March 10, 2012

What do I mean by "Information Age?"

The more I think about this, the more I realize that I lack a clear short statement of what I mean by the term "Information Age". It's in my head, but not down on electronic paper.

And I'm also realizing that other people are using the words in a different way. Here's Wikipedia...

The Information Age, also commonly known as the Computer Age or Digital Age, is an idea that the current age will be characterized by the ability of individuals to transfer information freely, and to have instant access to information that would have been difficult or impossible to find previously. The idea is linked to the concept of a digital age or digital revolution, and carries the ramifications of a shift from traditional industry that the industrial revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on the manipulation of information, i.e., an information society.

The Information Age formed by capitalizing on the computer microminiaturization advances, with a transition spanning from the advent of the personal computer in the late 1970s to the internet's reaching a critical mass in the early 1990s, and the adoption of such technology by the public in the two decades after 1990. Bringing about a fast evolution of technology in daily life, as well as of educational life style, the Information Age has allowed rapid global communications and networking to shape modern society.

Well, that's good stuff, worth reading. But I don't think it quite hits the target. The change in the world was deeper than just the coming of computers and the Internet. I suspect things were changing, in quiet, little-noticed ways, for many decades before computers. And that the 1960's was the decade when many rumbles and tremors deep underground turned into earthquakes and volcanos— well before computers had much impact on the lives ordinary people.

I'm groping a bit here, so feel free to criticize or give me suggestions. But I'm thinking that the "Information Age" began when people's view of life began to change as information began to move horizontally in quantity. In the Industrial Age, the technology to move and digest information was under-developed. Mostly it was words on pieces of paper. So information had to be moved in pre-set channels, or "brokered" by agencies that gathered it and distributed it. And this meant that information moved vertically. For instance, from retail store to regional office to headquarters to the bosses. And back down.

It was the same with the "brokers." Newspapers for instance. Information moved up from reporter to re-write man to copy editor to editor... then down to printers and distributors (newsboys and news-stands) and then down to consumers. When I was young it was almost unheard of for the newspaper reader to contact the reporter of a story--that is, to move information horizontally.

Many 20th century developments tended to make it easier to go horizontal. Telephones increasingly made it easy to cut right into some big organization, if you just had the right phone number. Automobiles and better roads had a similar effect—they let you just personally GO somewhere, and get to the heart of something. Radio was a very direct and immediate form of entertainment—you were listening to Jack Benny live, in real time. All these things were working on people's minds, suggesting new possibilities, well before they resulted in the overt changes that marked a new age.

By the way, a common cliché is that getting information from the Internet is like "drinking from a fire hydrant." But this misses the real point of interest, which is that we DO drink from the hydrant, and we do so pretty well. I bet I take in 40 times as much information as I did when I was young, and don't even think it's a big deal. I browse scores of blogs and web-sites a day. Imagine that amount of information arriving as mail! Or imagine burrowing through newspapers and magazines to pick out the bits you want.

A minor frustration is that I don't have an image to accompany my scribbles. (I like this one, by photographer Graeme Nicol, on Flickr. It kinda captures my idea, but it's perhaps a bit bewildering to the eye for many people.) I need something like my little climate icons, but I can't imagine what might work...

For lack of something better, here's a piece by Jules Guerin, done (I think) for Metropolitan Magazine, 1905. It sort of expresses my mental picture, of industrial progress mounting higher and higher, until finally reaching some critical mass that initiates a new age of the world...

Posted by John Weidner at March 10, 2012 2:55 PM
Weblog by John Weidner