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Flood (Pantheon Books) James Gleick a unified essay
There are a number of fairly sensational, possibly conclusions and premises that exist within the Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which was authored by James Gleick and was received to a host of critical responses in the early part of 2011. On a fundamental, basic level, this manuscript traces the myriad links throughout history to the beginning of the conception of the word information, and explains what it initially denotes. By applying a fairly exhausting and certainly thorough chronology of this topic, which burgeoned considerably within the midway point of the 20th century, Gleick actually concludes with a redefinition of the cultural, social, scientific, and biological significance of the term -- which naturally has certain unavoidable repercussions for those living in today's world, which is dominated by technology and the information it carries. The author is able to support his point-of-view (with varying degrees of efficacy) by citing and retelling a number of historical facts as well as by using quotations and literary references of both contemporary and past figures of note. He utilizes a plethora of sources to this end, which generally strengthen his viewpoint, although on more than one occasion he actually uses such evidence to contradict it.
The primary argument that Gleick posits in this manuscript is that information is a lot more than a mere collection of tidbits and insights into people's collective and disparate lives -- rather the author believes that people's lives, once reduced to their fundamental building blocks, actually are comprised of information. A number of scholarly references are employed throughout this work of literature to defend this point-of-view; one of the most salient of these is contained within the following quotation.
What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a 'spark of life,' " declares the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. "It is information, words, instructions ... If you want to understand life, don't think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology." .. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment (Gleick).
This quotation is demonstrative of the fact that the author is tracing his theory that people actually consist of forms and variations of information by utilizing an evolutionary perspective that conforms to his point-of-view. Within this quotation, he defines evolution in terms of an "exchange" of information that takes place between different species and their surrounding ecology. This particular argument is the foundation for the Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood; virtually all other points in this book are made to either defend this position or to disprove those who have conventionally adhered to a point-of-view that does not conform to Gleick's.
One of the chief thinkers that Gleick relies upon to propagate this theorem is known as Claude Shannon, a mathematician and phone company employee who is widely credited with engendering the field of study called information technology which plays an integral role in both Gleick's chronology and viewpoint regarding the importance of information. In 1948 Shannon published an academic article in which he elucidated upon notions of communication that could ultimately be reduced into bits -- which are essentially binary digits of ones and zeros that encode and actually are the most rudimentary form and measure of information. The following quotation illustrates the immense, revolutionary effect Shannon's work and the defining principle of information into bits played upon both his and subsequent generations.
And then, when it was made simple, distilled, counted in bits, information was found to be everywhere. Shannon's theory made a bridge between information and uncertainty, between information and entropy; and between information and chaos. It led to compact discs and fax machines, computers and cyberspace, Moore's law and allthe world's Silicon Alleys (Gleick).
What is most interesting about this quotation and this point-of-view declared by the author is that surely, there are very few people who would dispute the fact that the transmission of bits is directly responsible for the information explosion of which "computers" and "compact discs" may very well be the most readily available and accessible applications -- particularly considering the ubiquity of computers and their technology which can be found in the plethora of portable, hand-held devices that have consistently increased in technology following their initial appearance in the late 70s and early 1980s. Yet to claim that this same material is the fundamental essence of life within a physical sense is a little more dubious, as further analysis of this treatise and the author's evidence to support it will certainly indicate.
Ironically enough, one of the principle dissidents of Gleick's theory may have been Shannon himself. It must be understood that Shannon's pioneering work in information was based upon a salient tenet that posited that communication was merely a means of sending a message. What exactly that message was, and its overlying relevance to anything of importance, was judged to be inconsequential by the fledgling author and academician. Yet this point is one of considerable departure within Gleick's conception of information as the most rudimentary measure and presentation of life itself, a fact which may be sufficiently implied from the following quotation.
In an epilogue called "The Return of Meaning," Gleick argues that to understand how information gives rise to belief and knowledge, we have to renounce Shannon's "ruthless sacrifice of meaning," which required jettisoning "the very quality that gives information its value." But Shannon wasn't sacrificing meaning so much as ignoring it, in the same way that a traffic engineer doesn't care what, if anything, the trucks on the highway are carrying. Once you start to think of information as something meaningful, you have to untether it from its mathematical definition, which leaves you with nothing to go on but the word itself (Nunberg).
There is more than one point of eminence in the preceding quotation, which underscores Gleick's primary difference between his conception of information and that which it was largely based upon, Shannon's. To a certain extent, the former author has a degree of validity in his notion that the meaning of a particular piece of information is what gives it "value." This notion is particularly important in supporting the fact that Gleick believes human beings and life itself to merely consist of varying forms and content of information. However, it may be judged that the author of the preceding quotation, Geoffrey Nunberg makes a more compelling argument by the fact that in order to truly consider the meaning of information, it becomes something different from its mathematical definition which literally devalues it of any substance.
This particular area of contention may be made manifest in other parts of Gleick's manuscript. The author spends a good deal of time in the Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Detailing the scientific principles and applications in which the field of information technology plays a significant factor. On one hand, by doing so, he is able to support the notion that information is a vital part of today's world by showing its applications within disparate areas of science, which are of course important to social and health issues that are still pertinent today. To that end, his evocation of Francis Crick's fairly seminal work on DNA and its manifestation as a series of nucleic acids and protein help to validate the author's premise that genes are another aspect of life that is comprised of bits. The author finds himself on significantly less firm ground, however, when he posits that such information is actually the fundamental core of what life and humanity is, a notion which the following quotation largely attempts to discredit.
... Gleick's tendency to neglect the social context casts a deeper shadow over the book's final chapters, where he turns from explicating information as a scientific concept to considering it as an everyday concern, switching roles from science writer to seer. For him, the "information" we worry is engulfing us is just another manifestation of the primal substance that underlies all of biological life and the physical universe -- we are "creatures of the information," in his phrase, in more than just our genetic or chemical makeup. (Nunberg)
The principle limitation with Gleick's viewpoint that is alluded to in the preceding quotation is that no matter how many authors and noted historical figures whose work he paraphrases and quotes in defense of his theory, is that he appears to be missing the truly fundamental aspect of life. His definition of what life is and what people are -- bits -- largely overlooks the fact that he is dealing with this subject matter from a purely physical aspect. In a sense, the author is describing a blank canvas and saying that such a canvas is life and is in and of itself information. What he is neglecting, however, is the actual content, the inherent variations and tendencies within people that he would more than likely attribute to genetics. But where…[continue]
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