BookshelfJacob deGroot-Maggetti

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood – James Gleick

Summary: The Information outlines humanity’s changing relationship with and understanding of information—how messages were encoded and transmitted at various times throughout history, how humanity began to generate and transmit more and more of these messages over time, and how people developed new ways of thinking about and working with the information around them.

Thoughts: It took me a while—while Gleick outlined the growth and proliferation of information in the centuries leading up to the present day—to get into this book, though on the whole, I found it quite compelling. It’s the book wish I knew about when I initially got an inkling—from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and especially Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture—of the meaning and importance of entropy.

After he outlined how Claude Shannon’s choice to ignore the meanings of messages was an enormous step forward in how to conceive of and reason about information, I was struck when Gleick pointed out at the end of the book that, in our modern world with its enormous glut of information, the problem of ensuring that the information we consume has a meaningful relationship with reality has grown more and more important.

Gleick’s writing is clear and engaging, and his metaphors and examples insightful and thoughtfully chosen. Lots of exciting and thought-provoking ideas, especially in the book’s second half. Excellent.

(The notes below are not a summary of the book, but rather raw notes - whatever I thought, at the time, might be worth remembering.)

Gleick, James. 2011. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Pantheon.

1. Drums that Talk

2. The Persistence of the Word

3. Two Wordbooks

4. To Throw the Powers of Thought into Wheel-Work

5. A Nervous System for the Earth

6. New Wires, New Logic

7. Information Theory

8. The Informational Turn

9. Entropy and its Demons

10. Life’s Own Code

11. Into the Meme Pool

12. The Sense of Randomness

13. Information is Physical

14. After the Flood

15. New News Every Day


Posted: Jun 25, 2023. Last updated: Aug 31, 2023.