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- The noise of numbers

The Information: A history, a theory, a flood By James Gleick, Fourth Estate, Rs 599

James Gleick, the bestselling author of Genius and Chaos, turns his attention to ‘information’ in this deceptively difficult, and somewhat audaciously ambitious, book. His work, as the subtitle suggests, is structured around three interconnected themes — a historical survey of the various means of disseminating information, from African talking drums to dictionaries to electronic transmission of signals; an analysis of ‘information theory’, as propounded by Claude Shannon, who revolutionized electronic engineering; and finally, an evaluation of the information glut in contemporary life. Although undeniably important, Gleick’s work suffers from three major problems that could stand in the way of its popular appeal.

The first of these pertains to the esoteric nature of much of the material that lies at the core of the book. Information theory is riddled with complex transactions among numbers, and Gleick takes the reader through the whole hog — algorithms, Boolean algebra, symbolic logic, the laws of thermodynamics — in considerable detail. If you are intimidated by hydra-headed equations or dizzying riddles, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, those with a healthy interest in mathematics can find much to amuse themselves with in some of the anecdotes that Gleick recounts. Take, for instance, the discussion on “interesting” and “uninteresting” numbers. In 1917, on his way to visit an ailing Srinivasa Ramanujan, G.H. Hardy, the British number theorist, rode in a taxi with the number plate, “1729”. When Hardy described the number as “rather a dull one” to Ramanujan, the latter supposedly retorted that, on the contrary, 1729 happens to be the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways (1729 = 1³ + 12³ = 9³ + 10³). It is now known as the Hardy-Ramanujan number.

Such excursions into apocryphal anecdotes are not typical of Gleick’s style. He prefers a more rigorous scrutiny of methods and morphologies to an organic, interdisciplinary narrative that ties together the social, political and interpersonal forces that go into the making of information theory. The result is, more often than not, predictably dull. No matter how gifted the writing, numbers and figures alone can be only that much interesting to the common reader. So, although Gleick’s argument is persuasive and engaging, it remains distant and impersonal, fixated on codes and sequences, and seldom interested in the big picture. Information, it could well appear from Gleick’s narrative, is trapped in an abstruse bubble of mathematics and technological know-how. Only in the concluding section, when Gleick explores the implications of the dotcom boom or the first principles of cellular biology, does information become a fact of life. But even here, Gleick remains more absorbed in scientific minutiae and less interested in conveying a real sense of what gene sequencing or the evolution of Wikipedia augurs for humanity.

The second problem with Gleick’s book is more of a conceptual than a methodological flaw. In spite of covering a vast range of information technology, from espionage systems to cybernetics, Gleick is ultimately interested in a history of ideas, not in a cultural history of communication. His discussion of the mechanics of the African drum language gains relevance only insofar as it helps elucidate the concept of noise and redundancy in scientific theories of transmission. In Gleick’s analysis, cryptography comes across as an obscure and insipid set of rules, not as an exciting field full of hidden possibilities. Further, even as history of ideas goes, Gleick’s account remains unapologetically Eurocentric or, at best, confined to the anglophone world. It draws almost entirely on Graeco-Roman and Enlightenment ideas of language and literacy, as though information did not circulate in the rest of the world as the West became formidably sophisticated. One is shocked to find not a single mention of Jagadish Chandra Bose in a book which dwells at length on the transmission of waves and signals. Curiously, Gleick also gives little attention to television and radio, although he spends pages on telegraph and telephony.

Finally, with scant reference to text messaging, email, Twitter and Facebook, Gleick’s book seems to be a bit dated in this age of aggressive social networking. Although crammed with knowledge, it is distinctly lacking in original insights. Gleick, for instance, is certainly not the first to have made a connection between Borges’s Library of Babel and the Wikipedia. The narrative also lacks an overarching historical design. Gleick keeps shifting his focus from sweeping macro-survey to micro-level details, erring on the wrong side in each case, and leaving the reader groping for the big picture. As far as great minds are concerned, Gleick prefers to talk about them in the way he does about quadratic equations — with clinical precision. Occasionally, when he decides to step beyond numbers and figures, the towering, but troubled, personalities of Charles Babbage, Ada Byron, Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, or Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, the Russian scientist who was oppressed by Stalin, take a life of their own. Cardboard figures turn into men and women breathing human passions.

It would be unfair to suggest that Gleick is deluded by a desire to explain the universe in its entirety, to formulate a theory of everything. On the contrary, he is keenly, and humbly, aware of the limits of scientific progress. “How much information,” he wonders at one point, “[is there] in the Bach C-major Prelude?” He admits that “as a set of patterns, in time and frequency, it can be analysed, traced, and understood, but only up to a point. In music, as in poetry, as in any art, perfect understanding is meant to remain elusive. If one could find the bottom it would be a bore.” If only there were more such inspired passages in this book.

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