The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
Information flows everywhere, through wires and genes, through brain cells and quarks. But while it may appear ubiquitous to us now, until recently we had no awareness of what information was or how it worked. In his new book, The Information, science writer James Gleick documents the rising role of information in our lives and the way new technologies continue to increase its velocity, volume, and importance. Gleick—whose first book,Chaos, was a National Book Award finalist and whose biographies of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton were both short-listed for the Pulitzer—spent seven years compiling his epic account.Wired spoke with Gleick about his unified history of the fundamental force behind life, the universe, and everything.
Kevin Kelly: What prompted you to write a whole lot of information about information?
James Gleick: I’ve been thinking of this book my whole career. When I was working on Chaos, the young rebels of the Dynamical Systems Collective in Santa Cruz would try to explain Claude Shannon’s invention of information theory to me. I didn’t understand it at the time. Investigating Shannon’s ideas became the fulcrum of this book.
Kelly: What were those ideas?
Gleick: Shannon said that the notion of information has nothing to do with meaning. A string of bits has a quantity, whether it represents something that’s true, something that’s utterly false, or something that’s just meaningless nonsense. If you were a scientist or an engineer, that idea was very liberating; it enabled you to treat information as a manipulable thing.
Kelly: And how would you define this thing?
Gleick: Scientifically, information is a choice—a yes-or-no choice. In a broader sense, information is everything that informs our world—writing, painting, music, money.
Kelly: And as we came to understand how information works, that impacted our understanding of how our bodies and minds operate, too, right?
Gleick: Yes. Information is crucial to our biological substance—our genetic code is information. But before 1950, it was not obvious that inheritance had anything to do with code. And it was only after the invention of the telegraph that we understood that our nerves carry messages, just like wires. When we look back through history, we can see that a lot of different stories all turn out to be stories about information.
Kelly: Let’s talk about your title, The Information. What are you trying to do with the word the there?
Gleick: [Laughs.] What can I say about that? I just got it into my head early on. I have tried not to become too conscious of why exactly I came up with it.
Kelly: What it communicates to me is that information is a definite, specific thing, rather than an indefinite generalization.
Gleick: You got the transmission correctly.
Kelly: This is your sixth book. How has the ever-increasing availability of information changed how you write books? Do you still go into libraries with stacks?
Gleick: Part of this book focuses on people from the 19th century such as Ada Byron, who was the first computer programmer. If you want to understand her life, you need to read her letters. Many of those have been collected and published, but some haven’t. To see those, you have to physically go to the British Library and then place an order with a pencil on a piece of paper and wait for somebody to bring you a package of letters like a sacred offering. I don’t know how much longer that world will work, but it’s lovely that it still does.
Kelly: Isn’t there a sort of loveliness in not having to fly 5,000 miles to visit a library but instead being able to recline in your pajamas and read a PDF?
Gleick: Not loveliness. It’s just faster, more efficient. I certainly made extensive use of Google Books for things that even five years ago I would’ve had to drag myself down to the library for. And my readers will be able to use Google Books to retrace my steps through my references in ways that wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.
Kelly: Your book shows that each new communication invention—the talking drums of Africa, the first semaphore telegraphs—inspired predictions of both utopian rhapsody and dire terror.
Gleick: When people say that the Internet is going to make us all geniuses, that was said about the telegraph. On the other hand, when they say the Internet is going to make us stupid, that also was said about the telegraph. I think we are always right to worry about damaging consequences of new technologies even as we are empowered by them. History suggests we should not panic nor be too sanguine about cool new gizmos. There’s a delicate balance.
Kelly: Speaking of cool new gizmos, what do you think about Twitter and Facebook?
Gleick: I have my toe in the water, but I am not apologizing for missing a round. We have a big menu of information technologies out there to choose from. Isn’t that the whole point?
Kelly: Yet sometimes new technologies don’t get the attention they deserve. I like your story of Charles Babbage, who in the 1820s basically invented the concept of computer a century before anyone, including him, could make one.
Gleick: Babbage was a man out of his time. People back then didn’t get what he was about. He was a mathematician, but he was engineering this machine that could be programmed. He was also obsessed with lock-picking, and the schedule of railroad trains, and cryptography.
Kelly: He was the prototypical hacker!
Gleick: Yeah, today there are many people who share these same preoccupations. And we’re aware of what they all have in common: information.
Kelly: According to your book, information underpins everything.
Gleick: Modern physics has begun to think of the bit—this binary choice—as the ultimate fundamental particle. John Wheeler summarized the idea as “it-from-bit.” By that he meant that the basis of the physical universe—the “it” of an atom or subatomic particle—is not matter, nor energy, but a bit of information.
Kelly: That sounds almost spiritual—that the material world is really immaterial.
Gleick: I know it sounds magical, but it needs to be understood properly. Information has a material basis. It has to be carried by something.
Kelly: The extreme view would be that all these bits that make up atoms are running on a very big computer called the universe, an idea first espoused by Babbage.
Gleick: That makes sense as long as this metaphor does not diminish our sense of what the universe is but expands our sense of what a computer is.
Kelly: But as you note, some scientists say that this is not a metaphor: The universe we know is only information.
Gleick: I’m not a physicist, but that concept resonates with something that we all recognize: Information is the thing that we care most about. The more we understand the role that information plays in our world, the more skillful citizens we will be.