Book Club: May 2011

Every month, the members of the Social Media Collective read a current non-fiction book that’s relevant to our research interests and discuss it (just like grad school!). This month, our selection was The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick.

Stack of The Information books

As you can see, it’s quite a tome: 527 pages of intellectual history tracing information as a concept, from African drums to the alphabet, to the telegraph, to the Difference Engine and the Turing Machine, through the 20th century to quantum mechanics, DNA, and Wikipedia. Some of us read it as media history, some as a social history of information theory, some as Science and Technology Studies. The main characters of the book are Charles Babbage and Claude Shannon, and they are joined by a colorful cast of engineers, inventors, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, programmers and anthropologists as Gleick looks at how our modern idea of “information” came to be.

At MSR, our motley crew of social science & humanities scholars is surrounded by computer scientists and mathematicians. We were lucky enough to be joined in our discussion by two of the principal researchers here, Henry Cohn and Madhu Sudan. This is because The Information covers virtually every field that is represented at Microsoft Research New England. Our conference rooms are named after luminaries in the different disciplines in the lab: Darwin, Bach, Escher, Goedel, Shannon, Pareto, Mead, Boltzmann and (the largest) Turing. Every single one of these scientists makes an appearance somewhere in the Information. (Mead attempts to argue for the importance of “meaning” in information, the context having being stripped away during the genesis of information theory.) While we had some heated debates over the accuracy of certain sections (Chapter 12, which prominently features Gregory Chaitin, who I gather is a somewhat despised figure in mathematics, was particularly singled out), the structure of the book, the book’s conclusions and whether the inclusion of African drumming supported a progressive narrative or resisted it, it enabled us to come together on common ground and bring our areas of expertise to deepen the group understanding of the text. Henry and Madhu filled us in on the debates behind cybernetics and randomness that Gleick (strategically or unknowingly ignored). And Beth Coleman pointed out that similar debates over meaning and intent, structure and content were going on concurrently around post-structuralism and deconstruction, and that an entirely parallel history of information could be written from this perspective.

Overall I think we liked the book (with a very vocal minority opinion who despised it), but it engendered great discussion. I think the first few chapters would be a terrific MA-level text in communication or media history. And for the record: We had three people read it on the Kindle, one on the iPad, and two on audio book in addition to those of us who schlepped it around for a month (it came with me to Texas, Toronto, San Francisco and Greenville, SC). Which perfectly illustrates the constantly changing nature of information.