The Information

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodWhen I picked up The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick back in 2011, it was partly because of a review that mentioned Bell Labs in New Jersey.

My dad worked there after he came out of WWII. He wasn't an engineer. He was a precision tool and die maker.

He would always tell me as a kid that I had to go to college because "as good as I am at what I do, because I don't have a college degree, I will never be one of them."

We used to go to the Labs (in Murray Hill) for open houses and I recall a Christmas party sometime in the early 1960s.

My father worked there during some peak years at Bell Labs when they were developing revolutionary technologies, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language and the C++ programming language.

In 1948, Bell Laboratories announced the invention of the electronic semiconductor. It was going to leap over anything the vacuum tube had done.

In 1956, John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley received the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the first transistors.

A Bell Labs scientist, Claude Shannon, helped to write A Mathematical Theory of Communication and in it he coined the word bit to name a fundamental unit of computer information.

James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is the book that got me thinking about Bell Labs.
In a sense, The Information is a book about everything, from words themselves to talking drums, writing and lexicography, early attempts at an analytical engine, the telegraph and telephone, ENIAC, and the ubiquitous computers that followed. But that's just the 'History.' 
The 'Theory' focuses on such 20th-century notables as Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, and others who worked on coding, decoding, and re-coding both the meaning and the myriad messages transmitted via the media of their times. 
In the 'Flood,' Gleick explains genetics as biology's mechanism for informational exchange--Is a chicken just an egg's way of making another egg?--and discusses self-replicating memes (ideas as different as earworms and racism) as information's own evolving meta-life forms. 
Along the way, readers learn about music and quantum mechanics, why forgetting takes work, the meaning of an 'interesting number,' and why the bit is the ultimate unsplittable particle.' What results is a visceral sense of information's contemporary precedence as a way of understanding the world, a physical/symbolic palimpsest of self-propelled exchange, the universe itself as the ultimate analytical engine. 
If Borges's 'Library of Babel' is literature's iconic cautionary tale about the extreme of informational overload, Gleick sees the opposite, the world as an endlessly unfolding opportunity in which 'creatures of the information' may just recognize themselves.

Other Books by Gleick

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman      Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything     Chaos: Making a New Science