Author James Gleick Traces Information’s Evolution in New Book

May 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author James Gleick's new book, "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood," chronicles the evolution of information. Jeffrey Brown and the science and technology author discuss how our era of information overload evolved from pre-digital times.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, tracing the evolution of the information superhighway back to pre-digital times.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: We seek to connect and we seek to impart and gather ideas, knowledge, directions to the grocery store, gossip, everything. We use letters, numbers, codes, sounds, bits. We read and write those ancient things called books and Google our way through databases and search engines.

We e-mail, text, tweet. Some of us even still use the telephone to make phone calls. It’s both a very new and very old story filled with technological achievements, abstract theories and colorful characters.

And it’s told in the new book “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.” Its author is leading science and technology writer James Gleick.

And welcome to you.

JAMES GLEICK, “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is an ambitious task, I thought to myself as I opened it here. What were you after? What story are you trying to tell?

JAMES GLEICK: Information used to be a small thing. It wasn’t a very interesting word. And suddenly it seems to be everything, all the things you just listed, books, messages, Google. We know now that music is a form of information, that visual images are information. And they are bombarding us.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s everywhere.

JAMES GLEICK: It’s everywhere.

And so I wanted to tell the story of how our sense that all of this stuff is of a related species came to be, how we learned to talk about information in a very modern way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so you went back in time to look at this, including back to what we think of as primitive forms of information technology, African drums.

JAMES GLEICK: That’s right. We can look back now and, because we know that the Internet is a kind of information technology and computers are information-processing machines, we — it brings into focus the fact that books are an older information technology, and they are akin to telegraph wires and the talking drums of Africa, and bugle sounds and smoke signals, and more obviously, the later waves of electrical communication that came after the telegraph: the telephone, the radio, the television.

It’s all the same thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: The drums, the telegraph, the radio, the Internet, all of that.

You write at one point, “The same paradox was destined to reappear in different guises, each technology of information bringing its own power and its own fears.”

JAMES GLEICK: In our time, we worry that there’s too much information, that there’s an information glut, that — well, the last word in my subtitle is a flood.

It’s only fairly recently that we have been able to talk about information glut or information overload as a thing to be feared or worried about. But maybe it’s a little bit reassuring to discover that all of these information technologies brought the same sort of anxieties.

People in the early era of the printing press worried about what it would mean when there were just too many books. If there are 10,000 books on Earth, it means that no one scholar can have a grasp of all recorded knowledge anymore. And that was — that was felt to be a sort of turning point.

And it was a sort of turning point. People complained about it. Now we complain about too many books, too, but everything is on a different scale.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you talk about the — the fears that have run through time, there’s also confusions. There was — my favorite moment here is where you tell of a mother who came to the new telegraph office — it was — I think it was a dish of sauerkraut — and told the operator she wanted to send that to her son.


JEFFREY BROWN: She just didn’t understand what the telegraph was supposed to convey.

JAMES GLEICK: And all of the vocabulary was changing, and all of our most basic understanding of messages, for example, changed.

Another — another of those early telegraph stories involves somebody who goes to the telegraph office with a message written out and hands it to the operator and says, “Send it.” And the operator taps away, hooks the message up on the hook, and says, “OK, it’s sent.” And she says: “No, it isn’t. I see it right there.”


JAMES GLEICK: Well, we know that a message is something abstract. It’s something you can express in bits. It’s something you can store in a computer and send by e-mail. It exists in different media.

But these things had to be learned.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, speaking of abstract, I mean this is one of the most interesting concepts, and it’s a little hard to — almost to talk about it — and I guess you must have grappled with how to write about it — but the idea — and you referred to 1948, this idea of information theory, Claude Shannon, a famous figure in all of this, perhaps needs to be better known to the general public.

But he talked about divorcing meaning from the act of passing information, right? Meaning was irrelevant to the engineering…


JEFFREY BROWN: … problem, is I think how he put it.

JAMES GLEICK: Yes, that’s what he said.

And, well, he was an engineer and a mathematician, a very good mathematician, and thinking in grand terms, because he was trying to solve not just little problems of communication, but really what we see now as a very grand problem. He was associating electrical circuits with logic. We know now that an if-then circuit is something real and it’s something that’s — that our computers are made of.

And he devised what we now call information theory, which was a piece of mathematics. It gave engineers a whole bunch of tools that they could use to solve problems of compressing information for efficient transmission, for sending information in the face of noise, static on the phone lines. But, to do this, he had to treat information as a cold, mathematical thing. And then…

JEFFREY BROWN: The actual message or the meaning didn’t really matter.

JAMES GLEICK: Didn’t matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Or he didn’t want to think about that.

JAMES GLEICK: He didn’t need to think about it as an engineer. It’s a string of bits.


JAMES GLEICK: And, well, we sort of know that. We know that information is stored as ones and zeros. And it doesn’t necessarily trouble us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but, at the same time, I mean, human — meaning is not irrelevant to human beings, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: If I’m sending you a message, the message is what I’m trying to convey.

JAMES GLEICK: Meaning is all we care about.


JAMES GLEICK: And so we worry. I mean, I think the quintessential fear of information overload is that, while we have access to almost infinite data, that doesn’t mean we have access to all the world’s knowledge.

And, in fact, finding a particular piece of knowledge, separating it from the flood of nonsense is our most serious problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and, so, finally, I mean, having looked at this whole history, are you — you look at where we are today, are you optimistic, pessimistic? Is it all of the same? Or where are we at right now?

JAMES GLEICK: I tend to be optimistic. I can’t necessarily defend that. That might just be the kind of person I am.

I do think that human communication is a good thing. You know, people worry about Twitter. Twitter is banal. It’s 140-character messages. By definition, you can hardly say anything profound.

On the other hand, we communicate. And, sometimes, we communicate about things that are important. We saw the use to which Twitter was turned in the revolution in Egypt earlier this year. Humorists are using Twitter to tell jokes in an interesting way. It doesn’t have to be profound, and it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking, but it is transformative.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new book is “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.”

James Gleick, thank you very much.

JAMES GLEICK: Thank you.