Since time immemorial, human beings have had an incessant need to process and understand the world around us. What is it about “information” we find so compelling? And can one really draw connections between ancient cave paintings, chaos theory, and tech bits and bytes? Join Kojo for a new perspective on today’s world of information overload.


  • James Gleick Author "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Pantheon Books)

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From James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.Copyright 2011 by James Gleick. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon/Random House.


  • 13:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. From centuries old talking drums in Timbuktu to tweets from Tahrir Square, humanity has developed through technologies that share information. My own job relies on it. And some, including my guest today, would say that information is the root of human progress and tracing it back to its origins takes us on a journey through ancient cultures, from the development of the first alphabets to the first long distance communication. Information is as fundamental to our DNA and as abstract as the ones and zeros that make up the language of computers.

  • 13:07:36

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIYet, many of us feel overwhelmed by the speed and volume of information we have to absorb each day through e-mail, television, images, telephones and print. Many wonder if we have reached the point of having too much information. And given the speed with which information technology is developing, what's next? Here to share the story of information is James Gleick. He is a science and technology writer. His latest book is "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." His first book, "Chaos," was an international bestseller. James Gleick, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:11

    MR. JAMES GLEICKIt's a pleasure, Kojo.

  • 13:08:13

    NNAMDIWe live in the so-called information age and many of us feel overwhelmed by the glut of images, e-mails in our lives. David Foster Wallace called it total noise, but we're not the first to feel inundated by information, are we?

  • 13:08:29

    GLEICKNo, it's an old feeling. Well, I heard you use the expression TMI...

  • 13:08:35


  • 13:08:35 ordinary conversation during the last hour. And I've been working on this book for so long that when I started working on it, TMI didn't mean what it means today. So, something special is happening now. But as you say, when earlier technologies of information were invented, people suffered some of the same syndromes that we're suffering now. When the printing press was invented and books started to spread across Europe and at some point there got to be a thousand and then 10,000 different books in the world, there were plenty of people who are willing to lament that and to complain that scholarship would never be the same. Human intelligence would never be the same because it was no longer possible for any one individual to keep up with all of the knowledge of the world.

  • 13:09:31

    NNAMDIAt that point, I can't read all of these 10,000 books myself so I'm falling behind. If the idea of information as a fundamental building block for everything seems hard to understand, I guess we can think about the human body as an information entity, so to speak. Can you please explain?

  • 13:09:54

    GLEICKEverything that happens in the human body is, in one way or another, about information. You mentioned DNA. DNA is the quintessential information molecule. And it's not a coincidence that scientists first really came to understand how DNA works, how genetics works. In the 1950s and '60s, which is a period just after the birth of information theory, which I describe in my book, in a way this is the starting point for the book. On the one hand, everybody knows about James Watson and Francis Crick figuring out the molecular structure of DNA inside the chromosome, the famous double helix structure.

  • 13:10:42


  • 13:10:42

    GLEICKBut on the other hand, you can see that the real problem that they confronted was cracking the genetic code, as we call it. And we use that expression genetic code without even thinking about it. But it really is a code. It's molecules that spell out an alphabet and in this alphabet, four letters encapsulate all of the information needed to create an organism. Six billion bits creates a human being.

  • 13:11:13

    NNAMDISo instead of me thinking of myself as a walking, living human being, I can think of myself as a walking, living code.

  • 13:11:22

    GLEICKWell, not instead. In addition. We're not trying to -- I don't think any of this needs to make us feel reduced. You know, we're only bits and that's not the argument I'm making or the argument that scientists would make. It's thinking in terms of information, I think, enriches our understanding of what's going on.

  • 13:11:42

    NNAMDIWe're talking with James Gleick. His latest book is called "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." And inviting your calls. Do you feel you're drowning in information or do you like the amount of information available to us via the technology that's available today? You can call us at 800-433-8850. On the other hand, is it getting harder to find the information you really want amidst all the noise? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website,, send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to James Gleick, there have been studies on information overload. Do we really suffer from such a thing?

  • 13:12:22

    GLEICKLook at the mixture of complicated information technologies that you just described to our listeners in the last sentence. You want them not only to be listening to us, but to tweet to us or e-mail to us or pick up the phone and call us. We have so many different channels of communicating simultaneously now. And, yes, there is a feeling of information overload. This is a relatively new expression. You know, it didn't exist in the language 50 years ago and now it does. And we understand it intuitively and I have mixed feelings about it myself. You know, we like having all this information.

  • 13:13:00

    GLEICKYou and I are promulgating some at this moment and when we are trying to remember some fact or trying to settle an argument, it's pretty nice to be able to Google something or look something up on Wikipedia or on IMDB. You know, settle an argument about who starred in a movie. And we get in the habit of it so that if we're cut off from these sources of information, we start to feel deprived. On the other hand, you can't help but feel that there's too much and that we're swamped and too many things arriving at once and too much of it is nonsense, too much of it is noise.

  • 13:13:40

    NNAMDIWe may use the word information in a lot of ways and in different context, but what is it and has its meaning changed over time?

  • 13:13:50

    GLEICKDefinitely. Our understanding of information is a very modern thing. The way we used the word is new and it's peculiar. And I think it's worthwhile stepping back and noticing that. That when we talk about the information age, well, that's become a cliché and it's actually the information age has been a cliché for about 50 years, which is a long time. But before that information was a sort of dull word in English and it just meant instructions or facts or maybe news, but it didn't include all the stuff that we talk about now. We know that anything that can be conveyed by the written word is a form of information.

  • 13:14:34

    GLEICKBut so is anything that can be conveyed by the spoken word or by music. We have audio recordings of music and they are broken down into bits, some stored in our computers and images are a form of information. And all of this is one big new category that we recognize, in my view, because of a kind of pivotal event. And this is where my book begins, with the view that in 1948 an engineer and mathematician named Claude Shannon, working at Bell Labs, the research labs for the telephone monopoly.

  • 13:15:14

    NNAMDIThis man is the man who, in a lot of ways, contributed the most at changing our understanding of information. Please explain.

  • 13:15:21

    GLEICKHe created a -- he wrote a paper, a long technical paper called "Mathematical Theory of Communication." And this paper is the beginning of what very quickly came to be called information theory. And it was entirely a mathematical things. It used, for the first time, a word that is very familiar to us now, the word bit as a unit of measure and he had to explain what it was a unit of measure of. He said it's short for binary digit.

  • 13:15:53

    GLEICKAnd we know that it's on or off, yes or no, ones and zeros, those are bits. But he was explaining in this -- in his version of information theory how any kind of message could be converted into bits. And then the bits are interchangeable and you need to worry if you're an engineer about problems of compressing information and transmitting it across noisy channels like telephone lines with static. And from this kind of hard core mathematical foundation, much of our modern world has developed.

  • 13:16:31

    NNAMDIWe're talking with James Gleick. He's a science and technology writer. His first book, "Chaos," was an international bestseller. His latest is called, "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." And if you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think advances in technology will increase the flood of information? Is that something you look forward to or not? 800-433-8850. Or you can send e-mail to

  • 13:17:01

    NNAMDIHere is an e-mail we got from Janine. "There's no information overload for me. I like being able to choose what information I want and get it in whatever form I want. I hope future technologies give us the ability to access even more information and I love this author." James Gleick, care to respond to Janine? Is she going to have her heart's desire?

  • 13:17:22

    GLEICKWell, isn't that nice? I'm not sure it's a unanimous sentiment that more is just better. But I think it's a healthy sentiment. I tend to be fairly optimistic myself. I mean, I wonder, all of our listeners now, I wonder what their guess is of Janine's age.

  • 13:17:42


  • 13:17:42

    GLEICKDo they think that Janine is younger or older?

  • 13:17:46


  • 13:17:47

    GLEICKOkay. Well, there you go.

  • 13:17:48

    NNAMDIIs this in part a generational phenomena?

  • 13:17:51

    GLEICKOf course, we don't know. For all we know, Janine is 90 years old.

  • 13:17:55


  • 13:17:56

    GLEICKBut that's our first guess, isn't it? That it is a generational phenomenon because, sure, people who are young are extremely comfortable tweeting and text messaging and...

  • 13:18:07

    NNAMDIThey're digital natives.

  • 13:18:08

    GLEICKAnd they multitask and they do it without thinking and that's a good thing. Other people, including people who are young, worry that if you're sending messages in units of 140 characters, those might not be particularly profound messages and maybe we're losing something if we don't have time to sit down in a dark room, unplugged and read a long book. I have, you know, my bias runs in both directions because I've just written a long book and it took a long time to write and it will take a little while to read. But I also, like Janine, love surfing and tweeting and, you know, getting information from all the sources that are available.

  • 13:18:57

    NNAMDIJames Gleick, multigenerational. We might like to think -- we might like to think of computers as the most transformative technology the world has ever seen, but there have been many revolutions in information starting with scripts and alphabets, correct?

  • 13:19:15

    GLEICKYes. And I think it's really -- we're empowered now to go back and look at human history in a different way because we have all these information technologies and so we recognize them.

  • 13:19:32

    GLEICKAnd so, we can say that even the invention of writing and the invention of the alphabet was a new information technology and it changed people. You know, people like to say now the internet is changing the way we think. It's changing our brains. Well, whether or not that's true, it was certainly true of the invention of writing because suddenly our thoughts had persistence. Things that came out of our mouths didn't just vanish into the ears of the one or two or 10 people within hearing distance and then into oblivion.

  • 13:20:06

    GLEICKBut they were able to have some permanence. They could be written down to send us messages over many miles or for us to reexamine at our leisure. Many things were born from this new way of dealing with information. Including a sense of history, an invention of mathematics, the creation of logic. All of these things depended on the written word. Onto the telephones, here now is Susan in Derwood, Md. Susan, your turn. Go ahead, please. Hi, Susan, are you there? Susan, seems to have stepped away from the telephone for a while.

  • 13:20:46

    NNAMDII'll put you on hold, Susan, trusting that you'll return and go to Megan in Takoma Park, Md. Hi, Megan.

  • 13:20:53

    MEGANHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I'm a teacher and I have taught research classes and am struck by how often a student will believe that they have done research when they find information and not when they read it and understand it. They give themselves credit for being a researcher and citing information that they haven't read and don't understand. And I think that's a new phenomena based on how much information is out there versus going to a book and reading it and kind of having it there for yourself.

  • 13:21:25

    NNAMDIJames, go ahead.

  • 13:21:26

    GLEICKI think that's very true. And it's a real concern. The part that I don't totally agree with is that it's a new phenomenon. I think there were times in earlier history when students would have a research paper to do and they would go to one book. And think that by reading the one book, they had done their research. And maybe they plagiarized it, maybe they didn't, but your point, which I think is really important, is that to be sophisticated users of information, we need multiple sources.

  • 13:22:01

    GLEICKYou can't just look something up on Wikipedia and say, okay, now, I know the facts. You may know some facts, but now you need to do some processing, you need to do some thinking. I'm sure that's the kind of message you want to convey to your students.

  • 13:22:16

    NNAMDIMegan also seems to be making the point that the student only finds the material and does not even read the material and thinks that locating the material itself should count for points for research. Is that correct, Megan?

  • 13:22:31

    MEGANThat is exactly correct. And another piece of this whole puzzle...

  • 13:22:35

    NNAMDIAs in, I went to the library and found a book, now do I have to read it, too?

  • 13:22:39

    MEGANRight, exactly. And another piece of this whole puzzle is that being a smart consumer of information, being able to discern out of the thousands and thousands of possible sites or bits, which are valid and which are not, what you can trust and what you can't. And that's another whole piece of now teaching research. I mean, it's not new, but it's -- becomes an issue, I think, more frequently in the classroom.

  • 13:23:05

    NNAMDIAnd that's what James Gleick referred to earlier as the noise.

  • 13:23:08

    GLEICKIt's more important than ever, what you're saying is...

  • 13:23:10


  • 13:23:10

    GLEICK...exactly right. I wonder, Megan, if you -- what's your -- do you give your students instructions on whether they are allowed to use Wikipedia? And if so, do you have any special guidance for them?

  • 13:23:22

    MEGANYes. And I just wanted to point out, too, that our librarians are now media specialists and have a curriculum that -- where they teach about being discerning consumers of information. Wikipedia, it sort of depends on the research. And I never would expect only a Wikipedia source. They would have to cohobate with at least two other sources, one of which is not electronic.

  • 13:23:48

    GLEICKMy basic fear with this is, on balance a good thing and you're pointing out the dangers and I think more and more it's essential for teachers to help students figure out the strategies that are necessary to cope with multiple sources of information. You have to develop some skepticism, some capacity for critical thinking. Which...

  • 13:24:12

    MEGANYes. Yes.

  • 13:24:13

    GLEICK...which has always been true, but as you say, it's truer now than ever. And you know there are internet sites that are filled with urban legends and then there are internet sites that are devoted to debunking the urban legends. And then, there are internet chat rooms where people argue about who's right, the legend promulgators or the debunkers. And some of that is just noise and some of it is instructive. And...

  • 13:24:39

    NNAMDIMegan, thank you so much for your call. We do have to take a short break. Sorry to have to interrupt you, James Gleick, but we will be getting back to the conversation with you. And if you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If the lines are busy, send us an e-mail to or a tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:26:42

    NNAMDIWelcome back, we're talking with science and technology writer, James Gleick. His first book, "Chaos," was an international best seller. We're talking about his latest book, it's called, "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." And taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Plato worried that the written word would make people forgetful and it seems to me that people have similar fears today.

  • 13:27:07

    GLEICKWell, as soon as we started getting electronic calculators, which seems like quite a while ago now, people worried that students would lose the ability to do arithmetic. Why would they need it? And then you worry, if you don't start by learning the basics of arithmetic, where are we going to get the next generation of theoretical physicists from? I think the way it's turning out is -- well, first of all, Plato's worries seem a little quaint to us. And he worried that people would not have to rely on their memories so much as soon as they could use writing. And that's absolutely true. And it's equally true that without writing we would never have heard of Plato. So...

  • 13:27:51


  • 13:27:51 it's not all together a bad thing. It's just -- I end up feeling that we need to find a balance. The worries are legitimate and they're more legitimate than ever. But it's useful to look back through history and see that people have worried about these same things from the very beginning.

  • 13:28:08

    NNAMDII have a friend who can't remember his own cell phone number. He has to look it up in his cell phone to tell you his cell phone number. The Greeks used fire as beacons as far back as the Trojan war and it was one if by land, two if by sea with the lantern and the old north church that alerted Paul Revere. So the ones and the zeroes that computers use now are essentially a very old technology.

  • 13:28:32

    GLEICKIn a way, yes. The Morse code was almost a binary code, dots and dashes. Not exactly a binary code.

  • 13:28:41

    NNAMDI(unintelligible) .

  • 13:28:42

    GLEICKYeah, that's right. You can still do it.

  • 13:28:45

    NNAMDIYes, yes.

  • 13:28:45

    GLEICKPeople have, since the beginning of history, been concerned with the problems of sending messages over great distances. That's where fire beacons came in, in ancient Greek times. And you mentioned the lanterns of Paul Revere's famous ride which sent, we would say now, a single bit of information. It was a yes or a no, a binary choice by land or by sea. And so it only took a choice between one lantern or two. But it only worked because, in effect, there was a prearranged code.

  • 13:29:22

    GLEICKSo in coding information, in the form of bits, is an old idea.

  • 13:29:28

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here is Bruce in Washington, D.C. Bruce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:29:35

    BRUCEThank you, Kojo. I run a computer support business in the Washington, D.C. area and I actually think that we've gone too far with technology. An expectation that, as the author said, when we want it, we just click and we seem to get it. And all these conversations electronically with cell phones, with texting, with tweeting, with all of this non-interactive communication, I really think we're going in the wrong direction. Social interaction, having face to face conversations of the young person, learning the social skills is kind of going by the wayside. And that's my big comment for what I'm hearing on the show today.

  • 13:30:19

    NNAMDIJames Gleick?

  • 13:30:20

    GLEICKAnd yet you're in the business of helping people use their computers.

  • 13:30:24

    BRUCEYou bet. I think that that's why I'm saying this. Because I see the acceptance of technology so quickly without seeing, what I call, the ramification, I think, as really being detrimental to our society.

  • 13:30:39

    GLEICKWell, I was on the Boston, I mean, the New York-Washington shuttle this morning and was reminded again of what a scene that is. Where, at a certain point just before takeoff, they announced that it's time for everybody to turn off the electronic devices and then the flight attendants walk up and down the aisles and the electronic devices go into the pockets. And then as soon as the flight attendants go back to the front, all the electronic devices come out again.

  • 13:31:07

    GLEICKAnd the scene has to be repeated several times because, really, we're hooked. So we have ambivalence and I think the callers are already reflecting ambivalence that I feel. You know, on the one hand, the more the better and on the other hand, isn't it too much?

  • 13:31:30

    NNAMDIWhere though is the evidence so far that all of this access to information is leading to our inability to interact socially? I see young people using all of the available technology to get information and then I see them yapping away in each other's faces when they actually come together.

  • 13:31:50

    GLEICKWell, I tend to think that's true. I agree with you. I mean, when you are sending text messages, you're writing. You're writing a kind of short hand and a kind of jargon and slang. And it's not Shakespeare's English, but then Shakespeare's English could be pretty low, too, apart from being high. And, yes, it's -- if you use twitter, the messages are short and almost by definition, banal. But you're communicating. It's a form of human communication and that's something we value.

  • 13:32:26

    NNAMDIBruce, thank you very much for your call. We're talking with James Gleick. His latest book is called, "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." If you'd like to get a taste of the book, you can go to our website,, where we have posted the prologue to the book. You can take a read of it there at James Gleick, you tell the fascinating story of the talking drums of Africa. What kind of information technology were they?

  • 13:32:53

    GLEICKWell, you've already mentioned fire beacons as a way of sending just a tiny bit of information over great distances. When European explorers first arrived at the interior of Africa in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries, they were surprised and actually completely bewildered by the technology that they discovered. And they were very slow to catch on to what was going on in part because they weren't professional communications technologists or anthropologists.

  • 13:33:30

    GLEICKThey tended to be slavers so they didn't actually care. But they gradually figured out that they would arrive at a village a 100 miles up a river and people would have known for hours that they were coming because the African languages had produced a means of communication that outstripped anything available in Europe.

  • 13:33:54

    NNAMDILet us give our listeners a listen to that means of communication that they developed, the so to speak, talking drums.

  • 13:34:35

    NNAMDIWell, this is a master drummer from Nigeria, Adebisi Adeleke. We don't know exactly what Adebisi Adeleke is saying but you're saying that the messages that the drums conveyed weren't code, they were really an elaborate form of correspondence.

  • 13:34:47

    GLEICKWell, they were a language. And it sounds -- it's fabulous, isn't it? It sounds like music. And you think, how would you understand that? But it's like Morse code,. If you are fluent in it, then you understand the messages. And it turns out that anything that you can say in an ordinary spoken language can be said in the drum languages. How do they do it? It's a puzzle because these same languages had not evolved alphabets. So in Europe and in the United States, where Samuel Morse had to solve the technical problem of how do you convert messages into a code of dots and dashes that could be sent over electrical wires, he used the alphabet as intermediate layer.

  • 13:35:33

    GLEICKAnd it seems obvious that he would do that. So obvious that without an alphabet, you have to ask yourself, how is it possible? Well, it wasn't really understood how the African talking drums worked until information theory was developed in the middle of the last century. You could say that in a way, the African talking drums discovered information theory before the electrical engineers did.

  • 13:36:02

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is George in Middleburg, Va. George, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:10

    GEORGEHello, Kojo. What a great show. Something about language and how the Greek side, you know, they -- it sort of evolved into bits, eventually through scientists and thinkers and people like Daycart. What about the Asian cultures where their language was based more on a symbol system, almost like the drum beats that has a richer, deeper kind of almost physiological tone to it? And how do those two play out? I mean, I see how we're missing a lot of the mythology or the story that gives life meaning.

  • 13:36:53

    GEORGEAnd I'm daily working on trying to figure out how to create educational components where my gift to the world, you know, my inner gift, whatever it is, can be conveyed. But there are no categories for that type of thing. We've -- the language has broken everything down. So that's one thing we've sort of broken language down into these little digital bits and it doesn't have the content that can express essences unless you get into poetry.

  • 13:37:19

    GEORGEAnd then poetry is never used to express valuable data. You know, so there's something in between data and information where it loses the ability to capture or to express understandings.

  • 13:37:36


  • 13:37:37

    GEORGEThat sort of...

  • 13:37:38

    NNAMDIGeorge, you really hit onto something there. Because James Gleick explains that what we hear from the African drums were really an elaborate form of correspondence that in some ways can be compared to poetry.

  • 13:37:50

    GLEICKIt was eloquent. It had metaphors and a kind of redundant seeming imagery that would remind you of Homer and sort of for the same reason. Because Homer was using an oral language that needed to be remembered as opposed to being written down. You're raising, let me say, two good -- two things about the good points that you've just raised. One is, you've pointed out that some languages -- the ones that we're familiar with in the west, are now alphabetic, the writings systems that is.

  • 13:38:24

    GLEICKBefore the alphabet was invented, there were writing systems that were even more ancient that involved ideographs. A symbol would not stand for a sound but for an actual idea or a word. And the great Asian languages like Chinese and its many variations are examples of that. But all of the original languages of the Middle East, for example, began with ideographic writing systems and only later converted to an alphabetical system.

  • 13:38:59

    GLEICKNow, you're suggesting that we lose something by that because the symbol stands for something very abstract and not meaningful, just a single sound, as opposed to a symbol for peace or the moon or some large concept. I guess I don't think the loss of meaning is an inevitable. I think it's completely clear that a written language like English, based on this encoded alphabet, is still capable of all the richness of any other language, if at least as much.

  • 13:39:36

    GLEICKAnd poetry, in my view, is a part of all of our everyday speech. We use analogies and we generalize and we compare one thing to another. And it's impossible for us to communicate without it. I guess, I -- in the end, I don't see the loss of richness that you're worrying about.

  • 13:39:59

    NNAMDIGeorge, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. Here is Steve in St. Michaels, Md. Steve, your turn.

  • 13:40:08

    STEVEYes. Thank you, Kojo. I just wanted to let you know that the lady -- the good lady who answered the phone told me you were a fabulous guy and I agreed with her.

  • 13:40:16

    NNAMDII -- you should know that I bribe her on a regular basis, but go ahead, please.

  • 13:40:21

    STEVEThis is a fabulous conversation. I remember in college in the '60s, walking -- marching to class at the Virginia Military Institute with my slide rule on my hip, and occasionally I would go up and use the computer that was housed in its own big room on campus, the only computer on campus. So we've come a long way in my lifetime in terms of processing information. But I wanted to go back to what you folks were originally talking about, the DNA and the code in DNA, and you had said that us human beings could be thought of as walking codes.

  • 13:41:03

    STEVEAnd Mr. Gleick reminded you that we were much more than that. And I think that's true. You know, the beautiful thing about having information like that, once we discovered that code in the DNA molecule, it told us a lot about what we were, but it also told us a lot about evolution. And combined with other information out there, it led us to understand evolution as a fact. So I guess I fall in the camp that the more information is better because it reveals so much about who we are as human beings, and who we are as a species in a society.

  • 13:41:44

    STEVEAnd I was hoping Dr. Gleick would speak to that question of the DNA code and what we learned from it, not only about ourselves as human beings, but beyond that.

  • 13:41:55

    NNAMDIJames Gleick?

  • 13:41:56

    GLEICKYou're making a very good point. Of course, Darwin's theory of evolution preceded any really good understanding of how genes worked. People only knew that there was some kind of -- there was some means for heredity to operate, that traits were passed down from one organism to its descendents. And how that worked, no one really knew until genes were figured out in the 1950s and '60s and '70s. And that's where information theory contributed a language and a vocabulary and a way of understanding what was going on.

  • 13:42:36

    GLEICKOne of the -- one of the great evolutionary theorists and thinkers, whose story I tell a little bit in the book, is Richard Dawkins, who used this vocabulary, and is quite eloquent in explaining how our understanding of evolution has been enriched by a view of genes as in their core a form of information.

  • 13:43:01

    NNAMDIGotta take another short break. Steve, thank you so much for your call. If you called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. But if the lines are busy, send us an e-mail to, or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website,, and join the conversation about information there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:02

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with science and technology writer, James Gleick. His latest book is called "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." We got an e-mail from Evan who says, "This is a very interesting topic, and as to Kojo's question of whether or not it's becoming more difficult to sift through information now, I would point out that back in the '90s, despite the low levels of information available on the Internet, the lack of sophisticated search and directory tools made it considerably more difficult to filter compared to today.

  • 13:45:34

    NNAMDIBetween Google, Wikipedia and online research databases, I can find in 15 minutes what would once have taken me an entire day at the library to weed out." Probably true, James Gleick, but where does Wikipedia fit into the database of knowledge so to speak?

  • 13:45:51

    GLEICKWikipedia is really the great canonical example of everything we're talking about. Because on the one hand we have a teacher who warns her students not to rely on Wikipedia entirely, because we all know that you can't trust any particular fact that appears in Wikipedia. It could have just have been put in there by some teenager serving as an editor and having a little bit of fun. Because the way Wikipedia works is, it's entirely democratic. Anyone can be an editor.

  • 13:46:23

    GLEICKIt's crowd sourced knowledge. But on the other hand, something we all know about Wikipedia is that it is reliable. It's a fabulous, enormous source of information. In a very short time, it has grown to be many times larger than all of the world's encyclopedias combined. As the caller points out, it requires us to triangulate. It requires us to be sophisticated. You don't trust any one fact, but you have other ways of researching the same fact.

  • 13:46:57

    GLEICKYou know, I just finished spending a bunch of years working on a fairly complicated book which required me to find out facts from different periods in history. And during that time, I was a big user of all these electronic tools. I remember having to spend a day at the library to find out a piece of information that would fill up one sentence of a book. And now, it's many times easier. I can find out these facts instantaneously, but with the ease comes a danger. And you have to be just that much more careful and that much more thoughtful.

  • 13:47:40

    NNAMDIOn to Andre in Washington, D.C. Andre, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:45

    ANDREHey. I used to take Russian back at a university I went to, and I had a Russian teacher who is a big linguistics professor. Apparently, there was a push in the scientific community to get a global scientific language going. And he suggested at the time when I was taking his class, that actually ideographic information, especially because of how information heavy our world is, and because the information stretches across countries and so many different languages, that having basically a unified ideographic language for the worldwide web and information would be a viable option in the long term. And I just want to know how you felt about that.

  • 13:48:36

    GLEICKI tend to think that's not quite right. For -- because of the accidents of technology, ideographic languages have turned out not to be particularly well suited to some of our modern inventions. I mean, think for example of in the telegraph era, how Chinese and Japanese had to cope with telegraphs. It was much more difficult for them because they didn't have the intermediate layer of an alphabet of just a small number of characters.

  • 13:49:09

    GLEICKIn our time -- well, of course, every -- the dream of a universal language is a very old one, and scientists have that dream, but non-scientists have had it too. And people have thought about inventing languages that could be understood all over the world. If we look around, my view is that we see a universal language emerging for better and for worse, and that is English. And many people who are natives of other languages will no doubt be angered by the idea, and I don't blame them.

  • 13:49:44

    GLEICKBut for better and for worse, English has spread across the globe at a fantastic rate, and I only see that increasing in this era of cyberspace.

  • 13:49:55

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Andre. We move onto Margaret in Alexandria, Va. Margaret, your turn.

  • 13:50:01

    MARGARETThank you, Kojo. This is a fun discussion, and very thought provoking. It reminded me when you were talking about the evolution of written language, of my childhood, and reading Rudyard Kipling's "Just So" stories.

  • 13:50:17

    NNAMDIYour childhood and mine.

  • 13:50:19

    GLEICKAnd mine.

  • 13:50:20

    MARGARETAnd do you all recall how the first -- how the alphabet was made, and how the first letter was written?

  • 13:50:26

    NNAMDINo. Tell us that story again.

  • 13:50:28

    MARGARETWell, it just -- it's a very -- I just -- I won't try to go into the details of it, but it is wonderfully written from a child's viewpoint, and features a very imperious small girl, in a very primitive setting who needs to communicate certain things. And she first sort of, in discussion with her father, sort of invents the alphabet around things that they all knew, and that sort of pictured the sounds that -- O I think was a carp's mouth or some opening, and -- as they were fishing.

  • 13:51:05


  • 13:51:06

    MARGARETAnd then in a second section which is how the first letter was written, she has an urgent need to do -- make some sort of communication concerning her father's broken spear. And she presses a stranger into service to take to her father a set of symbols that she creates on a piece of birch bark or something. It's a very funny story, but it really does prompt one to think about, and it did me, I think, about the origins of the alphabet and also how those sounds can be put together to make a written communication.

  • 13:51:43

    NNAMDIMargaret, thank you very much for sharing that with us. From Rudyard Kipling to the Internet. The Internet is different from previous technologies, James Beard, in that it connects information through a vast network. Six degrees of separation (word?) that we're all connected via six links. Does the Internet confirm this?

  • 13:52:05

    GLEICKWell, we are so interconnected now that something new has really happened. People, you know, again, I'm using the word new slightly loosely, because in the telegraph era people started to feel that they were being connected to all parts of the globe. And some of the clichés that we use today came into being, such as the annihilation of space and time. But I think you've just put your finger on what's really new today, and that is the connectedness, the interconnectedness.

  • 13:52:36

    GLEICKWe speak, each of us, not just to people we know or people within reach, and not just one at a time, but potentially to billions of people at the same time. If you use e-mail, or you use Twitter, or you're a blogger, or you have a website, anything that you say can be heard all across the globe. And so there's a tangle of connections between us that truly is new.

  • 13:53:05

    NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Mike in D.C. who said, "The prior comment by Jeannine was very limited in its implication. She says that I can get any information I want. Well, she can't find out what a potential boyfriend thinks about her. Everyone should recognize that the current scope of information is still very limited. I would be interested in what Mr. Glick thinks about the future of information and its effect on humans. Will there come a time when technology can get inside our brainwaves and they became information? Then Jeannine will find out about her boyfriend."

  • 13:53:39

    NNAMDIJames Gleick, a hundred years ago, no one could have predicted the Internet. Can we even conceive of the next innovation? Will Jeannine be able to find out what her boyfriend thinks about her?

  • 13:53:49

    GLEICKYou have the most fabulous listeners, Kojo, and I don't know if I want to get into the middle of an argument between them that's this personal. I'm not sure how the caller knows whether or not Jeannine can find out what her boyfriend is thinking -- her potential boyfriend is thinking.

  • 13:54:03

    NNAMDIOr whether Jeannine even wants a boyfriend.

  • 13:54:05

    GLEICKWell, there's that, too. But, you know, more and more, the potential boyfriends are flapping their lips, speaking metaphorically, on Twitter or on Facebook, and maybe revealing more than they want to about their inner feelings. I don't have any predictions about whether the technology is going to get into our brains, and I certainly don't want to say that that would be a good thing. But certainly more and more we're revealing ourselves to one another.

  • 13:54:34

    NNAMDIKeep your crystal ball close, because here comes Jim in Chevy Chase, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Jim, are you there?

  • 13:54:42

    JIMI read your books. I like your books. I'm a computer scientist and attorney, and I'm very interested in what's coming up in language. I really don't believe that the language -- that language in general is going to be so ideaphonic in the future. I think relationships and links are a hidden feature of our computer system's languages and information technology. Have been for 200, 400 years. That what we don't have is a way of speaking with links as easily as we should. Certainly links are used on the Internet and you've seen great power with them, but to build an information structure with linkages is still difficult.

  • 13:55:29

    JIMThere's still no easy tool for it. We still don't think or talk in them unless you're a master designer of some sort or an architect. And those linkages wash away the need for most language. If you think of Wikis as language-based, there are Wikis that can be linkage-based too. And those things have an ability to do a lot more information hiding, and a lot more you might say categorization that helps people ferret out information quickly and still have serendipity when they search.

  • 13:56:07

    NNAMDIWhen you think of how search has evolved, maybe those things will all come.

  • 13:56:11

    GLEICKThe linking you're talking about, the hyperlinks that we're so used to know on the Internet, you're right of course, that there was -- there's no such thing as hyperlinking in the spoken word. And there's no such thing as hyperlinking in books either. When you write a book, you can't underline the word Paris and have people click on it and go to an encyclopedia article about Paris, or a guide to the hotels of Paris, except now we have e-books. And more and more there's the potential for that sort of thing, which in my view is a mixed blessing.

  • 13:56:44

    GLEICKYou know, I'm the author of a book, and I don't want -- I want people the follow the thread of my thought, and not be leaping away to interconnected ideas and that hyperlinks might bring them to. On the other hand, you're absolutely right that the power of hyperlinked information has created something that's really very new.

  • 13:57:08

    NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call. We're almost out of time, but just quickly sharing a post on our website from Robin. "Per the discussion on information overload, I had attributed this complaint to disorganization or laziness until now where I'm working at a hugely complicated and segmented organization where I have to solve problems. This morning during a meeting, we all had different pieces of information, but none of us could attribute its source or level of authority." One of the themes that James Gleick has been talking about during the course of this conversation.

  • 13:57:37

    NNAMDII'm afraid we are out of time. James Gleick's latest book is called, "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood." James Gleick is a science and technology writer. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:47

    GLEICKIt's been a pleasure.

  • 13:57:49

    NNAMDIJames Gleick will be reading at Politics and Prose tonight at 7 p.m. That's at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest in Washington, D.C. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, with help from Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and AC Valdez. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. Our engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman is our telephone facilitator. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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