Drums, Writing, Babbage and Information

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

I worked my way through this 500+ page beast, found parts interesting and large chunks way over my head.  On the one hand it appealed to my interest in history by providing a summary of information including interesting dives into African drums, 4,000 year old invoices, the genius of Charles Babbage, efficient communication, cryptology to protect those efficient communications and then a theory of information.  On the other hand, I may simply not be smart enough to ‘get’ this book.

Gleick starts the book with a discussion of ‘Drums that talk’; African talking drums that were used to communicate between villages.  A few key points he makes includes the fact that while there were a relatively few number of drummers, most people could understand the messages being drummed.  The second was the poetic nature of the messages which were not often straightforward.  The reason being that the message had built in redundancy allowing for portions of the drum beats to be lost while the intent of the message was still transmitted.  Finally there was the relative speed.  A message could travel hundreds of miles within a few days with only a minor loss of fidelity.  The information age (or at least the medium part of it) was born! (Read more on drums in communication: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drums_in_communication).

Another medium to communicate verbal knowledge is of course writing.  This leads us to alphabets, written words, dictionaries and things of that sort.  It also leads to how the written word affects how we think about the world around us.  Strictly oral based cultures ‘… lacked the categories that become second nature even to illiterate individuals in literate cultures … ‘.  The significance is that the written or graphically presented world fundamentally changed humans and greatly extended not only their information carrying capacity – but also how they thought and constructed the world.  Gleick did not say this, but my inference is that the written word was when we became more than animals and became the über-species we are today.  (Read more on orality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orality)

Possibly pre-dating the written word was the written-number and the organizational context that went with the numbers.  3,000 BC Sumerian tablets, when translated, where ‘… humdrum: civic memoranda, contracts … receipts and bills. … The tables not only recorded the commerce and the bureaucracy but, in the first place, made them possible’.  (Read more on Uruk tablets: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wrtg/hd_wrtg.htm)

The numeric aspect of writing eventually leads us to one of those unique British geniuses, Charles Babbage.  Amongst his many achievements, he managed to string the British Parliament along with the promise of a ‘difference engine’; basically a mechanical calculator weighing tons which everyone now carries around in the smart phone as default application.  The purpose of the difference engine was the accurate calculation of mathematical tables needed for things like marine navigation or engineering.  Better tables meant fewer lost ships and straighter rail roads.  Beyond complicated machinery, Babbage also was both a code-writer and a code-breaker for which mathematics plays an instrumental role.  (Read more on Charles: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Babbage).

Machines that communicate and securing messages continues into an ingenious French telegraph.  It was a mechanical contraption in which the position of the arms of the communicator atop of buildings could communicate according to pre-set codes.  A receiving station 10km or so down the line would observe the message, confirm it and then re-transmit to the next station.  As a result, a signal could travel across 120 stations or 475 miles in 10-12 minutes.  As with anything mechanical, it was subject to the elements, inattentive operators or sabotage.  Nevertheless, this system was a brilliant solution in a pre-electric telegraph era.  (Read more on the ‘French-telegraph’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Chappe).

One of the problems with efficient communications of information is that anyone with the knowledge of code can also quickly read it.  Thus, the book diverts back into a history of codes and where we meet two important men that lead to the current computer revolution: Booles and Shannon.

Booles who was a contemporary of Babbage is the father of the Boolean logic.  Anyone who has ever done any sort of computer program has used his namesake, Boolean Logic to perform IF, AND, ELSE type of functions (Read more: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/boolean.htm).  Shannon was an American who worked for Bell Labs and help to develop code break and making during the Second World War.  He was also known as the ‘Father of Information Theory’, basically how does a message get to a receiver and through things like noise.  Your land line, cell phone, internet and Facebook page are all benefactors or Booles and Shannon in a long, protracted way involving mathematics for which I only have the fuzziest understanding. (Read more on Shannon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Shannon ).

‘The Information’ ends its discussion of the world of information at the most macro and micro levels.  Essentially the universe is information.  Quantum physics is about probabilities and information about a particle’s position rather than necessarily physical units.  Even DNA is fundamentally about storing information; the chemical structures are simply the medium-manifestations of the need to do this.  Thus, with a wink to the movie ‘The Matrix’, we live, love, reproduce and die in an information universe.

From African drums to quantum physics is the journey Gleick takes us on in this book.  It is a fascinating look at buzzing world of data and information around me for which I can only grasp at the most basic aspects.  To some extents, reading this book makes me feel like a 2-year old child who first discovers that he is part of a wider world and is trying to make sense of it.

If you have a better grasp of higher math functions than I, make a living moving information about or share a love of history and how we got here – add this book to your eventual reading list.  If you are happy to be an innocent 2-year who sees cell phones, the internet and Facebook as happy magic – feel free to avoid and never read this book. (Read More in my Books Read Comment Page).