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The Information

Cover of The Information

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood
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James Gleick, the author of the best sellers Chaos and Genius, now brings us a work just as astonishing and masterly: a revelatory chronicle and meditation that shows how information has become the modern era's defining quality--the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.

The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the brilliant and doomed daughter of the poet, who became the first true programmer; pivotal figures like Samuel Morse and Alan Turing; and Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory itself.

And then the information age arrives. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And we sometimes feel we are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading.



From the Hardcover edition.

James Gleick, the author of the best sellers Chaos and Genius, now brings us a work just as astonishing and masterly: a revelatory chronicle and meditation that shows how information has become the modern era's defining quality--the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.

The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the brilliant and doomed daughter of the poet, who became the first true programmer; pivotal figures like Samuel Morse and Alan Turing; and Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory itself.

And then the information age arrives. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And we sometimes feel we are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading.



From the Hardcover edition.
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    [Due to website constraints, we are unable to include any images that might have been included in the original text.]Chapter 11

    Into the Meme Pool
    (You Parasitize My Brain)


    When I muse about memes, I often find myself picturing an ephemeral flickering pattern of sparks leaping from brain to brain, screaming "Me, me!"
    --Douglas Hofstadter (1983)

    "Now through the very universality of its structures, starting with the code, the biosphere looks like the product of a unique event," Jacques Monod wrote in 1970. "The universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it any wonder if, like a person who has just made a million at the casino, we feel a little strange and a little unreal?"

    Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared the Nobel Prize for working out the role of messenger RNA in the transfer of genetic information, was not alone in thinking of the biosphere as more than a notional place: an entity, composed of all the earth's life-forms, simple and complex, teem­ing with information, replicating and evolving, coding from one level of abstraction to the next. This view of life was more abstract--more mathematical--than anything Darwin had imagined, but he would have recognized its basic principles. Natural selection directs the whole show. Now biologists, having absorbed the methods and vocabulary of com­munications science, went further to make their own contributions to the understanding of information itself. Monod proposed an analogy: Just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an "abstract kingdom" rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this king­dom? Ideas.

    Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recom­bine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.

    Ideas have "spreading power," he noted--"infectivity, as it were"--and some more than others. An example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people. The Am­erican neurophysiologist Roger Sperry had put forward a similar notion several years earlier, arguing that ideas are "just as real" as the neurons they inhabit. Ideas have power, he said.

    Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evo­lutionary scene yet. . . .
    I shall not hazard a theory of the selection of ideas.

    No need. Others were willing.

    Richard Dawkins made his own connection between the evolution of genes and the evolution of ideas. His essential actor was the replicator, and it scarcely mattered whether replicators were made of nucleic acid. His rule is "All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating enti­ties." Wherever there is life, there must be replicators. Perhaps on other worlds replicators could arise in a silicon-based chemistry--or in no chemistry at all.

    What would it mean for a replicator to exist without chemistry? "I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this planet," he proclaimed at the end of his first book, in 1976. "It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting...

About the Author-
  • James Gleick is our leading chronicler of science and modern technology. His first book, Chaos, a National Book Award finalist, has been translated into twenty-five languages. His best-selling biographies, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, were short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.

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The Information
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A History, A Theory, A Flood
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