When was the age of information?

By Paul Duguid

My principal connection to the field of history is through an undergraduate course I co-teach called “History of Information.” It’s a course that seeks to take students from Lascaux to WhatsApp and beyond in fifteen weeks: its key transitional phrase, as my colleague notes, is “moving right along.” The naivety of such an enterprise probably reveals to the audience of this blog that neither of the teachers is a historian.

While courses with this title seem surprisingly scarce, it can be hard to say what distinguishes this approach from the more familiar history of human communications. One uneasy refuge is offered by students who when asked when the age of information began regularly answer “with the Big Bang.” Unlike communication, then, information is from this perspective, eternal and universal but then, perhaps, unhistoricizable. End of course.

Another opportunity to control our subject might be, as some students request, to define the key term. Here we could turn to Claude Shannon, the “father” of information theory, whoseMathematical Theory of Communication portrayed information as that which reduces uncertainty. But while Shannon’s concept works brilliantly for mathematical and computational analysis, students don’t have to think too hard to find information that has served to increase their uncertainty—Shannon’s own definition being but one example.

Alternatively, as the course takes place within the University of California system, we might draw on our former regent, Gregory Bateson, who in Shannon’s wake held that information is the “difference that makes a difference” (Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind). It’s a great aphorism, but restricts us to stuff which (a) is causal and, per Bateson, (b) “travels along neural pathways.” In my experience, this definition too easily gets stuck in the latter.

For consolation, I turn to the economist E.O. Hirschman’s Passion and Interests, which notes that “As happens frequently with concepts that are suddenly thrust to the center of the stage … [the concept] appeared so self-evident … nobody bothered to define it precisely.” This approach allows us to avoid definition while raising the question of what thrusts the concept to center stage in particular historical periods. It also suggests two alternative ways to address that question, the emic and the etic. For the latter, we can use contemporary lighting to illuminate stages from the past. This has allowed several historians to dazzlingly expose the actions of earlier centuries in the light of contemporary understandings of information. For teachers of a history of information, however, this etic view still slides too easily back to the Big Bang. The emic approach, by contrast, asks us only to see how historical subjects themselves became aware of and used the concept (while keeping at bay strange notions like James Gleick’s in The Informationthat “in the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself”).

An emic approach allows us to fall back on Peter Burke’s guidance in The Social History of Knowledge, where he addresses the question of “What is Knowledge?” by considering what historical actors “rather than the present author or his readers” considered to be “knowledge.” In contrast to the brilliant illumination of contemporary digital light, taking such an emic view of “information” can feel more like trying to see by the flickering flame of a tallow candle. But it has advantages, in particular asking why “information” might have been “thrust to the center of the stage” and how people became aware of it as a forceful concept. Moreover, while emic approaches can make the past seem utterly distant, they can occasionally make it disconcertingly familiar, as, for example, when Vicesimus Knox, an eighteenth-century essayist, vicar, and schoolteacher, declared in words usually attributed to Marshall McLuhan, that his was the “age of information,” a declaration that led me to write my essay on the topic in the current issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas. While I have never yet convinced my students that they have much in common with McLuhan, let alone eighteenth-century vicars, what intrigued me in looking at “information” in that century was the way in which then as in the twentieth, the notion was at first embraced with enthusiasm as a means to transform society but “aged” surprisingly quickly, coming to be looked upon with a certain weariness. As the concept took center stage in both centuries, people began to think you couldn’t have enough of the stuff, while later coming to feel that it was hard to avoid having too much.

Paul Duguid is co-author of The Social Life of Information, and teaches courses on the history and the concept of information in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. His article “The Ageing of Information” appears in the July issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

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