2016-10-31

Book Review: "Why Information Grows" by Cesar Hidalgo

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may be wondering why book reviews have made a return after a 6-year absence. The simple reason is that during my undergraduate and beginning graduate studies, most of my time was consumed with classes, and I didn't have many opportunities to sit down and read books that I enjoyed for great lengths of time. Now that I have passed my general examination and am doing research full-time, though, my weekends are much more free, so I can read and review for pleasure again. Some of these books are from collections/series (like the previous few that I have reviewed here, from the Issues of Our Time series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), while others (like this one) are from the reading list of Zach Weinersmith (author of the webcomic SMBC, which I read frequently).

The latest book that I have read is Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo. It basically goes into an easy-to-understand version of the technical (statistical) definition of information, illustrating with many examples how "information" does not imply "meaning", but that information is a much more fundamental physical concept than simply the ideas of which people can conceive (i.e. metacognition), emerging at many different levels in nature. Information requires energy to occur, solids to be preserved, and computation to propagate and have an influence on its environment, and it is a fundamentally out-of-equilibrium phenomenon. The author then applies this understanding of information to further understand how information occurs in human societies, and how the primary distinction between humans and other animals (or, in other words, "what makes us human") is that we can consciously crystallize and realize information into physical objects instead of simply reacting to the world around us. That said, humans need to form networks at various levels to be able to transmit knowledge and knowhow and thereby realize more complex forms of information, and this transmission is imperfect and not always as efficient as might be assumed from classic textbook models of market dynamics; this can explain a lot of the economic inequalities seen on a global scale.

The book itself is decently written; I think the writing becomes better and more engaging toward the middle and end, whereas the beginning seems rather trite. Additionally, some mention is made of how bureaucratic institutions are far less efficient than markets or networked structures built on trust, yet I would have liked to see a fuller discussion of the similarities and differences of the network structures of bureaucracies versus markets to better contextualize why they operate differently. Finally, I did like the quantitative analysis near the end of the text (along with numerous references to the author's more quantitative The Atlas of Economic Complexity, coauthored with several others) with regard to the correlations between the complexity of a country's economy and its level of economic development, but I would have liked to see a discussion of whether this model of economic complexity is more predictive than more traditional economic explanations. Overall, I do appreciate the pulling together of ideas from fields that used to be disparate, and I think that most of the book is written at a level that an interested layperson can appreciate.

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