Bit by Bit

James Gleick on the fascinating quest to understand and wield information.

"The Information, A Theory." By James Glick.

The Bible’s human authors are long since dead, along with anyone who knew them. The papers and ink originally used are long gone. Parts may be lost, but most of the text has outlasted not just paper and pen, but cities, governments, entire civilizations, and even many of the languages the text was written in. All decays and turns to dust, but the underlying information survives, immortal in a way different from almost everything else in our experience.

So that’s Information. But just what is the stuff? Does it possess traits or properties that you might identify and describe? To answer such questions is James Gleick’s goal in The Information, a highly ambitious and generally brilliant effort to tie together centuries of disparate scientific efforts to understand information as a meaningful concept. For a society that believes itself to live in an information age, the subject could hardly be more important. That the project doesn’t fully succeed has more to do with the limits of our understanding than with Gleick’s efforts.

In The Information the main character is, of course, information itself, or more precisely our understanding of it. That protagonist, over 426 pages, wanders through thousands of years and dozens of places. It starts, like humanity, in Africa, makes a stop in ancient Greece, and spends time in England to witness the writing of the first English dictionaries and Charles Babbage’s effort to build a Difference Engine. Along the way our understanding develops, deepens, as information reveals itself bit by bit.

Information, it turns out, is deeply mysterious. Like a rare particle, it shows off tantalizing properties, and even by the end of the book still remains rather beyond our comprehension. We are told by different thinkers at different times that information is “entropy,” that it is “physical,” equal to “quantum mechanics,” that it might be life itself. And the more we learn about information, the more the topic begins to reveal new complications. We change it—for example, by inventing forms of storage or transmission. Yet as we do so, it changes us as well.

Gleick invokes the work of a Russian psychologist who explored that transformation in the 1930s. He asked members of oral cultures in central Asia the following question: “In the far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zembla is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?” Typical pre-literate response: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others. …” Post-literate: “To go by your words, they should all be white.” Here, a new way of storing and accessing information—writing—has changed how the mind works, driving an adoption of logic. The implication seems clear: Further changes in the technology of information will lead to different changes in mind, which is why, in certain sense, we are the state of our information technology.

Gleick doesn’t quite try to present a final answer to the question of what information is. Instead, his book gives us a succession of enticing glimpses that require real synthesizing work on the part of the reader. This is, I think, on purpose: Unlike many contemporary nonfiction writers, Gleick is uninterested in creating the illusion that all can be made simple with just the right anecdote. He likes to emphasize that, despite our various vanities, we barely understand the universe we live in and help create. And so it is with information: Our understanding of it is ultimately weak.

The closest thing to a unified theory of information comes in the 1940s from Claude Shannon, who is the hero of Gleick’s book. An Isaac Newton figure, Shannon deployed mathematics to capture information just as Newton turned to mathematics to capture the essential nature of motion. The inventor of the “bit”—the metric Shannon introduced to quantify information—realized that information is related at its core to order and uncertainty, and therefore to entropy. Indeed, Shannon introduced the deeply confusing idea that information, fundamentally, “is entropy.”

That idea is extremely hard to explain, but here is my effort. A tossed coin can land one of two ways, heads or tails. Its outcome is uncertain, and the coin’s state is unordered, or entropic. To Shannon, that uncertainty is the informational capacity of the coin: one bit, or two possible outcomes. Moreover, the uncertainty created by multiple bits can code for extraordinarily complex messages, Shannon showed, and those messages can be communicated across giant distances, given the right kind of channels. Shannon’s work lies behind the text you’re reading right now, which was reduced to bits, sent across some distance, and recreated on the other side.

After reaching the mid-20th century, Gleick turns from history to devote roughly one-half of his book to a mind-bending exploration of theory, which I found the highlight of his undertaking. Here Gleick considers at length, for example, Richard Dawkins’ idea that humans might be best described as little more than information carriers. This follows if we believe Dawkins’ idea that our bodies are containers for DNA, which itself is just a code and a storage format, from an informational point of view. That’s what a scientist means by the word becoming flesh.

Gleick spans so many areas as he delves into efforts to understand and wield information down the centuries—from the invention of Morse code and the OED, through genetics, to the idea of memes and psychology—that at times the chapters, while linked thematically, can resemble stand-alone essays. For example, he includes a debate over whether black holes can destroy information. The question is unquestionably cool, but difficult, for this limited mind, to connect with anything else. It’s also quite hard to understand if you’re not already familiar with the mathematical properties of time and space.

I couldn’t help wishing, though, that Gleick had made it to the economic study of information, which he alludes to briefly in the introduction. Granted, Gleick is a science writer, not a social-science writer. But his book ends with a coda (“A Flood”) on the times we live in, and it is here that getting a feel for the economic principles of information would have helped critically. Indeed, to try and understand the Internet or firms like Google, as Gleick does in the end, informational theorists like Joesph Stiglitz and Friedrich Hayek may matter as much as Shannon. * Take Hayek’s idea that the superior performance of markets over socialist planned economies had nothing to do with actual efficiencies (competition is wasteful), but can be chalked up to superior use of information (prices are a form of information). It’s a perfect example of information as the greater shaper of human history—in this case, arguably winning the Cold War on behalf of the West. Trying to link the economic principles of information with its scientific properties would have been a great service.

Still, the web Gleick has woven is a rare one, a whole that envelops and exceeds its many parts, which certainly suits his topic. His contribution—too easily underrated in a work that synthesizes the ideas of others—lies in linking fields of science that aren’t connected in a formal sense. By the close of the book you cannot think of information as you might have before. It has become, quite palpably, something different than almost anything we encounter: resistant to decay and capable of perfect self-reproduction. It outlasts the organic beings who create it, and, by replication, the inorganic mediums used to store it. Gleick’s deepest subject, it occurred to me as I finished reading, is immortality. Perhaps it should not come as such a great surprise that The Information—not unlike other science books that tackle big human quests for understanding—at times bears more than a passing resemblance to a spiritual text. For “In the beginning,” as Gleick reminds us in the introduction, “was the word.”

Correction, March 29, 2011: This article originally misspelled the first name of Friedrich Hayek. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)