Friday, 3 July 2015

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

by James Gleick

Apart from furnishing me with great quotes for my blogs, this may be one of the most fascinating books on information theory I’ve read. Considering that I was reading this book once a week, while travelling by train from Santander to Bezana and back (11 minutes each way), I managed to finish it, well, under four months.

I feared that, after the great start, it would continue in a less spectacular fashion, gradually losing the steam and eventually reaching the thermodynamic equilibrium with the literary noise around me. I’m glad to report that this didn’t happen. True, as we move closer to the present day, it becomes progressively out-of-date: think about the future of the cloud computing in post-Snowden era (the book was published in 2011). Thankfully, the author seems to be well aware of that.

After “information theory” came to be, so did “information overload”, “information glut”, “information anxiety”, and “information fatigue”, the last recognized by the OED in 2009 as a timely syndrome: “Apathy, indifference, or mental exhaustion arising from exposure to too much information, esp. (in later use) stress induced by the attempt to assimilate excessive amounts of information from the media, the Internet, or at work.” Sometimes information anxiety can coexist with boredom, a particularly confusing combination. David Foster Wallace had a more ominous name for this modern condition: Total Noise. “The tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective” — that, he wrote in 2007, constitutes Total Noise. He talked about the sensation of drowning and also of a loss of autonomy, of personal responsibility for being informed. To keep up with all the information we need proxies and subcontractors.

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