In The Information: A History, A Theory, a Flood, James Gleick traces the history of information from Claude Shannon working in Bell Labs through the modern day proliferation of information on the World Wide Web. Not long ago, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt controversially proclaimed something along the lines of: “every two days we create as much information as we did in the history of the world up until 2003.” While not necessarily controversial on its face, many perceived this as a slight on the accumulated knowledge of mankind up until that point.
What Schmidt meant by was not to diminish the accomplishments of his ancestors, but to laude the proliferation and compounding power on which information works. Information over time itself becomes a facilitator of faster and swifter growth in new information. Gleick’s book provides us all with the framework through which to understand what Eric Schmidt meant and why it is consequential and important.
Few would deny that today is the Information Age, and as such, any author who titles his book “The Information” is undertaking a self-acknowledged daunting and maybe impossible task. As humans, it is perhaps our ability to create and manipulate information (and not our opposable thumbs) that distinguishes us from the rest of the Animal Kingdom, and that certainly factors into the intrigue and import of this book.
By and large, despite its length and depth, the book reads like a novel with robust character development and seamlessly interwoven and entertaining narratives. In reading The Information we learn about how the telegraph, telephone and Internet each came to vastly accelerate both academic and economic growth in due to the efficiencies gained from packaging information in novel ways. We learn about the history of “coding” from African mountain-top drum beats, to World War II era code-breakers to web page development and the quantities and depth of information required to transmit each message across their respective medium. And we learn about how today, as the Information Age just may more aptly be labeled the age of Information-overload.
The book is a multi-disciplinary take covering information from fields including physics, engineering, statistics, biology, English, and history, all at different points. Through this vast lens, people from any background can extract significant value from reading this book. In order to understand modern times, and how and why things work as they do, we need to take a step back and attempt to understand yesterday first. Why this would be important to a computer programmer or entrepreneur is self-evident. Its import to investors should be equally so. We need to have a framework through which to understand the evolution of information-based services in order to understand what may be a value-trap and what may be the next big thing.
As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but decipher in my head how it relates to today’s debate about whether Facebook is the next Google. While reading The Information, I came to thinking that many miss what I perceive to be a key point: one of the most essential elements of Google is that it is THE catalogue of information for the Internet. Google’s dominant position as the search engine of choice and its first-mover advantage in building out its own information storage infrastructure has helped cement that status. Facebook may (and does) have an advantage as it pertains to social connections, yet Google’s advantage is far more robust and deeper.
Google’s advantage is “information” in the most general and abstract sense. The company figured out not only how best to store said information, but also learned how to catalogue and index the information in the most accessible manner. Social is but one facet of information and it will never be more than that. While just about anyone with an interest in information can extract value from Google, that’s distinctly not the case with Facebook. Quite simply Google holds the keys to the information that the Internet facilitates. Information is ubiquitous, and Google is your catalyst.
This is far from my complete analysis of the Facebook vs. Google debate (which I really think is an illusory debate founded solely on the premise that everyone likes an either/or proposition these days), but I think it is particularly relevant given the history outlined by Gleick in The Information. I would recommend this book to just about anyone interested in learning about how the Internet came to be, for without information theory there is no Internet, but in particular, I would recommend it to anyone involved in either the development of new information-based services or any investors in media or technology companies.
Author Disclosure: Long GOOG