Holiday Reading: The Information by James Gleick

“The new technology was both the virus and the vector of transmission.” — Walter J. Ong


This was one of the three books I read during my holiday in a cabin on the Austrian Alps. To hedge against a lack of sun hours to charge my reading device with I brought some physical books that had been lingering on my moribund to-read pile.

I wasn’t sure if ‘The Information’ would be worth reading as a graduate in computer science but it turns out that it is as fantastic a book as everybody said it was.

Shortly summarised ‘The Information’ is a summary of a large part of my studies: the formal logic and computability parts, the signal processing and information theory parts and a bunch more. As such it functions as an easier to digest mashup of ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’ and ‘The Baroque Cycle’ if I may call it that.

The book treats many of the same topics as those books and paints a stunning picture of the history of science. It shows you in the writings of those scientists how our understanding of information evolved with time and how that evolution informs our current perspective.

The book focuses on Shannon, where GEB for instance is more about Kurt Gödel and Cryptonomicon (the prelude to the Baroque Cycle) is more about Alan Turing. What is interesting to note is how Shannon’s work contributed an informational turn to the social sciences.

Information historical accounts are super interesting—also something that I enjoyed immensely during the Latour MOOC—but a weakness of the book is that the insights offered therein break down the closer we get to the present day. Current events move too quickly to be framed with the same flourishes as the writings of Charles Babbage and Ada Byron Lovelace.

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