developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Morse and the telegraph, Babbage and the analytical engine, and gives special emphasis to the theories of Shannon and Turing and those that followed in their footsteps as theorists began to think about information in more quantitative ways.
Freeman Dyson, in his review of Gleick’s book for The New York Review of Books, observes that this quantification of information actually blurs the line between information and data. In discussing the consequence of Moore’s Law in the growth of cheaper and more capacious information storage capacity, Dyson says that in 1949 Shannon constructed a table of the various existing stores of memory. The largest store in Shannon’s table was the US Library of Congress, estimated to contain one hundred trillion bits of information. “Today," Dyson says, “a memory disc drive storing that amount of information weighs a few pounds and can be bought for about a thousand dollars. Information, otherwise known as data, pours into memories of that size or larger, in government and business offices and scientific laboratories all over the world.” Dyson in effect implies that when you think about information as bits to be stored and manipulated you are in truth thinking more about discrete pieces of data than
what is commonly thought of as information.
Gleick’s book guides us cogently and neutrally through the vast history and theory of information. Yet as he approaches the end he shares more personal insights and experiences with his readers. As he contemplates the today's exponential growth in the US Library of Congress’s store of information, Gleick expresses the confusion and anxiety such massive growth and amassing of data produced, in one’s sense of identity and experience of life: “As the train hurtled onward, its passengers sometimes felt the pace foreshortening their sense of their own history. Moore’s law had looked simple on paper, but its consequences left people struggling to find metaphors with which to understand their experience.” One familiar metaphor, he suggests, is “the cloud.” “All that information—all that information capacity—looms over us, not quite visible, not quite tangible, but awfully real; amorphous, spectral; hovering nearby, yet not situated in any one place. Heaven must once have felt this way to the faithful."
Many today express wonder and awe at the vast network of interconnectedness in the nodes of the Internet. But what really is the nature of those connections and their structure? “The network has a structure,” Gleick muses, “and that structure stands upon a paradox. Everything is close, and everything is far, at the same time. This is why cyberspace can feel not just crowded but lonely. You can drop a stone into a well and never hear a splash.” Gleick ends his massive work on a note of gloomy uncertainty about the whole phenomenon. Using the analogy of the library for the Internet, he concludes: ”We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of information.” All this leaves us wondering if there is anything real and vital in that virtual universe.