Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Information

James Gleick's The Information. A History, a Theory, a Flood Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: "The Information is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. The Information is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand."

I bought a Kindle edition and I read it. I am less impressed.

It's not a bad book, but it reads more like a collection of essays on various topics, loosely connected by the word "information." Whether the word actually denotes something all these essays have in common (or whether it expresses one consistent concept of information remains rather questionable).

The book represents a quick trod through various theories and developments having to do with information, ending up with the nearly ubiquitous "information overload."[1] Its subtitle should have been: "Some history, some theories, some Speculations." So we hear about "Drums That Talk" (1), "the Persistence of the Word" (2), "Two Wordbooks" (3), "To Throw the Powers of Thought into wheel-Work" (4), A Nervous System of the World" (5), "Information theory" (7), "The Informational Turn" (8), "Enthropy and Its Demons" (9), "Life's Own Code" (10), "Into the Meme Pool" (11), "The Sense of Randomness" (12), "Information is Physical" (13), "After the Flood" (14) and "New News Every Day" (15). The titles give a good indication of what they are about.

The book is well written, it is informative. It was also a good read on some rides on the "T." It may even be "sexily theoretical," though I think that this phrase is an oxymoron. I would have liked more discussion of the connections. It may well be that "hardly any information technology goes obsolete," and that "each new one throws its predecessors into relief," but what does that mean?

There are many other questionable claims, like: "in the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself." Sounds like a form of Hegelian idealism. But Gleick seems more impressed by John Luis Borges and his "Library of Babel," i.e. the "mythical library that contains all books, in all languages," Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong. Fred Dretske also makes an appearance. Towards the beginning we read: "Fred Dretske, a philosopher of mind and knowledge, wrote in 1981: 'In the beginning there was information. The word came later." He added this explanation: “The transition was achieved by the development of organisms with the capacity for selectively exploiting this information ..." Towards the end: "It takes a human—or, let’s say, a “cognitive agent"—to take a signal and turn it into information. 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and information is in the head of the receiver,' says Fred Dretske. That has to do with Borges worry the "'certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.' To which, John Donne had replied long before, 'He that desires to print a book, should much more desire, to be a book.'" Not one of my desires ... nor one of Gleick himself, I would suppose, given that he had this book printed—perhaps not quite a performative contradiction, but close enough.

"The library will endure, it is the universe." Really? I am not sure. I am sure, however, that The Information will not endure.

Is this a criticism the author would or should take seriously? I doubt it. The book was written as light entertainment for people who like their reading "sexily theoretical." As I said, it's "a good read" for the "T" (or any other subway or commuter train). I wouldn't "luxuriate" too much. It is not information very much "aware of itself ..."

Sorry, I wish I could be more positive, as the topic interests me immensely (and I have liked other books by Gleick a lot more). Still, I would also say that it was $12.99 well spent.

1. I think I am going to scream, if I hear the phrase "information overload" one more time!

1 comment:

Frank Hirtz said...

Gleick, like many others, would probably gain by reading Luhmann's theory of communication - and the conditions for the possibility of communication - and which place information takes in that process. One needs to go beyond the Shannon & Weaver paradigm that all communication is 'information transfer' between sender and receiver. For that matter, then 'everything' is information, the rustling of the leaves, the honking of a car, the color of a painting, ad infinitum. But nobody ever complains of 'information overload' when taking a stroll in the park.
"There is no information outside of communication" (Luhmann, 2002, in "Theories of Distinction" p. 160.) For any information is loosely coupled with utterance and understanding to make it communicable and does not (and cannot)stand on its own. To end with a quote by Luhmann: "Communication grasps 'something' out of the actual referential horizon that itself constitutes and leaves 'other things' aside. Communication is the processing of selection ... The selection that is actualized in communication constitutes what it chooses, by virtue of that choice, as a selection, namely as information. What is uttered is not only selected, but also already a selection-that is why it is uttered ... Selectivity as such attracts further communication: it recruits communications that direct themselves to aspects that selectivity has excluded. (in "Social Systems" 1995: 140).