James Gleick's tour-de-force: The Information, a natural history of information theory

I've just finished reading The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick's tour-de-force history of information theory. I read Freeman Dyson's early review of The Information with interest earlier in the month, and fell upon the book and read it nonstop when it arrived.

I lie. I stopped reading it a lot. I stopped to stare into space and go "huh" and "wow" and "huh" again. I stopped to try to explain the connections Gleick was making for me to my wife (with varying degrees of success), including an epic bedtime conversation that kept us up for an hour longer than we'd intended.

Gleick is one of the great science writers of all time, and that is, in part, because he is a science biographer. Not a biographer of scientists (although there is much biographical insight to scientists, mathematicians, lexicographers, writers and thinkers in The Information), but a biographer of the idea itself, and the way that it ricochets off disciplines, institutions and people, knocking them into new, higher orbits, setting them on collision courses.

I've been fascinated with information theory since a friend of a friend explained "Shannon limits" to me in the late 1990s. I remember the conversation, mostly because the description was tantalizingly frustrating and incomplete, this being a hallmark of really interesting ideas. This friend of a friend explained that there were theoretical limits to how much information any channel could carry, and that these limits included rigorous definitions for "channel" and "information." I've read up on Claude Shannon rather a lot since (I've got a short story called Shannon's Law in an upcoming Borderlands book, about a hacker named Shannon Klod who tries to violate the barrier between faerie and the human realm by routing a single packet using TCP-over-magic) and every time I do, it's a revelation, because some new facet of information theory reveals itself to me.

But nothing has presented these ideas half so well as The Information, and that's a tribute to Gleick's storytelling mastery, his ability to pick out the threads of history that trace back and forward from the discipline's central thesis. Gleick begins with early lexicographers, the primitive dictionaries, the phrasebooks that translated between the talking drum and western speech. He moves onto Babbage and Lovelace (and presents an account of their invention, rivalries, victories and failings that is as heartbreaking as it is informative), and then into telegraphy.

Telegraphy leads to codes, and codes to compression, and compression to logic, and logic to the first inklings of theories, and now you've got Einstein and Godel and Shannon and Turing meeting, debating, fighting and rubbishing each other in learned journals, arguing furiously with Margaret Mead at interdisciplinary conferences -- a pellmell debate in full swing. On Gleick marches, to the double helix and Dawkins and memes, to a section on randomness that is so transcendently exciting that I couldn't put the book down and read it while walking, so distracted I got lost twice within blocks of my office.

Gleick takes us through Wikipedia and the meaning of information, the debates about it, the helpelessness of information overload, the collisions in namespaces -- even through his beloved chaos math -- until he has spun out his skeins so that they wrap around the world and the universe, information theory at the heart of legal debates over trademark, physics feuds over Hawking radiation, epistemology and cryptography, even fights over Pokemon characters and their disambiguation.

The Information isn't just a natural history of a powerful idea; it embodies and transmits that idea, it is a vector for its memes (as Dawkins has it), and it is a toolkit for disassembling the world. It is a book that vibrates with excitement, and it transmits that excited vibration with very little signal loss. It is a wonder.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood


  1. “Chaos” had a profound impact on my life. I don’t think I’d be teaching math if I had never read it.

  2. I’m thrilled that this is available. I heard it was in the works, but didn’t know it was out yet. Shannon is a giant! Is Jaynes in there?

    Does anyone know if this would work as an ebook? I’m traveling soon, and was recently given a Kindle. It would be nice to save the weight. Non-fiction books often don’t work well as ebooks, because pictures and equations don’t translate well. “Chaos,” for example, had pretty color pictures in the middle, but I would rather lose those than the diagrams and equations in the text. That would be really hard to follow.


  3. I bought the Kindle version of this one two weeks ago (the beauty of e-books, you can buy it the day after it is out anywhere in teh world) and inhaled it flying from Frankfurt to Shanghai. I loved the Babbage and Shannon parts, but found the last two-three chapters rather unsatisfying – Gleick runs out of steam, and fails to provide a vision for the future built on the discoveries of the past.

    That being said, the biography parts are fantastic – especially the way he shows how ideas flowed – and how many of these people knew each other and learned from each other. For one thing, this is the first book I have read that explains what Babbage was trying to do – and what Shannon understood.

    Highly recommended.

    1. I completely agree. I just finished The Information on Wednesday night. I think Gleick got to quantum information (Chapter 13) and lost his momentum. I loved the discussions of complexity and randomness though. Gleick’s predilection for the hard sciences steered him astray here, I was hoping he’d drift a bit into the softer side of science and talk about discussions of information & communication in social science and philosophy. I am utterly dismayed that Bateson’s pithy “information is the difference that makes a difference” didn’t make an appearance. The sociologist Harold Garfinkel wrote a manuscript in the 50s (just released as a book in 2008), ‘Towards a Sociological Theory of Information’ that directly engages Shannon, Wiener, Bateson and other information folks of that era to develop a provocative and comprehensive (albeit difficult to grok) theory of information that doesn’t abandon “meaning.” Not to mention there are threads of information in Pragmatist philosophy (via Peirce’s Logic of Information), Wittgenstein, and the budding discipline of the Philosophy of Information. Perhaps there is more history to be told….

  4. This reads like the book is the Connections tv series in book form.

    Really tempted to get myself a copy.

  5. Just got this myself, and what with all the great reviews everywhere have bumped it up to the top of the books-purchased-but-not-yet-read list.

    Interesting cocktail fact: first translating dictionary was Icelandic-Portuguese/Portuguese-Icelandic. I will buy an ice cream cone to the first person to guess why this was the case (there is a correct answer).

  6. I’m with julian_t – dried cod trade? or religion?

    Either way this goes on the reading list – thanks for the suggestion.

  7. One ice cream cone to julian_t.

    It was exactly the cod fishing in the North Atlantic that brought the Portuguese to Iceland – bacalao, and all that…

    I think Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A History of the Fish That Changed The World has citations, but it is a fact I learned when studying the [Icelandic] language…

  8. I think the Icelandic language has the first reference to a haeme paige, but I have not been able to look it up. Great book. I also love the idea of tcp over magic.

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