One of the greatest questions of future historians will be how to address the digital age. The advent of personal computers, the internet, and more recently, increasingly powerful mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, have transformed our society. Today we can access information, talk to one another, and interact with societal institutions in ways that were near unimaginable two decades ago. How will historians address the challenges raised by emergence of digital society?
In Digital History, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig argue that in the past two decades new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present and teach the past. At our own University of Waterloo, Dr. Ian Milligan has begun to conceive of how historians will explore the vast amount of digital sources available to historians studying online discussion as well as the role of children and youth in the debate around Canadian internet regulation. He is not alone and many historians have started to define the methodology and practise for the new field of “digital history.” This week we would like to offer some broad historical perspectives on the digital society of 2013. This post is by no means comprehensive or definitive, rather we offer a perfunctory exploration.
Historians often confront the question of continuity or change. While change is an inherent part of historical progression, there are always elements of the past which are carried forward. The concept of continuity and change are a useful starting point for examining digital society. Even though the last two decades of technological progress have radically transformed our society, we can still pick out threads of continuity from the pre-digital age.
Computers are essentially tools to organize and use information. Data is stored in hard drives and we interact with that data using programs, which are tools for users to access or change the information (or data) on the hard drive. While this simple explanation understates the breadth of possibilities, it highlights the fundamental aspect of any digital interaction: the manipulation of information. The underlying code from which programs are constructed, sending data over networks, or transcribing something into a word document, all deal with information in some way.
It makes sense then, to connect the digital world to the history of “Information Society,” which stretches long before the invention of computers. For instance, the origins of formalized categorizing and organising information can be found in the intellectual culture of early modern Europe. Ann M. Blair argues that information collection in the West began on a large scale during the Renaissance, as scholars sought to gather and manage as much information as possible. In her book, Too Much to Know, she explains how the rediscovery of knowledge from Antiquity led a new generation of scholars to not only put that information down in writing, often in the recently invented “encyclopaedia,” but also to seek out new entries to fill. They began to list new plants and animals, languages, historical events, much of what we find in an encyclopaedia today. This drive was not simply a result of new knowledge, but also a reflection of a new cultural attitude towards compiling information. Through the work of generations of Renaissance scholars, vast texts were written and spread as each scion furthered the knowledge of the “whole.” As the cultural shift towards information preservation was matched by new a medium for information, the printed book, one of the world’s first information revolutions was underway.
The creation of the printing press finally allowed scholars to move away from their dependency on manuscripts. Manuscripts were painstakingly written out by hand by an army of scribes. Yet within sixty years of the invention of the printing press in Mainz, Germany, by Johann Gutenberg, it had spread across much of Europe. As more and more books were deemed worthwhile to “preserve” in print, access to those books became easier. An unexpected consequence of this technological development was the sheer number of works that began to be distributed. Much like those who today worry about the seemingly infinite number of blogs, news articles and comments, Europeans scholars were worried about the overabundance of information. Humanist scholar Erasmus asked in 1526 “is there anywhere on earth exempt from theses swarms of new books? [Printers] fill the world with pamphlets and books [that are] … foolish, ignorant, malignant, libellous, mad, impious and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness.” As books became easier and easier to preserve, it seemed as if too many books, good and bad, would overwhelm the learned.
The solution then, as it is now, was not to set about the impossible task of reducing the number of sources of information. Instead, the solution may be in what some historians describe as a “reading revolution.” The revolution in how Europeans read books created a new way of dealing with the large amounts of information. Noted English literary critic and writer Samuel Johnson, creator of one of the first comprehensive English dictionaries, described four different kinds of reading used to best absorb information. One, “hard study” for learned books read with pen (or keyboard) in hand; two, “perusal” for close reading for specific information; three, “curious reading” for the leisurely reading of fiction; and four, “mere reading” for quickly scanning text for information. Each reflected the book being read and the purpose of the reader in reading it. Only if a reader was better equipped to process information could they begin the task of categorizing it.
Much like the researcher poring over an excess of electronic journal articles and printed monographs, European readers were forced to adopt new approaches to information as the printing press flooded libraries with new books and pamphlets to be read. These approaches reveal two key points about information management: knowing what to read closely and what to skim and knowing which sources have the information required. In Johnson’s words, “knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information upon it.” In the 21st century as we grapple with another revolution in how information is spread we can learn from history’s lessons. Adapting to new methods of finding and processing information has allowed us to efficiently and effectively operate in the internet age. Searching for information in a word document or PDF is aided by using the search function, and is far easier to skim a document by scrolling with a mouse than by flipping pages. We are already using tools to help us find information, like Google, or Image search engine TinyEye, or academic journal databases which allow us to search by title, subject or publication.
As the generation that has never known a world without networked computers enters maturity, we will continue to see its effects and it is worthwhile to reflect on the lesson of the first “information revolution.” The spread of the computer has had dramatic effects on our world. Still, it is ultimately a medium for information much like the printed book. These connections offer clues as to how historians might one day approach digital society. Despite the drastic transformation we've undergone in two decades, there are precedents that can be drawn to the rise of “information society” centuries ago.