Why Information Grows

By César Hidalgo Basic Books, 232 pages, $26.99

The question seems basic, but economists have yet to find a comprehensive answer: Why and how do economies grow? Additional capital and labor were long considered the main factors. Then the focus shifted to higher productivity and increased human capital, the knowledge embodied in members of society.

César Hidalgo tackles the question in another way. Economies grow because the information contained in them grows — not just in people's heads, but also in the social networks that connect everyone and even in the objects that populate the world, he says in his book, "Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies."

As such sweeping phrases make clear, adding to economic-growth theory is not the only goal motivating Hidalgo, a statistical physicist who teaches at MIT's Media Lab and is a pioneer in data visualization tools His aim is nothing less than to lay out a universal theory of information — one that applies to everything, from the lifeless to the living, and to all scales, from atoms to economies.

In the first chapters, Hidalgo succeeds brilliantly in bringing his complex subject to life. His book is full of nuggets, from memorable phrases to interesting metaphors. Yet, he should take some time and rewrite the second half, in which the language is more convoluted, the arguments patchier. It could turn "Why Information Grows" from an interesting book into a great one.