It only took 18 days. And one could well argue -- with some hyperbole, admittedly -- that what happened in those 18 days literally overthrew all the millennia of Egyptian history.

But the fact about the Egyptian Revolution that so many can't dislodge from their heads is this: It was not only aided and abetted by social networking media, our friends the hyperbolists could well make the case that the Egyptian Revolution was a direct outgrowth of what Google and especially Facebook and Twitter have made possible.

In other words, Twitter and Facebook could become locations in cyberspace where like-minded people could gather to make the statement they wanted to make -- before they gathered in one geographical place to make it for real.

Anyone who previously thought they were suitable only for hookups, business boosting and flash-mob pranks now has to deal with an ineluctable fact: that flash mobs are, by their very nature, proto-revolutionary.

If we are living in the Age of Information, the Egyptian Revolution is the first direct revolution of that age -- one whose major firebrand, as has often been noted, was a Google executive.

The timing then couldn't be more perfect for this book -- assuredly one of the books of the year -- which tells us what exactly "The Information" is whose age we have just seen come to such extraordinary fruition before our eyes. Here, assuredly, is a pivotal book by the man who is our greatest writer about science and technology. Gleick is the man who wrote "Chaos," "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" and "Isaac Newton."

To call him contemporary literature's great living master of popular science and technology implies a clumsy reductionism -- even a "dumbing down" -- which couldn't possibly be further from the case with Gleick. The writer's own brain is so clever and poetic and eloquent that his narrative digests of the lives and ideas of others quite literally end up as marvels on every page of "The Information."

On page 29, for instance, we are told about Walter J. Ong "Jesuit priest, philosopher and cultural historian" and his classic analogy about "oral literature as a variant of writing." It is, said Ong, "rather like thinking of horses as automobiles without wheels."

Says Gleick, "when it comes to the preliterate past, we modern folks are hopelessly automobilized. The written word is the mechanism by which we know what we know." How then, in our hopelessly "automobilized" brains, can we possibly understand a culture that had only horses?

That's a small sample of the almost effortless elegance and agility of Gleick's brain in writing every page of "The Information."

His story begins in his prologue with a specific place and time -- the Bell Telephone Labs in 1948.

That's where it was announced that the transistor had been invented. But, writes Gleick, "an invention even more profound and fundamental came in a monograph spread across 79 pages of the Bell System Technical Journal in July and October. It carried a title both simple and grand 'A Mathematical Theory of Communication' -- and the message was hard to summarize. But it was a fulcrum around which the world began to turn."

It was the birth of "information theory" whose father, at 32, was Claude Shannon, Bell thinker and originator of the "bit," a "unit for measuring information."

By the time Gleick's epic tale -- and meditation -- is over, we've been told about:

The paradoxical prolixity of African talking drums, the primal communications medium relevant to us now.

The relationship of mathematician, cryptologist and ur-computer genius Charles Babbage with Lord Byron's daughter, Ada, often thought of as the ur-programmer of computers and the woman whose understanding exceeded Babbage's.

Norbert Weiner, a "short and rotund man" with "heavy glasses and a Mephistophelian goatee" who gave us the term "cybernetics" and turned into what Gleick sees as Shannon's rival -- one far more successful at becoming generally known but not in any theoretical way that Gleick seems to respect.

Robert Cawdrey, author of the first English-language dictionary, the "Table Alphabeticall."

The profound animadversions of developing the telegraph.

Alan Turing, renowned British code-breaker, mathematician and computer-maker whose wartime activities were as central to Allied War efforts as the Manhattan Project, if not more so. Again, Gleick's cutting through thickets of extraordinary material -- without oversimplifying -- is extraordinary.

Ironically, the Egyptian Revolution, which makes Gleick's book so current and dramatic, also seems to contradict one of the book's conclusions: "The network has a structure. And that structure depends on a paradox. Everything is close, and everything is far, at the same time. This is why cyberspace can not just feel crowded but lonely. You can drop a stone into a well and never hear a splash."

Or you can hear 3,000 years of dictatorial rule crumbling. It all depends.

In telling his tale, Gleick's choices were clearly to emphasize those figures not generally and popularly known -- Shannon, Ong -- over those that are more widely acknowledged -- Wiener, McLuhan. In McLuhan's case, that means an encapsulization of his thought at one point which couldn't possibly be more errantly reductionist if it tried (has McLuhan's phrase -- and concept -- the "global village" ever seemed more brilliant and current than it does now?).

A small matter in an extraordinary book for our time whose appearance couldn't possibly be more timely.

Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books editor.



The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick


526 pages, $28.95