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“The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood ” — a review by Freeman Dyson

February 27, 2011 0 Comments

Freeman Dyson and James Gleick are both authors always worth reading. In this case, Dyson has reviewed Gleick’s newest book in an essay titled “How We Know”. An excerpt:

According to Gleick, the impact of information on human affairs came in three installments: first the history, the thousands of years during which people created and exchanged information without the concept of measuring it; second the theory, first formulated by Shannon; third the flood, in which we now live. The flood began quietly. The event that made the flood plainly visible occurred in 1965, when Gordon Moore stated Moore’s Law. Moore was an electrical engineer, founder of the Intel Corporation, a company that manufactured components for computers and other electronic gadgets. His law said that the price of electronic components would decrease and their numbers would increase by a factor of two every eighteen months. This implied that the price would decrease and the numbers would increase by a factor of a hundred every decade. Moore’s prediction of continued growth has turned out to be astonishingly accurate during the forty-five years since he announced it. In these four and a half decades, the price has decreased and the numbers have increased by a factor of a billion, nine powers of ten. Nine powers of ten are enough to turn a trickle into a flood.

I’ve lived through most of the information age (if we peg it at 1940 or so; I was born in 1953), and I’ve worked in information technology for almost 40 years (since 1974). I remember seeing a second megabyte of core memory that was being added to the IBM 360/65 on campus in the mid-1970s: it was the size of a giant shoebox, and it cost $250,000. Now the cost per megabyte for 1GB RAM SIMMs sold over Amazon is as low as $0.02, and there’s 1,024 megabytes on that little stick. I have something approaching 15 terabytes of hard disk storage on the various computers in our house, and — as per Dyson’s review and Gleick’s book — my biggest challenge is keeping it organized and accessible. There’s a high level of redundancy, with numerous minor (or major) variations; at the same time, I fear that a disk failure will forever deprive me of files that I might someday want or need again, whether that’s tomorrow or ten years from now.

I’ll read the book when it comes out (I have a copy preordered from Amazon); in the meantime, Dyson’s review is well worth reading.


About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

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