In his classic book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett said: “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.” I’ve always loved that inversion of conventional thinking about causality, and sometimes even muse that as friendly bacteria in the gut are to humans, we humans are becoming to computers or the internet.
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Penguin Science)
The line from Dennett is quoted in James Gleick’s The Information. It’s been a very enjoyable read, covering some of my favourite territory in a well-written way. This includes the long-run effects of the telegraph, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing’s codebreaking work, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, Claude Shannon’s information theory. The book had some angles that were new and quirky – for example, I like the point that lots of newspapers named themselves The Telegraph, following on from The Bugle, but none chose The Telephone. I liked it that Turing and Shannon had met in 1943, one devising codes and the other breaking them, but because of wartime secrecy had been unable to discuss their work. There’s a good section on Godel’s incompleteness theorem and why this relates to computation, although drawing quite a lot on Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach and Metamagical Themas.
Overall, though, there was little that’s new here (at least if you share my obsessions and have read so many other books on this territory, from Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet to George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral), and I could not find really find a line of argument. There’s a general theme that everything is about information, right down to genetic code and the meaning of life; that information is the fundamental idea that should shape how we think about the physical universe and all of life, rather than energy. Maybe. There’s a long section on entropy that tries to underpin this thought. But I think that just as our forbears saw everything via mechanical metaphors, information is the framing metaphor of our times.
So, an enjoyable, meandering read, ideal for a flight. But not, for me, living up to the praise heaped on it by other reviews such as this in The Guardian or this (rather more tempered) one in The New York Times. And of course it won the Royal Society Winton Prize, a major achievement. So maybe it’s just me. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from trying it.
The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood