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The Information

A History, a Theory, a Flood

By James Gleick
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

The Information takes us on a journey from primordial soup to the internet to reveal how information has changed the face of human history and shaped the way we think and live today. New technology continues to accelerate the speed at which information is transmitted, and to have lasting consequences for society.

Key idea 1 of 8

Humans have been communicating information to each other from the beginning, and in the most unlikely of ways.

Information is a difficult term to define exactly. Commonly, information relates to facts, i.e., things that we can know. But information can be more broadly defined than that. In fact, information can be anything that is conveyed by an arrangement of things – objects, sounds, movements or symbols.

In later human history, we began to use information as a way to quantify and compare things, such as the difference in weight between a bag of rocks or a pot of water. Our early interest in information, however, was entirely concerned with communication.

All kinds of arrangements of things can be used to communicate information: letters convey words, dashes convey morse code, and even drum beats can convey meaning!

In fact, there are historical records of communities throughout Africa that used drums to literally talk to each other.

As early as 1730, scouts for English slave traders in sub-Saharan Africa noticed that drumming as a form of communication was quite prevalent. One scout, Francis Moore, spoke of how drums were used to signal the arrival of an enemy, but also, he suspected, to call for aid from nearby villages.

It would be nearly 200 years, however, before an English missionary called John F. Carrington made a concerted effort to understand and explain the “talking drums” of Africa to the rest of the world in 1914.

He found that drummers were doing more than signaling danger. They were actually talking through the drums, telling stories and even jokes. His discoveries were eventually published in 1949 in the book The Talking Drums of Africa.

Talking by drum was made possible by the fact that many African languages, unlike English, are tonal, so meaning is inferred by the different pitches of a word. African communities were able to mimic these tones with their drums, and thus convey information over great distances.

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