What is an Information Revolution? – The Hypothesis

My hypothesis is: if knowing (I-adaptation) and owning material goods (M-adaptation) are two ends of a spectrum and there is a change in how people know (an obvious example is if there is a change in information technology) then there should be major changes in how material goods are perceived and created as well. Similarly when there is a major change in the material welfare of a culture, it might be fruitful to look at what is happening with information (how it circulates, who has access to information and what kind, who controls information and information access) and how that might have changed.

Thus an information revolution is defined as a major shift in the relation between information and material goods.

This book is my exploration of that hypothesis. Below we will consider some of those changes and their implications for history and for us.

Why Write an Information History?

First, no one has looked at history from an information perspective. Historians and scholars have traditionally concentrated on various specialties: war, economy, religious and social history. More recently they have begun to look at racial and ethnic history, women’s history, and the history of colonialism. But, even in this information age, we have not examined how different cultures in different times and settings have used and viewed information. Information is obvious and it is invisible, so it makes looking at it difficult.

It is hard to examine information because information is obvious. We take it for granted that we have to know things to do our jobs or run our lives and raise our children and we know that we learn things from people, books, experiences et.c.

But it is hard to examine information, because information is invisible. We don’t know how we know. We aren’t aware of how the organization of our information affects our perception. We don’t see that the very perception we have of our world is structured by the way information is organized by our technology and presented to us.

An example that is close to us is the transition between an information world structured by the telegraph and telephone and one structured by the internet.

During most of the 20th century, it seemed that the world was hierarchical – like a telegraph switching hierarchy. We came to know that form of hierarchy through organizational charts that were originally based on telegraph networks (figure 1.)*[i] As a consequence, we saw the world organized in the same way. Nature was organized into genera and species, and we identified humans as being at the top, big carnivores as the next tier, followed by their prey – herbivores – which, in their turn, preyed upon plants. Even families were seen as hierarchies with the father at the head, the mother as second in command, the children below them and perhaps the pets subject to the children. Much of the world we saw fit into a hierarchical pattern.

Figure 1 - Traditional Organizational Hierarchy

Figure 1 - Traditional Organizational Hierarchy

Now, however, we see things in terms of networks – in the same form as the internet. Some networks preceded the internet and some followed it, but the more we live in this information age, the more our world seems organized into networks.

An ecosystem is a network of relationships between organisms. We used to think of gibbons eating figs as preying upon the figs. Gibbons were thought of as being “higher” on the food chain. Now we realize that a gibbon is also the way a fig tree spreads its seeds, so a gibbon is a fig tree’s way of making more fig trees. Similarly we used to think of wolves preying upon deer as the wolf being “higher” on the food chain. Now we know that wolves cull the deer population of weak, diseased and old animals and so keep deer, as a species, strong.

We see a business is a network of workers as well as a hierarchy of managers and workers. We are at pains to see that our businesses aren’t “stove-piped” – that people talk across the chain of command.

The brain is seen as a neural network. It is one part of the network of our nervous system.  We as social individuals live in social networks.

Our children are being raised by a network of caretakers – “it takes a village to raise a child” and we see children as individuals interacting in their various social networks rather than as subordinate to their parents and teachers. It just seems natural to see things as networks, just as before it was just natural to see things as hierarchies.

So, our information technology presents a pattern that helps us organize our information. But it also gives us a way to organize the world in which we live and we see that organization as “natural”, as just plain common sense.

* The first Organizational Chart was created by Daniel McCallum for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He conceived of it as a communications network and based it on telegraph switching networks. He was amongst the first and most creative users of the telegraph for continuous monitoring of rail traffic.

[i] Chandler, A, D.
1993 The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Belknap Press; New Ed edition, Cambridge, MA