Sunday, February 3, 2013

Book Review: The Information

I'd been sitting on the final chapter of James Gleick's The Information when I noticed in my Kindle app that I was coming up on a year since I'd started it. I made the final push today and finished it a year and a day after I first cracked it open.

It's a dense and broad-reaching book on information theory. The author covers a huge range of subjects in a pretty daunting level of detail. From natives using drums to communicate complicated messages, to the history of Babbage's analytical engine, to telegraphs, to information encoding in DNA, to quantum mechanics, to name only a handful of his long list of topics. It's not often I've seen such a broad range of topics covered so thoroughly.

While I really wanted to love the book, its strength is also it's undoing. For example, as fascinating as the working relationship between Babbage and Lovelace was, I'm not sure I needed that kind of detail (and it goes on for pages and pages) to get his point about the processing of information. In the end, the author is trying to cover too much. Some subjects are done superbly (like the Babbage-including one I just mentioned), but others are weak and confusing. Each subject not only gets a deep explanation (or an attempt at one), but also biographies of many involved. While I find these interesting, in this case it bloated the work.

After all of that, and after taking so long to read it, the main point was lost on me. I think the author is trying to say something about the accelerating pace of information and how our ability to deal with it continually adapts. However, the main point for me was lost in the deluge of information. Perhaps that itself was the point.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood