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Ruth’s Reviews – The Information

Ruth Francis, Nature’s former head of press, is reading the shortlist of the Royal Society Winton prize for science books at a rate of one a week. She’s done it before. Will she succeed this year? The winner of the prize will be announced on 26 November.

We live in an age of information. We worry about information overload. How did we get here? Is this fretfulness new? James Gleick’s The Information is an ambitious look at the history of information, from the development of logic and language to the age of cyberspace.

Gleick investigates how humankind has travelled, over the centuries, from the effort taken to convey a single message – say, by announcing the fall of Troy by burning beacons along a pre-designated route – to the ease with which we convey big data today.

“The invention of writing catalyzed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning.” The explanation of this process early in the book is complex, particularly in the philosophical ideas described. But this may be the point: humankind has come a long way and so much of the information around us is taken for granted that we rarely stop and think about where it all began.

The Information truly came to life for me in telling the stories of the people behind the inventions and ideas – particularly in the time of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. It is more complex in its illustrations of some of the quirkier inventions along the way. Many of these, such as the early attempts at transmitting a message across long distance at speed, sounded fascinating, but I could have done with some diagrams to help explain them.

Society’s reactions to new technology are charted. It is charming to read the excitement and fear these advances engender. The excitement of being able to send text at speed was met by a fear that this would mean the death of newspapers. One journalist is quoted, worrying that “intelligence, thus hastily gathered, and transmitted, has also its drawbacks, and is not so trustworthy as the news which starts later and travels slower”. This will sound familiar to anyone concerned with the rise of the internet and citizen reporting today.

The later chapters were easier for me, summarizing in many ways the zeitgeist of our age, though the comparisons to the past are exposed by what we have read before.

Information fatigue? Far from it. This is a captivating and thought-provoking read.

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