Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Information (1)

As I understand it, the principal virtue of popular science writing — indeed writing for a general audience about any technical subject — lies in its ability to take the work of scholars and make it accessible to non-scholars, without fundamentally falsifying it. Twenty percent of the way into The Information, I find that James Gleick is doing little more than retelling stories already told by other popular writers. His account of Charles Babbage’s early mechanical calculators covers ground well-trod by others, including The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer (2002), by Doron Swade. Almost everything he says about the telegraph will be familiar to anyone who has read Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (1998). The material on the relationship between orality and literacy — with its inevitable nods towards the paradoxes of Plato’s writing about that apostle of the spoken word, Socrates — has been covered thousands of times, most recently (at roughly the same length) in Nick Carr’s The Shallows. Of course, not everyone will have read all, or any, of these books — but even for those folks, Gleick’s narrative might well seem bland and colorless, and lacking a strong thematic center. Very much journeyman work so far; I had expected much better. And I still hope for better as I move along.

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