Claude Shannon. Charles Babbage. Ada Lovelace. Alan Turing1.
These are our new Newtons. They opened the door to the modern world that we are even now beginning to step out into. And James Gleick will introduce you to all of them as he tries to do for the science of information what he did in his fantastic book about chaos theory: introduce the interested layman to the world of bits, bytes, signal, and noise the same way that he showed us all how strange attractors work back in 1988.
It’s hard for me to judge how well he did since I actually know a [very] little about information theory (as opposed to knowing nothing at all about chaos theory that Gleick didn’t teach me). So a lot of the book was a bit of a boring re-tread for me. Of course, there were also things that were new to me in my far-less-than-academic understanding of information theory: Maxwell’s Demon was possibly my favorite of the “new things”.
So while I think he did a great job with “A History” and “A Theory”, I couldn’t help but feel that “A Flood” was given short shrift; since dealing with this flood is arguably one of the primary first-world problems that would be affecting his readers (I read this book on a Kindle overflowing with other un-read books, for example. And it’s getting worse). Sure, he talked about how many petabytes of data move across the Internet every day, and he mentioned twitter and filtering and such. But it was all a very “evening news” sort of treatment.
I don’t think there was anything new or useful for the sort of person who would be likely to pick up the book in the first place. There certainly wasn’t anything that will resonate with anyone in a decade. This section of the book has a very short shelf life.
I guess my ultimate feeling is that the book should have merely been “A History, A Theory”. It would’ve gotten another star from me in that case. As it stands though, I came away feeling that the last few chapters were just rushed fluff where Gleick didn’t really have anything to say. Those chapters stood in stark contrast to the rest of the book, of course, but they couldn’t help but bring the whole thing down.
Though once again, Alonzo Church gets short shrift. I guess the lambda calculus just isn’t as sexy (or as understandable) as an infinite tape-reading machine. ↩