Book Notes: “A Mind at Play”

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age
By Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
Simon and Schuster, 2017

It’s not an exaggeration to say Claude Shannon invented our modern concept of information. As an information architect, I’ve long been aware of the importance of his work to the field, but have found his papers difficult to grok.

In situations such as this, I turn to histories of the ideas or biographies of their originators. These books tend to include layman’s explanations of the main ideas in the context that led to their formulation, and this often proves to be my ticket to understanding them. With the context of the person and his/her times, I find source materials much easier to tackle.

A Mind at Play is a fine biography of Shannon and his ideas that helps you understand them better and appreciate their importance. Many concepts we take for granted — such as the bit and the idea that meaning and information are separate — originated with Shannon. The book does a good job of explaining how these and other key concepts came along and how they changed things.

Of course, being a biography, it also gives insights into Shannon himself — and he was a hoot! A natural genius who wrote mathematical papers on juggling, rode around the Bell Labs campus on a unicycle, and towards the end of his life devoted himself to intellectual diversions ranging from hacking roulette to making money in the stock market.

While some other geniuses of his caliber have had troubled personal lives, Shannon seems to have been relatively well-adjusted. His wife and collaborator Betty is a prominent character in his story, as are two other pioneers of the Information Age: Vannevar Bush and Norbert Wiener. Shannon’s relationship with these and other mentors, collaborators, and competitors adds human interest to a story that could otherwise be rather academic.

If you work in or with information technologies, it behooves you to understand Claude Shannon’s contributions to our world. A Mind at Play is a good place to start.

Buy it on Amazon.com.