The Information: A Book Review Meets the Facebook vs. Google Debate

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

My Reflections on Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

As soon as I heard there was an authorized biography of Steve Jobs in the works, I knew I would be reading it ASAP.  As a semi-"fanboy" of Apple products, I had a special affinity for Jobs' ability to create beautiful, yet simple products that so clearly surpassed the competition.

Steve Jobs is inspirational to me as an innovator and businessman, and I always looked forward to his next Apple event.  Not many people could successfully earn the respect bestowed upon him by both the hippiest of the hippies and capitalist of the capitalists out there today like Jobs has.  The first iPod I got (a gift from my Mom for my college graduation) was a semi-spiritual event and shortly thereafter Apple was my first really good Tech investment in the bubble's wake.

I say a semi-fanboy, because while I prefer Apple products, and recognize their superiority, the closed ecosystem and lack of hardware scalability consistently pisses me off.  No product exemplifies my feelings more than the iPad.  I knew the concept was in the pipeline for a while, and I "knew" that I would be buying one rather quickly.  I even bought a large external hard-drive/hub and built my own internal home network in anticipation of the iPad as my computer replacement.  My vision was clear--with my newly created home network and hard-drive, a tablet (I was expecting the name iSlate, not iPad), and a tablet dock, I could theoretically build my own cloud-computer at home.  The tablet would be my CPU and monitor (the brains and eyes), while my network would be the memory (the central nervous system), enabling the liberation of my computing experience into my personal cloud.

Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be.  The iPad, required adding an additional device to one's computing infrastructure, rather than liberating the user to do something new altogether.  Sure the iPad was new, and incorporated some amazing and groundbreaking features, but there was a major disconnect between my expectations and the level of enthusiasm that ultimately greeted the device.  Here's what I said at the time.

Needless to say, I felt let down.

After spending much of this past Thanksgiving weekend messing around on some family and friends iPads, I still want one despite my disappointment, and despite the fact that Apple never fully came around to the features I want.  Perhaps that's just my impatience about the fact that neither the iPad 2 nor any of its clones have come close to offering what I am looking for.  But really, I think it comes down to how amazingly awesome the iPad is to use, and in the context of what I was looking for in a tablet, if I settle, I better settle for the best (the Ipad).

I start my "review" of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson with this little anecdote, because it is in some ways the perfect metaphor for my feelings towards the book, as well as my feelings towards Steve Jobs.  Reviews of the book are a dime-a-dozen, and therefore, I would like to focus my review not on the book itself, but on elaborating on my personal feelings towards the subject--Steve Jobs.

Immediately upon the book's release, all the juicy tidbits about Jobs personality and personal life were plastered all over the Internet. Before the book came to light, I was generally aware that Jobs had a prickly personality, and before reading much of the book, I learned a good chunk of the most shocking details from his childhood post-adoption to his intimate relationships to his business rivalries.  Much of the "drama" was conveniently extracted by a media blitz as one website after another attempted to beat their rivals at revealing the most shocking plot lines first.  And let me be clear from the start, the "juicy" stuff is interesting because it is what we already did not know; however, as I kept reading the book I became more annoyed (albeit not surprised) with how much of the focus in the press was on Jobs' personality and his private life rather than his ethos and achievements.  With that in mind, I purposely will forego reciting and commenting on many of these facts better left for the tabloids.

The media blitz forge an initial bias on my part: there was more to Steve Jobs than meets the eye, and he is not exactly the saint he was idolized as in the public eye.  My bias was further confirmed as I began reading the book.  The early parts moving from Jobs' childhood in Silicon Valley, through his college days and the founding of Apple don't really paint too attractive a picture of the man.  Jobs' genius clearly stands out from early on, but all of the striking parts in the beginning pertain primarily to demystifying Jobs role in the creation of Apple (Isaacson confirms the oft-stated critique that Wozniak was the brains behind Apple's technology) and highlighting the nature and depth of Jobs thorny personality.

As I kept reading, I said to myself, "sure he's done some great things and all, but what an asshole!"   Then something happened along the way.  It started even before the revelation of Jobs' cancer, at which time he became more of a sympathetic figure.  Where I really felt my inner transition in emotion towards Jobs was the sequence in which Isaacson takes us through the early days of Pixar and its rise.  I can't put my finger on what exactly it was, but in this context I really started understanding Jobs as a guiding visionary, who can almost will innovation to happen, rather than just someone who got lucky being around the most brilliant computer geek of his time.

Visionary probably isn't even the right word, but I said it there intentionally.  It wasn't as if Jobs set out to create something new altogether with Pixar.  Actually, he was navigating down a different path altogether when the CGI movie idea came to him, but it was he who recognized the promise and allowed the ship to steer itself towards its manifestation.  Where most other CEOs would never let the project get legs in the first place, Jobs encouraged the creatively inclined workers among him to embrace and indulge in their creativity, nurtured the project, and saw to it that at each step of the way success would be maximized.  Opening doors was not enough.  Nothing short of perfection was.

Maybe it's just that Pixar itself sounds more fun, but as that episode of Jobs' life played out, my personal Steve Jobs impression reflated rather quickly.  This accelerated as the story evolved into Jobs' return to Apple and eventually his battle with cancer.  The return to Apple contains much of the folklore we already know, but also in the context of Isaacson's narration, it turns Jobs from someone whose bubble had popped and builds him back up into the man we know today.  There are some clearly delineated self-improvement stories in there, but also we finally get the clear articulation of Jobs' brilliance--his ability to take something amazingly complex and make it beautiful and simple.  This holds true on the macro and micro levels, as Jobs built the company and each of its products around this principle.  Don't get me wrong, these elements were there from the beginning in Apple, but they are much more well-rounded and central to the plot at this point, probably because they are clearer in Jobs' own personal vision by then.

As for the battle with cancer, many have taken this as a real critique of a brilliant man.  The question "why would someone so smart do something so dumb" was asked throughout the blogosphere, and I very much see why people want to ask this question.  Yet, I think that view can only come when that fact is encountered in isolation from the rest of the book. While many have derided Jobs for failing to adequately treat his own cancer, and to a large extent, I agree, he wouldn't be Steve Jobs were it not for his ability to ignore hindrances while focusing steadfastly on his personal priorities--EVEN TO A FAULT!

Although the outcome sucks, it's hard to blame the man for it.  In fact, it makes him into more of the tragic hero I think he has become, in that the source of his strength, his so-called essence itself, was also the source of his downfall.  Therein lies the real source of my once-again reflated opinion.  Steve Jobs is your prototypical tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense, and this is exactly what humanizes his brilliance in the end.

The real climax of the book, and what pulls it all together are Steve Jobs' own words on what he thinks his legacy should be.  Whether one can truly ascribe each word to his life or not, the message in and of itself is one that all should take to heart.  To maximize one self, people need to be well rounded and have an understanding and connection to the humanities, but also knowledge of the technical.  People need to be hyper-honest, even to the point of being critical, while also being able to push aside their ego in order to accept criticism and use it constructively.  Lastly, people need to build things out of passion, aiming for the highest of quality, rather than for profits alone.

Be sure to read the book for yourself, it's well worth it.   What is interesting in the book goes well beyond what's juicy and leaves many lessons to learn for just about anyone.