "To go by your words, they should all be white." Here, a new way of storing and accessing information—writing—has changed how the mind works, driving an adoption of logic. The implication seems clear: Further changes in the technology of information will lead to different changes in mind, which is why, in certain sense, we are the state of our information technology.
Gleick doesn't quite try to present a final answer to the question of what information is. Instead, his book gives us a succession of enticing glimpses that require real synthesizing work on the part of the reader. This is, I think, on purpose: Unlike many contemporary nonfiction writers, Gleick is uninterested in creating the illusion that all can be made simple with just the right anecdote. He likes to emphasize that, despite our various vanities, we barely understand the universe we live in and help create. And so it is with information: Our understanding of it is ultimately weak.