In The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, renowned science writer James Gleick neatly captures our new reality. "We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground," he writes. "But it has always been there."
This is the overarching triumph of Gleick's book—his ability to extract the common principles of information threaded within centuries of history, to identify the pioneers of, and the profound technological changes in, information technology and what it portends for our information future. PW caught up with Gleick to talk about The Information, information overload, and the state of the book business.
What enticed you to write about such a broad, ephemeral subject as information?
The roots of this book are in the tidbits I discovered about an engineer named Claude Shannon when I was working on my first book, Chaos. Shannon is the core figure of The Information. In 1948 he invented what we now call information theory, and 20 years ago, when I was working on Chaos, I was struck by the idea that Shannon had made a mathematical theory out of something that doesn't seem mathematical—in fact, it seems like the opposite of mathematical. But it's not an exaggeration to say that all of the stuff we have around us now, the computers in our pockets and on our desks, CDs, e-books, Twitter, all of this stuff was made possible by the engineering that evolved from Shannon's work. He was the first to use the word "bit" as a measure of information, for example, and it's worth pausing to consider just how mind-boggling that concept is, that information was something that could be measured in units, like inches or pounds. This is a relatively new idea. People 100 years ago didn't think that words, music, and visual images were related.
Was it a challenge to write a book about information in the teeth of the so-called "information age," with the information landscape shifting underneath you?
That was a concern. The book took about seven years to write, and the week after I turned in the manuscript, I had a number of conversations with my editor along the lines of "what about this latest development?" Eventually, we recognized that we were going to have to just hope that what I wrote would remain true, and I think it will. We're constantly told that this is the information age, but in a way it's been the information age for 50 years, though it's only in hindsight that we can see how many times the world has gone through such things before. But the world has always been about information.
You make the point that "information is not knowledge," so let me ask the obvious, deceptively simple question: what is information?
My first inclination is to define information by listing all the forms it takes—words, music, visual images, and all the ways we store and transmit our knowledge of the world. But in 1948 engineers came up with a more technical definition. At its most fundamental, information is a binary choice. In other words, a single bit of information is one yes-or-no choice. This is a very powerful concept that has made a lot of modern technology possible. But as empowering as this definition is, it is also desiccating, because it strips away any notion of meaning, usefulness, knowledge, or wisdom. By the technical definition, all information has a certain value, regardless of whether the message it conveys is true or false. A message could be complete nonsense, for example, and still take 1,000 bits. So while the technical definition has helped us become powerful users of information, it also instantly put us on thin ice, because everything we care about involves meaning, truth, and, ultimately, something like wisdom. And as we now flood the world with information, it becomes harder and harder to find meaning. That paradox is the final tension in my book.
In the age of print, scarcity was the issue. In the digital age, it is abundance. What are the implications of that shift?
There are two keys to cope with the information flood: searching and filtering. Think about how many times you are having a conversation with a group of people, and the most interesting feature of the conversation is some dispute over something you can't quite remember. Now, any one of us has the power to pull out their iPhone and do a Google search—it's just a matter of who is going to be rude enough to do it first [laughs]. We are now like gods in our ability to search for and find information.
But where we remain all too mortal is in our ability to process it, to make sense of it, and to filter and find the information we want. That's where the real challenges lie. Take, for example, writing a nonfiction book. The tools at my disposal now compared to just 10 years ago are extraordinary. A sentence that once might have required a day of library work now might require no more than a few minutes on the Internet. That is a good thing. Information is everywhere, and facts are astoundingly accessible. But it's also a challenge, because authors today must pay more attention than ever to where we add value. And I can tell you this, the value we add is not in the few minutes of work it takes to dig up some factoid, because any reader can now dig up the same factoid in the same few minutes.
On the subject of challenges facing authors, what are your thoughts about the book industry during this uneasy digital transition?
You know, there are so many things to worry about. But in terms of the economics of e-books vs. printed books, publishers are doing just fine with the transition, if that's what this is. They're making tons of money on e-books. Authors, on the other hand, aren't doing as well. And what this bodes for the ability of authors to continue to produce books of high quality in the future is something we really need to address.
In what way?
Well, it's completely clear to me—and you may quote me—that the reason publishers are doing well with e-books is because, at the moment, they're screwing authors. Right now, the major book publishers tend to be controlled by people who feel pressure for short-term profits. And at this moment in history a good way for a major book publisher to maximize short-term profit is to sell e-books at perhaps unreasonably high prices and pay their authors unreasonably low royalties. Publishers can't sustain this policy of paying authors 25% of net revenues on e-books. Eventually, authors will go elsewhere, whether publishing their books themselves, or with new kinds of publishing companies. I'm certainly not rooting for the demise of my publisher, but they're going to have to do better by authors if they're going to survive in the long run.
So much of our concept of information is tied up with the containers it has traditionally come in, like the book. As the containers change in the digital age, do you think the book faces a similar fate as other information technologies, like the telegraph?
No, I don't think so, not in the way that one might make the other obsolete. Hardly any information technology goes obsolete. It may be surpassed, but it's still there. I think the healthy way to think about books is as a more general concept. A book is not necessarily made of paper. A book is not necessarily made to be read on a Kindle. A book is a collection of text, organized in one of a variety of ways. You could say that words printed on paper and bound between cloth covers will someday be obsolete. But if and when that day comes, there will still be a thing called books.
Of course, it's different if we are talking about Twitter, or Web pages, or text messaging making books obsolete, and I suppose that's conceivable. It is possible that this flood of short-form, instantaneous, free-wheeling communication might affect people's need or desire to sit for a long period of time with a single, coherent, lengthy piece of text. But I hope that day never comes. The ability to write and read books is one of the things that transformed us as a species. A good part of The Information is about the transition from an oral to a literary culture. Books effected such a great transformation in the way we think about the world, our history, our logic, mathematics, you name it. I think we would be greatly diminished as a people and as a culture if the book became obsolete.
One notable point about the information flood is that, unlike most floods, this one will never recede. What do you make of the preservation challenge this raises, both in terms of the stability of digital forms, and that there is just so much stuff to collect?
It's interesting, because this feeling of the precariousness of information is everywhere. We think information is so fragile, that if we don't grab it and store it someplace, we'll forget it and we'll never have it again. The reality is that information is more persistent and robust now than it's ever been in human history. Our ancestors, far more than us, needed to worry about how fragile information was and how easily it could vanish. When the library of Alexandria burned, most of the plays of Sophocles were lost, never to be seen again. Now, we preserve knowledge with an almost infinite ability.
But, as you suggest, we also now preserve even the most trivial forms of information. It used to be that when you played a game of bridge, for example, those hands were lost as soon as they were over. Now, every hand ever played online can be saved. I think the nuts-and-bolts preservation of information is less of an issue than our ability to find what we need. I think part of the reason we feel that information is so precarious is because it is becoming more and more difficult to lay our hands on the important stuff.