Fourth Estate, £25, 526pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Information, By James Gleick
Friday 15 April 2011
I once saw the inside of a telephone exchange, an immense spaghetti junction of communication. It was more than an incomprehensible tangle: it was a mass orgy of crossed wires, a Dionysian riot for electrical impulses. While reading James Gleick's The Information, I was constantly reminded of that long-gone exchange and its tightly wound skein of criss-crossing cables.
Sartre pointed out that the trouble with narrative is that it secretly begins at the end: the preordained telos shapes and selects and shines the light of significance over all that precedes it. Gleick fixes on the post-modern, post-postal cloud of information and re-casts (or "recodes") the history of the world as nothing but precursors and anticipations, aspiring to the condition of the blogosphere. In Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan all the civilisations on Earth add up to the message: "Please send part for malfunctioning saucer". In Gleick, Titan and Tralfamador would likewise be digitised down to a couple of snappy emails. Everything in the world exists in order to end up on Facebook.
I imagine Jacques Derrida would have been amused that his classic statement to the effect that "there is nothing beyond the text" now appears to pay homage to a generation of mobile-phone fetishists. Gleick, in the same spirit, gleefully piratises and subverts. His perspective is enormously powerful, crunching up all nature and culture in its maw.
Gleick is the most even-handed and egalitarian writer in the world, because just about everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and at the same time, they are all deprived of any purpose other than to serve as monotonous drones in the empire of information.
The Information mirrors its subject by being once irresistible and almost unbearable. But Gleick welcomes a high degree of self-contradiction and incoherence. Any possible statement can be superposed with its exact opposite. We used to think of information (a city, a symphony) as a form of "negentropy", a way of holding back the tide of disintegration. But information and entropy turn out to be practically synonymous. Gleick fiendishly hopscotches between Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica, Gödel's incompleteness theorem, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and the Second Law of thermodynamics. The Information has the quality of a hypertext, braiding together all other texts.
Ecclesiastes, several centuries before Christ and even longer before Gutenberg and Google, was already sounding a dissident, anti-information note (even while adding to it). "Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." Gleick bravely acknowledges the risk he faces. The feeling of information overload is not a recent invention. Ancient Egyptians probably used to complain about hieroglyph overload.
This highly entangled book self-referentially zeroes in on "entanglement". Entangled particles are those wonderful quantum twins that appear to circumvent relativistic constraints on communication. If the speed of light really is the universal speed limit, then it is going to take a while, after you have landed on a delightful planet in some far-flung galaxy, to send a message back home saying, "Wish you were here". Entangled particles – enjoying what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance" – ought to be the answer to this problem.
When one of them spins up, then the other, albeit light years away, spins down, thus encoding the binary principle that should enable us to transmit instantaneously all conceivable messages. The only drawback is that taking a peek at the particles scrambles the message and it becomes unreadable.
Gleick's previous books include works on Newton and chaos theory. The Information is Newton times chaos. Or perhaps divided by. Either way, there are pluses and minuses. On the one hand, he gains in terms of sheer encyclopaedic vastness; on the other hand, there is a loss in charm.
Certain thinkers get a fair share of the spotlight: Alan Turing for example, a brilliant theorist who stood up to Wittgenstein but was brought down by homophobia. If this book has a hero it is Claude Shannon, a Bell Telephone Labs employee, and inventor of the bit, who mathematised messaging and (I discovered) bore a strange resemblance to Mr Spock.
But underpinning the whole book is an impersonal mystic dream of omniscience. Hawking's notion that physics could attain "the mind of God" simply expresses the modest proposal of deterministic science. When Napoleon asked the great cosmologist Laplace what had become of God in his system, he replied, "Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis". There would be no more erratic "acts of God": it was just a question of collecting enough information.
But information, Gleick shows, is inhabited and subverted by quantum demons. If information is godlike, it is closest in spirit to the jealous Old Testament Yahweh: erratic, moody, moving in mysterious ways, ultimately unfathomable.
Gleick fast-forwards to the quantum computer. Haunting the future is the ghost of Borges, who – Gleick recognises – anticipated all the bifurcating paths amid his infinite libraries and eternal lotteries. The Tlönian belief that "Mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the number of men" can now be understood as: "Information is abominable because it self-replicates. Endlessly."
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