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James Gleick’s History of Information (Includes Medical Information)- NY Times Book Review


A History. A Theory. A Flood.

By James Gleick

Illustrated. 526 pp. Pantheon Books. $29.95.

James Gleick

Author James Gleick, author of “The Information.” Photographer: Phyllis Rose/Random House via Bloomberg

Excerpts from the March 18 2011 NY Times Book Review

The universe, the 18th-century mathematician and philosopher Jean Le Rond d’Alembert said, “would only be one fact and one great truth for whoever knew how to embrace it from a single point of view.” James Gleick has such a perspective, and signals it in the first word of the title of his new book, “The Information,” using the definite article we usually reserve for totalities like the universe, the ether — and the Internet. Information, he argues, is more than just the contents of our overflowing libraries and Web servers. It is “the blood and the fuel, the vital principle” of the world. Human consciousness, society, life on earth, the cosmos — it’s bits all the way down.

Gleick makes his case in a sweeping survey that covers the five millenniums of humanity’s engagement with information, from the invention of writing in Sumer to the elevation of information to a first principle in the sciences over the last half-century or so….

But knowledge isn’t simply information that has been vetted and made comprehensible. “Medical information,” for example, evokes the flood of hits that appear when you do a Google search for “back pain” or “vitamin D.” “Medical knowledge,” on the other hand, evokes the fabric of institutions and communities that are responsible for creating, curating and diffusing what is known. In fact, you could argue that the most important role of search engines is to locate the online outcroppings of “the old ways of organizing knowledge” that we still depend on, like the N.I.H., the S.E.C., the O.E.D., the BBC, the N.Y.P.L. and ESPN. Even Wikipedia’s guidelines insist that articles be based on “reliable, published sources,” a category that excludes most blogs, not to mention Wikipedia itself.

Gleick wouldn’t deny any of this, but his focus on information as a prime mover and universal substance leads him to depict its realm as a distinct place at a remove from the larger social world, rather than as an extension of it. As he puts it, in the vatic tone that this topic tends to elicit, “Human knowledge soaks into the network, into the cloud” (more of those totalizing definite articles). In an evocative final paragraph, he pictures humanity wandering the corridors of Borges’s imaginary Library of Babel, which contains the texts of every possible book in every language, true and false, scanning the shelves in search of “lines of meaning among the leagues of cacophony and incoherence.”

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March 20, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

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