Why Information Revolutions?

A number of years ago, now, in the mid-eighties I was taking courses in cybernetic systems at San Jose State University and working as an archaeologist looking at construction sites in the Santa Clara Valley. I was living in a camper on the back of a pickup truck both because I was a starving graduate student and because it worked well traveling from one construction site to another.

In my graduate program, we were talking and learning about change in complex systems. I had applied to the program because I was interested in how climate change, the introduction of humans to the New World, the animals and plants interacted during the extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago) and what all that may have had to do with the invention of agriculture.

My fellow graduate students were also interested in change in complex systems but they were looking at other systems – business, sociology, psychology – and since we were in the Santa Clara Valley, which was just beginning to be called “Silicon Valley” we all talked a lot about information technology and the new “information age”. I was an avid reader and contributor to the WELL – one of the first “on line” communities.

In my job I was grappling with how people had lived several thousand years ago. The work I was doing was necessary because of the development boom made possible and necessary by the computer boom of “Silicon Valley”. So daily, I was confronted with the contrast between hunter/gatherers and the material wealth generated by the ‘Information Age’ computer boom.

In my life I had done a re-evaluation of what home, house and possessions meant. I couldn’t afford to live in the Santa Clara Valley, and study at the University. I realized that home only had to be a place where I could be warm, safe, dry, and could study. I didn’t need status or most of my stuff. So I let go of most of my possessions, bought a cab over camper and lived on the construction sites or at the lab where I worked. I seldom slept in the same place two nights in a row.

When we weren’t actually digging up a site, or analyzing artifacts in the lab, my job was going from construction site to construction site looking in the trenches being dug by the construction workers and walking the surface to see if there was any indication of archaeological remains. I drove from one construction site to another in my home and office on wheels. If nothing much was happening on a site I could sit there in my truck and read, write reports, or work on my school work.

As I did the work, I realized that I became nervous when I hadn’t visited a site for awhile. The nervousness wasn’t because I thought that there would be some exciting find or that I would get into trouble for not being at one place or another. I had walked all the sites and knew pretty much what to expect. I also had a good idea of where people would be digging. I knew the construction workers working each site, and was confident that if something unexpected turned up they would leave it undisturbed and work somewhere else till I showed up. Nonetheless my nervousness continued.

I was experiencing what Lewis Binford [i] wrote about Inuet hunter/gatherers he had lived with – they moved because they knew what was happening in the place where they were and they wanted to know what was happening over the next ridge. They didn’t move because they had exhausted the game where they were. Like them, I was uneasy when I didn’t know what was happening. There was no material reason for my moving as often as I did, I just wanted to know what was happening.

So, like me, hunter/gatherers were motivated by information not material welfare, knowing not owning. Like me their primary need was just to know. They didn’t need to know what was going on in order to be secure – to make money or to find food. They found food as almost as a side effect of their need to know. Regardless of they were they would hunt and gather food. Binford observed that in the modern Arctic jobs and welfare was available in towns and yet the Inuet would leave the security of the town in order to see what was happening in their regular territory. And, also like me, they carried all their possessions with them all the time so they could move about at will to see what was going on elsewhere.

Anthropologists have long known that hunter/gatherers know as much about plants as agriculturalists but they don’t choose to use that knowledge for planting. So, looking at it from my new camper acquired consciousness, I saw that although both hunter/gatherers and farmers know and own, the mix and the motivation is different. So the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture was a shift in motivation, a shift in what was important and how one viewed the world.

It seemed to me that many of my colleagues and “on line” friends had a similar attitude. They shared their computer code, their writing and ideas. They were optimistic about how information and interacting “on-line” was going to change the world. We all “hung out” in a number of communities, virtual and real. In the virtual world, you are invisible: no one knows what you look like, what your race or gender is, or what you own so, owning seems even more irrelevant. For everyone in those (virtual and real) communities possessions didn’t seem to matter much – we were all going to succeed or fail based on what we knew rather than what we owned. I had students who owned their own companies and so were fairly wealthy at a very young age. And others like me had relatively little but didn’t feel deprived. It seemed to me our attitudes and motivations were a lot like the attitudes and motivations of hunter/gatherers.

[i] Binford, L. R
    1983. In Pursuit of the Past: Decoding the Archaeological Record. Thames & Hudson, NY