Partway through “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” James Gleick describes a technological innovation so transformative that it was heralded as “one of the grand way-marks in the onward and upward march of the human intellect” by the New York Times. “What was the essence of the achievement?” Gleick asks. “‘The transmission of thought, the vital impulse of matter.’ The excitement was global but the effects were local. … Information that just two years earlier had taken days to arrive at its destination could now be there — anywhere — in seconds. This was not a doubling or tripling of transmission speed; it was a leap of many orders of magnitude. It was like the bursting of a dam whose presence had not even been known.” Sound familiar? It should. The telegraph, after all, changed everything when it was popularized in the 1840s; by 1858, a transatlantic cable had put Britain’s Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan in direct contact, while news, gossip and commercial orders blazed across the wires. “Some worried that the telegraph would be the death of newspapers,” Gleick writes, although “newspapers could not wait to put the technology to work.” All of a sudden, information was not just a tool but also a commodity. “Because the telegraph was an information technology,” he posits, “it served as an agent of its own ascendency.” The story of the telegraph is central to “The Information,” which is a wide-ranging, deeply researched and delightfully engaging history — going back to Homer and Socrates (who distrusted written language as a corruption of pure memory) and extending, in loosely chronological fashion, to our contemporary culture of downloads and data clouds — of how we have come to occupy a world defined in bits and bytes.
more from David L. Ulin at the LAT here.