Day 106: The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

Cover for The InformationRight up front I must admit that The Information is not my kind of reading. I persisted through this extremely long book but quit reading about 100 pages from the end. One review says the book is better if it is savored, which is exactly what I was not inclined to do.

Science writer James Gleick’s book is a comprehensive history of information and information theory. His thesis has to do with how people’s relationship to information has changed the nature of human consciousness.

Some of the book is very interesting, especially at the beginning when the ideas people are investigating seem more concrete, but it more often deals with subjects that are too obscure to interest me. On at least one occasion, he clearly misunderstands a concept or at least explains it carelessly, and the New York Times review points out another occasion. (Unfortunately, when writing up the notes for this review, before I started this blog, I did not specify to myself which concept.)

Another criticism is that Gleick does not appear to have decided who he is writing for. At some points he does a masterful job of explaining complex ideas, seeming to address an audience of ordinary people like me, while at other times he presents ideas without really explaining them or alleges concepts to be truths without showing that they are, as if he were addressing a more knowledgeable audience. A review by Nicholas Carr, although much more positive than mine, also points this out, saying that Gleick’s powers of explanation break down the closer he gets to the present, particularly in his explanations of quantum mechanics. This is precisely where he lost me.

But really, my problem boils down to a personal dislike of philosophy and abstruse theory. I couldn’t at times stop myself from wondering why anyone would spend time thinking about some of the things Gleick explained. They are too esoteric to interest me. Or perhaps it is the fault of the presentation, since I have enjoyed books before on topics that I would normally assume held no inherent interest for me, Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh being an example.

However, if this topic sounds interesting, you may find you enjoy the book much more than I did.

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