Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

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Author: Emile McAnany
Date: Mar. 2012
From: Communication Research Trends(Vol. 31, Issue 1)
Publisher: Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,635 words
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. Pp. 544. ISBN 978-0375423727 (cloth) $29.95.

If readers read only one book this year, it should be James Gleick's history of information. This for two reasons: first, because we all live in a world of information from our smart phones, iPads, and immersion in music and images that absorbs more of our lives than we care to admit. Second, as communication scholars, we will do well to understand better our historical connections with the beginnings of this flood. The author makes a compelling argument from his Prologue that the crucial moment in the start of the information era began in 1948. At Bell Labs the two events of that year encompassed, first, the creation of the transistor by William Shockley and his team that made the present information economy possible; but more important in the author's opinion was the second: the publication of Claude Shannon's "The Mathematical Theory of Communication" in the Bell System Technical Journal (and the next year as a book by the same title with and added chapter by Warren Weaver who helped explain the highly mathematical theory more in layman's terms) (Shannon & Weaver, 1949). In trying to explain why he considers the Shannon theory more important than the Shockley transistor, Gleick uses the remainder of the book to provide the historical struggle to find a unifying theory for all of the world's codes from the creation of the alphabet to the modern world of the information ocean in which we swim (and sometimes drown). His thesis is that Shannon's relatively brief but elegant theory provided the unifying vision in which the budding computer age found a way forward to the age of instant and pervasive information. Weaver's contribution was his argument that the engineering problems that Shannon helped to solve for measurement, storage, and movement of information in as distortion-free a system as possible was necessarily involved with the question of the message or content of the information bits that were sent and received and of the consequences for those receiving these messages. He thought the theory was not just about information but about communication. (As a footnote and an additional tie to our field, Wilbur Schramm at the university of Illinois who is credited by some as the founder of the field of communication helped to get the book published at the university of Illinois Press.)


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Gale Document Number: GALE|A285994489