The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick

The Information is a nonfiction book. More often than not, I steer clear of these, because there is enough nonfiction in the world, and I like my reading to be a bit escapist. But, enough people in my life were talking about ‘the information’ and enough of those who were talking about it were saying good things, so I picked it up and gave it a go. And … yep, I’m glad that I did.  At 527 pages it is no light read. But it is engaging, informative, and well … full of information that you may or may not find yourself using.

The book begins with a chapter on ‘drums that talk’ which is rich with information (that word again!) and stories (which of course also contain information) about how information was shared – communicated – across spaces beginning with talking drums in Africa. Chapters examine the evolution of means of examining, analyzing and communicating information across time and space – all illustrated and amplified with stories of the efforts, struggles, abysmal failures and amazing successes of key people and supporting actors engaged in the developments and the break throughs.  For me it was the background stories – not really gossip, but close enough – that I found particularly engaging.

Ah, and I loved the chapter on meme’s. I am intrigued with the idea of meme’s. And of course ‘meme’ is a newish word, so I love it all the more. The chapter begins with an epigram from Douglas Hofstadter (1983): “When I must about memes, I often find myself picturing an ephemeral flickering pattern of sparks leaping from brain to brain, screaming, ’me, me!’” And that’s as good an illustration of meme as I’ve read. Meme’s speak to the spreading power of ideas. Richard Dawkins connected genes and memes in his book the “Selfish Gene.” Gleick quotes Dawkins as saying, “wherever there is life, there must be replicators. . . .  I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.” Gleick reminds us that that soup is human culture; the vector of transmission is language; and the spawning ground is the brain. And Dawkins called this replicator the ‘meme.’ Memes propagate, they spread by leaping from brain to brain by a process that we might call imitation – think Ken Keyes 100 monkey story; think Malcolm Galdwell’s Tipping Point; think things going viral on U-Tube and the web.

So, ‘The Information’ traces the history of information as an idea, as it is ever more efficiently communicated; it describes a theory of information; it follows the flood of information that is engulfing humanity. It is an interesting, engaging read. Give it a try … how has your engagement with ‘information’ changed over the last few years? Have you noticed the emergence of new or different cultural memes?

James Gleick 2011. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Pantheon Books: New York.