Fourth Estate, £25, 526pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Information, By James Gleick

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."

Andy Martin's 'Beware Invisible Cows' is published by Simon & Schuster

News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower