Friday, 26 August 2011

Too Much Information

Now that this review is out, here's a bit more information.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa was formerly known as the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo-LĂ©opoldville, Congo-Kinshasa and Zaire (1971-1997).

It's not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo aka the Congo Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Little Congo or simply the Congo, another state in Central Africa.

So, there is no "Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo". At present, there is, however, a "Republic of the Congo" and "Democratic Republic of the Congo".

I got confused. My bad.

Too much info

first published in The Star, 26 August 2011

What an iPad of a book, I thought, as I ran my hands over the cover that was tastefully done in white, black and red. And just like a real iPad, you will either get sick of it after a short while or be lost in it for hours, maybe days.

The Information is James Gleick's attempt to enlighten the masses about the subject of "information": its history, theories, and how technology that bloomed in the last 50 years has redefined our relationship with information.

Gleick kicks things off with the story of early forms of texting, which includes fire signals and African talking drums. While highlighting the latter we are introduced to Kele, a Bantu language spoken in parts of Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Inflections in speech can give the same Kele word or phrase different meanings, resulting in comical and potentially tragic consequences. For instance, one can end up saying "he boiled his mother-in-law" instead of "he watched the riverbank". Several revelations arise from this: language is complex; such complexities can form a basis for some kind of encryption; and it seems that mothers-in-law are hated everywhere.

The book explores other aspects of information, such as communication (telegraph and telecommunications), processing (19th century English mathematician and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage's difference engine, transistors and logic circuits), encryption (WWII's famed Enigma machine), and finally, "the flood" (social networks and Wikipedia).

The book gets harder to read as one goes along, however. Some parts are like a textbook or encyclopaedia, with diagrams, math equations, foreign words and special symbols. All that, plus the dry tone and inaccessible language clutter up and bog down what would have been an interesting book that might explain and contextualise, among other things, phenomena such as Fox "News", LOLcats, and Charlie Sheen. Digging up such gems, however, is like going through a mile of Google search results. One wonders if this is actually the sequel to Gleick's previous book, Chaos.

Those with the determination, patience and stamina to wade through the entire book will likely be rewarded with a clearer understanding of what we read, why we seek it, why we read some things more than others, and why we have that urge to "spread the word".

Some points to ponder: Our hunger for information can lead to an information hangover and apathy, so how do we sate the hunger while avoiding the side-effects? If DNA code is "information", does that make us "living machines", and gene-based treatments a form of programming?

For me, "information" connotes something that's shiny, intriguing and that invites exploration, but the task of unravelling the complex relationships between us and the information we produce and consume is much, much harder.

Though I feel Gleick has done his utmost to do this, I also fear he has been too successful. The Information may help us understand the origins of information and our ties to it, but it may also end up a victim of its author's apparent success – a book that's too smart for the casual reader, afflicted by some of the problems it highlights and tries to explain.

The Information
James Gleick
Fourth Estate
526 pages
ISBN: 978-0-00-742311-8


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