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Information age has longer history than you realize

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The Information

A History, a Theory, a Flood

By James Gleick

Harper, 544 pages, $34

IN this fascinating -- if occasionally dense -- history, U.S. technology writer James Gleick explores the very lifeblood of our globalized and hyper-connected society.

By bringing to life the personalities and inventions that formed the foundations of what we call the Information Age, Gleick shows that this era actually has a longer history than most of us realize.

As a onetime science and technology columnist for The New York Times Magazine and a co-founder of an early Internet service, Gleick has had something of a front row seat for the digital revolution, and has been nominated for both the U.S. National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

From the origins of the "new science" of Chaos (1987) to the Faster (2000) pace of contemporary life to figuring out What Just Happened (2003) in the early Internet age, he has proven himself to be an eloquent chronicler of the most important ideas in science and technology. He is therefore ideally equipped to tackle perhaps the biggest idea of all: that the world around us (including ourselves) is made up of information in the form of codes and signals.

These signals are the primary focus of information theory, which holds that the actual content and meaning of messages -- not being an engineering problem -- should be left to other disciplines.

Gleick shows how the computer is only the most recent in a long tradition of information technologies that includes the ancient talking drums of Africa, the telegraph and the telephone. Much like Tom Standage did in his 2007 history of the telegraph, The Victorian Internet, Gleick shows how each progression in technology brings with it social anxieties and transformations, many of which are only now being fully realized.

It was anticipated, for example, that the telegraph would replace newspapers, and that people would use their telephones to listen to concerts. Now we casually access both (and much more) on our smartphones.

However ubiquitous and familiar our gadgets may be, Gleick reminds us that behind their appealing and gleaming surfaces lie an almost unimaginably complex universe of algorithms and codes. Those unacquainted with advanced mathematics will probably find some of his passages challenging.

Yet, much like the codes upon which the Information Age depends, The Information is, itself, rather bloodless: its enthusiasm for description and explanation is not matched by a desire to question or philosophize.

As two titles from 2010 revealed, there is still much to debate about the Google era. Nicholas Carr's cautionary The Shallows argued that the Web is rewiring our brains and crippling our ability to concentrate, while Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget observed that the "hive mind" of the Web threatens our sense of individuality, and of humanness itself.

By contrast, Gleick merely concludes that the Information Age is complex and messy (hard to dispute) and that, maybe, that's OK.

He may chide information theorists for their single-minded focus on signals, but in the end Gleick, too, leaves for others the search for meaning in the Information Age.

Michael Dudley is a research associate and library co-ordinator at the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies. His wife and daughter think he spends far too much time on his computer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2011 H7

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