An Informal Model of Information Revolutions


As we are about to look a more modern information revolutions, where we have more written data, we can be more intentional in identifying common patterns. We can to this in two ways first identify similarities in the information revolutions we have already examined and second to think carefully about what we think might be true, so we can “call our shots” and then see if more modern information revolutions support the model. This will help us project what we have learned into the present and future.

The patterns we have already seen in the information revolutions we have examined are:


From what we have already seen we know that each information revolution has been shorter and shorter. The time from the first use of symbols to writing to the spread of writing throughout the world is measured in thousands of years. The fall of Rome is measured in hundreds of years. Even if the number of hundreds is different for different scholars – if one starts the fall with the crisis of the third century and dates the fall as the middle of the 6th century then it is more than 300 years, but some scholars place the ultimate fall as during the 9th century or even at the year 1000 CE. And, the growth of learning fostered by the Church did not become pervasive until after 1000 CE.

Unit Size

Each information revolution we have examined thus far has seen a change in the size of the unit that people see as relevant to their everyday lives. Hunting and gathering bands are generally around 20 to 50 people. The first agricultural settlements may have been as large as a thousand or more. With the invention of symbol systems and writing city-states and even empires were possible. The Fall of Rome being, in many ways, an initial loss of information, reduced the unit size to the manor, the village, and the cathedral city. With the rebirth of learning fostered by the Church, city-states, and kingships became the major unit.

Innovation and Limits

In the various information revolutions we have examined thus far, we can see that there are limits to how big a system can grow with a given information technology. The introduction and use of a new information technology permits the group that invents or adopts it, to transcend that limit.

In any group relevant actors generally have failed to anticipate limits and are helpless in the face of them. For example, Rome didn’t know it had reached its information limit. It only tacitly realized it with the crisis of the third century.

Diocletian and Constantine addressed the information limit by decentralizing and drastically changed the organization of the Empire. Decentralization, by its nature, allowed greater autonomy. Therefore, during the following centuries, the stresses the Empire experienced were both absorbed fairly well and the central authority of Rome became less and less important to the welfare of local populations until the Empire dissolved.

Class Dynamics

In the earliest information revolutions – the invention of scarcity and agriculture, symbols, and writing – the tripartite elite were the beneficiaries of the advances in learning. The fall of Rome broke the control of the tripartite elite and liberated information so that it now is important for us to look at the impact of information on more than just the elite.

Looking Forward

As we move forward to more modern information revolutions, because of greater information availability, we can achieve a finer focus than we have thus far.

Because of this finer focus we should add to our observations by some careful thought and then see if all of the patterns hold true for more modern information revolutions.

Innovation and Information Access

It stands to reason that where there is more access to information there will be more innovation.

Information access can increase in two ways:

1. There is more information to be known,

2. More people can know it.

For example, the Renaissance increased information access because people were discovering and translating old texts – there was more information to be known – the press increased information access because it brought information to more people – more people can know.

Innovation and Success

By and large, success makes people and institutions conservative. – “Why interfere with what works?” Individual innovators may keep innovating, but over all, people tend to keep do what works rather than look for something new. They may make small changes at the margin, “tweaking” a successful enterprise to make it more successful, but they won’t jeopardize their success with major change. This suggests that as a sector, or a country, or an industry in one country is successful, innovation in that group will tend to decrease over time. New innovations, therefore, will come from people who are not part of the successful mainstream – the “out group” rather than the “in group”. Therefore we should see countries, companies, and individuals “leap frogging” over each other in innovation.

Innovation and Fear

Information technology presents new knowledge to people – it presents a new and unfamiliar world. People learn about customs of others that may seem strange and threatening. And, societies actually do change in an information revolution, different people rise to prominence and people who were secure loose their standing. Old definitions of class and social order don’t operate the in the way they used to. All of this adds to the fear people are already experiencing because of innovation and social change. Fear leads to a longing for the safer more secure time as when one was a child. So during times of widespread change people idealize the past and try to recreate it. Information based change is widespread since it affects all sectors of the economy and production.

The longing for a simpler time and for more control lead to oppression and war.

If fear is associated with the information technology it can result in suppression and/or control of the information technology.

Innovation in Standard and Information Technology

Innovation of any kind is sometimes successful and sometimes not – trial and error is intrinsic to innovation. Trial and error during an information revolution means both that there will be great innovation based success and there will be similar ventures that will fail.

This is true of all kinds of technological innovation but in an information revolution there is an interesting timing difference between information based innovation and other technological innovation.

With standard, technological innovation the success of a technology is limited to one area of the economy. For example, if a new loom is invented, the cloth trade will boom. That will be followed by a boom in clothing manufacture which in turn will be followed by a boom in laundry soap. This may have further impact on the entire fashion industry including shoes, gloves, and hats to go with the new clothes. This combination of events may eventually have an impact on how people perceive class since clothing based cues have changed.

Under this scenario as the innovation in one sector reaches its limit, it “tops out” – that all growth possible has been achieved – then that industry or sector will experience a down turn and the less efficient businesses will fail (Figure 1A). But because the growth is not synchronized the other sectors of the economy will bear some of the weight of the down turn and there will still be people succeeding so that the entire economy will not be affected across the board.

With information based innovation every sector experiences reduced costs for transactions and communications, and improvements in organization

They all prosper at more or less at the same time – synchronized impact.

The entire economy will grow and that growth will be bigger and longer, followed by a boom as people continue to invest even when all the growth possible has been achieved, at which point the economy will crash (Figure 1B). So even if the long term economic impact is the same the boom bust pattern will make the short term impact of an information revolution more extreme.

Under construction

Figure 1 A. Economic Impact of Standard Innovation, B. Economic Impact of Information technology. C. Comparison of the economic impact of Standard and Information technology

Phased Behavior

Phase One – Because the elites have access to the new technology first they should innovate first. They should innovate by making existing practices, organizations and procedures more efficient and this should allow the unit size to grow. However because success is conservative, we should see an overshoot and downturn as those improvements hit their limits and while there will be changes in scale, there will not be changes in social structure or even organizational structure other than those necessary to support a larger unit.

Phase Two – This should be followed by non-elite – “out group” or pioneers – innovation. During this time period there will be differential innovation fueled growth depending upon information access. In contexts where there is high information access there should be a lot of growth, in contexts where there is little information access there will be little growth, if there are contexts with intermediate information access they will experience intermediate growth.

During the second phase there will be social and economic dislocation as people change the way they produce goods and organize themselves into groups.

This in turn may produce conservative reaction as people experience fear brought on by social and economic dislocation and by their seeing a larger and more complex world that is brought to them via the new information technology.

Conclusion – Putting it Together

From our discussion we have identified questions that we should bear in mind as we move forward to more modern information revolutions:

  1. Can we identify the effect of growth limits?
  2. Do we see overshoot and instability (depression, downturns, failure)?
  3. Are over all unit sizes increased because of new information technology?
  4. Can we identify ways in which success is conservative – people do what has worked?
    or, its obverse do we see innovation from the “out group” (people who are not members of the existing elite)?
  5. Do we see phased behavior? First phase behavior should be the same for all elites and growth should be similar across all contexts. Second phase behavior should be from the “out group” and economic growth should be greatest where information access is greatest and least where information access is least
  6. Do we see social instability as a result of innovation? Do we see innovation and social instability begetting fear and repressive reaction?

As we move forward it will be useful for us to look at various levels of society to get a clearer picture of how the information revolution affected the people and countries of Europe differently depending upon what choices they made.

A Note on Method

As we move forward we will be focusing on the impact of the press and other information technologies rather than on the technology per se because, I would argue, the strength of a technology is in its use rather than in its first appearance. This impact is more important to understand the dynamics of social, cultural and economic change. These changes occur because a large number of people make individual choices on the basis of the evidence of their individual experience.[1]

People experience the world through their technology. We saw above, in Chapter VII, how heavy iron plow, hard horse collar, use of horse shoes, and the three field system of cultivation, resulted in a different conceptual reality for the tenant farmer because of the changed physical relationship between a man and the land he tilled. That could not have happened at the moment of the idea of the plow or even when the first yields were harvested from land tilled by the new plow. It took repeated interactions before the boldest would take the step of marrying without a share-hold, moving to a new territory, or founding a new town.

[1] (Bloch, 1928; Harris, 1979)