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Extended book review: “La théorie de l’information” by Aurélien Bellanger

I first stumbled over “La théorie de l’information” by Aurélien Bellanger – published this summer – in a review by Le Soir about a month ago. It was a sunny Saturday morning, a rare occasion here in Brussels, and I was reading the weekend edition of the Belgian newspaper over a breakfast in a café.

I remember quite well because it was the deadline week-end for the first complete draft of my PhD thesis on information flows in EU policy-making, and so stumbling over a review of a book about the theory of information, framed as “generational” in Le Soir’s review, seemed kind of timely.

Now, during a week of autumn holidays in France, I stumbled over the book again in a book shop. Contrary to my remembrance, it was a presented as a novel (‘roman’), not as a non-fiction book as I recalled from the review. So I decided to read it, hoping to find a more fictional approach to a topic that I have followed academically.

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Yet, the book is less a novel than a historic narrative of the economy of information and communication technology from a French perspective, built around the fictional biography of Pascal Ertanger. This history ranges from the Minitel over PC-based internet to today’s mobile web and finishes in a near technological future. Ertanger is part of this history by making a fortune in developing a business that successfully exploits and pushes forward the important social and technological changes that have taken place over the last 40 years – a narrative technique that very much reminds me of “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared” published in 2009.

The fact that La théorie de l’information doesn’t really feel like a novel is that, most of the time, the historical and economic narrative seems more important than the actual development of the fictional story. In other words, it is obvious that the human part of the story is much less important than the technical and economic aspects. In many instances, the text reads like a school book about recent history, like an explanation of how technology and social behaviours have evolved recently, and the explanation is given for those who have grown up with the changes but didn’t really notice all the details.

The title of the book, “La théorie de l’information”, is mainly built on scientific and philosophical interludes between each chapter, often referencing a 1948 academic article by C.E. Shannon titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication“. This article, presented as a kind of central and revolutionary text in the novel, is referenced well over 300 times This is not small, but still not massive compared for example with the more than 22,000 citiations of “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Granovetter which deals with information exchanges in social relations. Shannon’s article will now gain much more attention (I hadn’t seen it before reading the novel), so maybe the book will be a self-fulfilling prophecy with regard to this text. referenced well over 90,000 times according to Google Scholar up until today, quite an important number of citations indeed. (updated 23:28)

What does this tell about the book?

It is mostly a good read, assembling a lot of fascinating elements that make it in fact a generational book worth reading. But it’s not necessarily a good novel because the fictional story is very week and many of the historical or economic discussions are not advancing the story. It is also not necessarily a good history book because the historical accuracy is not always clear as it is mixed with fiction. And it is not necessarily a good academic, scientific or philosophical book because the theoretical and philosophical elements used are not very consistent and the intersection between the different arguments not always convincing.

It’s biggest strength is probably by presenting the recent technological and social changes from a French perspective, including education, economy, industry, politics, research, philosophy in France and by connecting all this through the means of a novel. An English translation of the book would in particular bring to the attention of a wider global audience the importance of the Minitel technology switched of this summer which seems to have brought many political and social discussions we were having in the last 10-15 years through the growth in importance of the World Wide Web in most western societies already to the France of the 1980s.

And not necessarily a strength but still important is that it seems indeed to be a generational book. It seems to express a growing need in “our” generation to make sense of the massive changes we have grown up with and which largely relate to the way how digital technology changes the ways we access and exchange data, information and knowledge.

In fact, also this summer, the non-fictional book “Die Digitale Gesellschaft” (‘The digital society’) was published in Germany. The two authors Falk Lüke and Markus Beckedahl, one a little younger and the other a little older than Aurélien Bellanger and both part of geek politics and culture in Germany or at least in Berlin, try to explain to the generation of their parents the latest developments in the digital age and the political challenges that come with it (note: I’ve only read some paragraphs of the book and some reviews).

Funny enough, while Aurélien has chosen the means of the novel criticised or at least noticed for its Wikipedia-style, Falk and Markus have chosen a more anecdotal and political approach criticised for its blog-like style. Both could be indicators that these are indeed generational books, without necessarily telling something about their quality. To follow-up, it is now time to make a traditional TV series about the digital age that can be criticised to be too Youtube-like. And a radio feature on the societal changes that is too-podcast-esque (German geeks might say that Chaos Radio Express and Chaos Radio have already gone there…).

I for myself will go into the final redaction of my PhD thesis in the weeks to come, a researched and written at the same time as two books referenced above were written. It was a research somewhere between information flows in traditional political networks and the changes brought to EU information by digital networks, with a focus on the former but knowing that the latter might take over more and more. Obviously a generational problem, as Aurélien Bellanger’s novel has shown in a fashion that is definitely better readable than an academic thesis. That’s for sure.

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