I recently picked up the newest book by James Gleick, which is titled The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. This one caught my eye because I’ve been fascinated by information theory for a number of years, and also because I’ve read and enjoyed some of Gleick’s other books. (I’m keen to check out his biography of Newton, too.)
And then, on Monday, serendipity struck. Through sheer accident, I stumbled across a list of upcoming “public lectures” sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute. And right there, front and center, an advertisement for a talk by James Gleick: The Information: How We Came to be Deluged by Tweets.
So there was a free talk, given by the author of the book I was reading (and enjoying), just down the road from me. How could I not check that out? And did I mention it was free?
My first exposure to the coolness of information theory came from reading Grammatical Man, by Jeremy Campbell. That book was a little bit dated when I read it about 15 years ago, but even today it’s a fun and fascinating diversion. It’s one of a class of books that I find endlessly engrossing (even when I don’t understand half of what I’m reading). Books such as Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind. Books that I keep on a special shelf because their content is so cool, and thought-provoking, and interrelated.
So I’m enjoying the new Gleick. It’s not as detailed as I would like in some places, but it makes up for that with its breadth. Any book that ricochets from Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and the Difference Engine to Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, and wartime cryptography is totally worth my time.
The talk wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, though. Gleick was a humble, funny, and knowledgable speaker but the lecture felt rather short. Worse, it was sadly devoid of all the marvelous details that make the book so fun. In fact it seemed to be devoid of any details whatsoever. He mentioned Claude Shannon in his lecture, and the wide-ranging importance of his work…but never said a thing about what Shannon actually did. There was no mention of the cool and amazing crossovers between the work that Shannon, Turing, and Godel did. No explanation of how information theory actually works, how it gave rise to today’s information society. Much of the lecture was spent reiterating the same point, too, which started to feel a bit redundant after a while. I think it’s safe to say that the audience, especially that audience, could take the wonders of the information age as read. Gleick did a tremendous amount of research for this book (the end notes and bibliographic references are mountainous) which made for plenty of interesting side notes during the lecture, but his talk contained none of the meat that makes the book so interesting.
But it was still cool to hear him speak. And so perfectly timed to the circumstances of my own reading life. How considerate of him and the Santa Fe Institute!