Gleick’s second big idea in The Information is that “information is what our world runs on: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle.” This might at first seem either grandiose or utterly mundane, depending on how closely you’ve followed the musings of the “digerati,” but here it is conveyed as a substantial idea. We’re all used to referring to data as a conduit for more vital elements—biology, music, ideas, and so on. Gleick takes pains to convince us that the data is not just the vehicle, but also the underlying element itself. He writes:
Where is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E minor? Is it in the original handwritten score? The printed sheet music? Any one performance—or perhaps the sum of all performances, historical and potential, real and imagined?
The quavers and crotchets inked on paper are not the music. Music is not a series of pressure waves sounding through the air; nor grooves etched in vinyl or pits burned in CDs; nor even the neuronal symphonies stirred up in the brain of the listener. The music is the information.
So it goes throughout the book, with Gleick painting information as the core of, well, everything. “The whole universe,” he writes, “is thus seen as a computer—a cosmic information-processing machine.” It is a powerful idea, but also slightly oppressive in Gleick’s unwavering formulation. For it would be just as valid to say that music exists only in the living experience of the listener, or the shared experience of a group, or that it can be defined only as a collective journey from the mind of the composer through bits and eyes and ink and air and circuits and neurons. To say that music, or anything, can be reduced utterly to information doesn’t feel right to me. (I say this with humility, rejecting the imperious book review model where the reviewer’s off-the-cuff reaction is positioned as superior to the author’s long-considered work.)
I offer the same hesitancy in response to Gleick’s third and final major theme, his even more ambitious proposal that information is an independent organism. This is, as far as I can tell, not meant as a metaphor or a thought exercise. He means it literally. Information exists independently of the corporeal forces that use it and act upon it. It has its own agency. “In the long run,” Gleick writes, “history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” In this formulation, information is not a mere tool of humans, but its own autonomous force—the “infosphere” as distinguished from the biosphere.
Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us—not anymore…. We are aware of the many species of information. We name their types sardonically, as though to reassure ourselves that we understand: urban myths and zombie lies. We keep them alive in air-conditioned server farms. But we cannot own them. When a jingle lingers in our ears, or a fad turns fashion upside down, or a hoax dominates the global chatter for months and vanishes as swiftly as it came, who is master and who is slave?
This is one of those ideas that cannot sound like anything other than wild exaggeration when first encountered, but which slowly takes root in the reader’s consciousness under Gleick’s deft hand. The idea clearly extends directly from Richard Dawkins’s notion that genes serve themselves rather than their living hosts. One way to understand Gleick’s book is as a successor and companion to Dawkins’s 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Gleick quotes Dawkins:
[A gene] is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred. It leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death.
By the same token, argues Gleick, we can see that all of information is trying to replicate itself, and using our world merely as a host. He quotes philosopher Daniel Dennett, who quips, “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.”