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The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

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There’s sheer pleasure in these pages, too, with many chapters resembling a Victorian curio cabinet, an intimate universe of items that have lively and unlikely connections. Gleick, who approvingly describes his hero Shannon as someone who “gathered threads like a magpie,” proves quite a magpie himself, crafting a story that includes not only Aeschylus but AT&T, as well as Beethoven and Bell Labs, Darwin and domain names, “The Iliad,” the telephone, and “The Great Soviet Encyclopedia.”

And although he deals with what can seem like grimly mechanical formulations of information theory, Gleick is also alert to the human touch. In an opening chapter on the use of African drums to communicate across vast differences, for example, he notes that drummers aspired to something more richly complicated than the bare transmission of facts. Instead of simply saying “Come back home,” drummers would tap out a poetic exhortation:

“Make your feet come back the way they went,/ make your legs come back the way they went,/ plant your feet and legs below,/ in the village which belongs to us.”

Gleick’s study of drums sets the stage for a continuing theme of the book – namely, the way that information history has been a point of intersection for science and the humanities. He notes the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 19th-century skepticism about the prospect of mechanical calculating machines, asserting that they could be nothing more than a “satire” of human intelligence. Think of it as an earlier version of the recent debate inspired by a computer’s victory on the game show “Jeopardy!.”

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