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addabook - The Information
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The Information
A History, A Theory, A Flood
James Gleick
read on December 1, 2011

This book was super interesting. The subtitle lays out the structure of the book pretty well. It starts by explaining the history of how humans transmit information. Obviously, this revolves around the development of language and communication. I particularly liked the explanation of African tribes that can communicate quickly from village to village by beating a drum. They're able to do this because their spoken language is highly tonal. In English, for instance, I can change the meaning of a sentence from a statement into a question by making it a high pitch at the end. But in this particular African language - the meaning of individual words are highly dependent on the contextual tones. Because of that - they're able to imitate language using simplified drum patterns. It's really complex, and super interesting.

The second part of the book is obviously a theory of information - and I found this to be the best part. The book talks about memes - an idea Richard Dawkins came up with in The Selfish Gene. Memes are ideas - they are information, anything with structure really. The "theory" here is that memes find ways to reproduce, to survive, in the same Darwinistic way that biological agents do. It discusses information almost as a sentient thing, something trying to survive. I really liked the comparison, and it was interesting to think about what properties allow information to be passed on. Why do we know what Mozart's music sounds like, why was that information passed along when most everything else from that time was not?

The last part, the flood, is about the internet, and how that's been an information explosion the likes of which our species has never seen, and some consequences thereof.

Fabulous book - super interesting reading, I really enjoyed it. There are parts that are a bit dry though - but definitely worth getting through.

Author Bio:

James Gleick (born August 1, 1954) is an American author and historian of science whose work has chronicled the cultural impact of modern technology. Recognized for his writing about complex subjects through the techniques of narrative nonfiction, he has been called "one of the great science writers of all time". Gleick's books include the international bestsellers Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) and The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2011). Three of his books have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists; and The Information was awarded the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award in 2012 and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2012. His books have been translated into more than thirty languages.