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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Digital Historiography: Information
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 1999

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Source: Digital Historiography: Information
David J. Staley

vol. 2, no. 2, August 1999
Article Type: Book Review

Digital Historiography: Information

David J. Staley

Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy and the Computer Revolution (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)

Paul Levinson,The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution (Routledge, 1997)

Douglas S. Robertson, The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization (Oxford University Press, 1998)

"Civilization is information," observes Douglas Robertson. "Most of the factors that characterize a civilization—its ethics and laws, its technology, its philosophy and religion, its literature and art—are forms of information."(9) If Robertson is correct, that civilization equals information, then to study the history of a civilization would involve a study of its information. What would a history of information look like? Historians have long been interested in the history of law and art and philosophy, but to study "information history" would require that the historian overlook the content and meaning of human cultural artifacts to concentrate instead on their abstract structure. In which case "information" might become a category of historical inquiry such as "class" or "gender" or "mentalite."

Evoking Claude Shannon and information theory, Robertson maintains that the information capacity of various levels of civilization is a quantity that can be measured. He argues that changes in technology increase the information capacity for that civilization, usually by orders of magnitude above the previous level. For example, Robertson calculates that preliterate civilizations could only produce 10 to the ninth bits of information; civilizations with writing have a capacity of 1011 bits; civilizations with printing, 1017 bits. The computer, according to Robertson's calculations, provides a potential capacity of 1025 bits, which has led to what he terms an "information explosion."

Much of Robertson's text speculates on the forms of information likely to emerge as a result of this information explosion. For example, he notes that computers have already allowed for new methods and theories in the sciences and mathematics, such as chaos theory and fractal geometry, and that the future promises unprecedented advances that we cannot even imagine. In fact, most of the remainder of the text is given over to giddy and hyperbolic speculation, usually based on the idea that any computerized similacra of a human attribute is a progressive and inevitable step in the next level of human civilization. Computers will produce music, theatrical performances and educational testing, freeing human creativity from pointless mental repetition. What Robertson does not make clear is exactly how increased capacity alone will create the changes he predicts.

The foundation of Robertson's argument—that information capacity is quantifiable and determines the level of civilization—is based on dubious numbers calculated according to a crude methodology based only on a limited domain of information. Nevertheless, I find his attempt to think about and identify the information capacity of a civilization very evocative, historiographically significant, and by far the most interesting—if somewhat limited—part of the book. Historians could learn a great deal if we could identify and measure the amount of information in a given society at a given point in time.

Such a measurement could be only a crude approximation. Not all information from the past has survived in tact; thus, any measurement would be, by definition, incomplete. Incompleteness of data rarely deters the historian, however; I can foresee armies of quantitative-minded graduate students, armed with computers, pouring over reams of data, seeking an information algorithm for societies of the past. Any such measurement would have to calculate not only the amount of written information, but also the amount of visual, oral and kinesic information found in the civilization, mediums Robertson's calculations ignore.

Even though we could not calculate exact amounts, the experiment in thinking of society in terms of information capacity can still be useful. Historians might, for example, construct plausible guesses, and then compare these theoretical amounts of information between different societies. We could ask, for example, if Charlemagne's Aachen had less information than Pericles' Athens? Robertson claims that information capacity determines the cultural forms and institutions of a given civilization; that, for example, only those societies with printing can achieve and maintain democracy. Would this mean that the information capacity of Aachen determined the cultural forms located there?

If information is a quantity, does it behave like matter: that is, is the capacity of information finite regardless of the level of technological sophistication? If this is true, if the information capacity between societies is roughly the same, then perhaps what distinguishes the information between them is not the capacity, but rather the configuration. To return to the above example, perhaps the difference between Aachen and Athens is not the amount of information but rather how that information was arranged in each case. One could argue, for example, that Charlemagne'scapital had less written information, but more of another type of information, say visual or kinesic. Periclean Athens had more written and spoken information, in the form of public dramas. Even if information capacity is not finite and instead varies across time and space, it might still be useful to think about the configuration of that information, what we might term a society's "information environment," a more qualitative judgement about the balance of information between written and spoken words, sounds, images, and movement.

Following this line of thought, we might then begin to investigate the type of information that predominates in the information environment. We might identify textual or oral or visual information environments. Did Victorian London possesses a predominantly textual environment? Was Renaissance Florence more visual? While not using the phrase "information environment," Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman do seek to identify the predominant information "idiom" for a given time and place.

Hobart and Schiffman begin their text defining "information." They prefer a qualitative definition, not a numerical or quantitative one. The authors draw upon etymological sources to determine that information is any mental object that is abstracted and disembodied from the flux of experience. Their text is a history of those objects.

Hobart and Schiffman identify three periods, or "ages" in the history of information: classical, modern and contemporary. At the beginning of each period, a technology is developed which serves as the new conduit of information: the alphabet in the classical period, the calculus in the modern period, and the computer in the contemporary age. These technologies favor a specific type, or configuration, or "idiom" of information: literacy and numeracy in the first two ages, and a not-clearly-defined idiom for the contemporary age. Information in each age serves a distinct purpose: for wisdom and knowledge in earlier ages, and for power and play in our age. The information in each successive age becomes more abstract, increasingly distant from direct experience. Thus, in the classical period, information was used chiefly for purposes of classification; in the modern period for analysis. In the contemporary age of the computer, information is pure technique. To make this complex history clearer, I have created a chart which visualizes the main themes of the book.


Interestingly, Hobart and Schiffman believe that "information" is an invention of the "classical age," specifically with the creation of the alphabet. Before phonetic writing, they contend, human communication was carried out through speech; orality was the chief idiom of the "pre-classical" age. Since speech is intimately related to direct experience, and since information refers to mental objects abstracted from direct experience, oral cultures had no information.

I have no doubt that many scholars will object to this characterization of oral cultures as "informationless." In many ways, this sounds like a restatement of the archaic argument that "history begins with writing." Yet even if one accepts Hobart and Schiffman's definition, one could easily argue that the birth of information lies with the creation of the first images, long before the invention of writing. Consider the cave paintings at Lascaux, or the small human figurine dubbed the "Venus of Willendorf," which were created several thousand years before the first writing systems. Through the technologies of stone carving or wall painting, and in a effort to commemorate memory or a spiritual offering, early humans created visual abstractions. Given her bodily exaggerations, some scholars interpret the Venus figure not as a physical representation of a human but as an abstraction for "life." Thus, by Hobart and Schiffman's standards, information was born in an age of "iconicity."

However, much like Robertson, Hobart and Schiffman do not include a visual idiom in any of their information ages. Further, there is another place in their account where the term "iconicity" would be appropriate. If the alphabet engendered a literate idiom, and mathematics a numerical one, what sort of idiom does the computer engender? Hobart and Schiffman dance around this issue. They hint that "binary code" is the new idiom of the contemporary age; yet binary numbers exist in a form unseen by most computer users. To say that the idiom of the computer age is bits of 1s and 0s is like saying the idiom of the Renaissance was pigment and marble, not one-point perspective, in effect, confusing material with idiom. I would suggest, again using terms and definitions offered by the authors, that given the amount of images bombarding us through film, television and now computers, ours is an age of "iconicity." Iconicity in the computer age, however, is much more abstract than the iconicity of the age of cave paintings.

For Robertson and Hobart and Schiffman, information is cold, abstract and disembodied from human experience. For Paul Levinson, information is life. Far from being an abstraction, information and the technologies which contain it are extensions of human capabilities. Levinson, sounding like McLuhan, terms this his "anthropotropic" theory, that "all media eventually become more human in their performance—that is, they facilitate communication that is increasingly like the ways humans process information 'naturally,' or prior to the advent of given media." (xvi) If humans develop writing, it is because we are linguistic creatures; if we develop radio, it is because our ears allow us to hear. His metaphors for information and its technologies derive from biology and evolution, hence the title "a natural history" to describe his work.

Only after I read Levinson did I see a larger historiographical pattern among these four "information historians:" in each case, their periodization is logocentric and Eurocentric. If these books are representative of any emerging subspecialty of information history, they are based on the assumption that the history of information begins with writing, enters a period of print and ends with electronic communications. "Ancient, Medieval and Modern" has been replaced by "Writing, Printing and Computers." Sound and image, dance and song are included only when digitized; prior to the computer, these forms of information do not count. Further, this periodization draws nearly exclusively from Western examples; Chinese writing or African images have a limited place in the history of information, it seems, even before the arrival of the computer. If "information" is to become a legitimate category of historical investigation, it must be defined to include a wider domain of mental objects.

If these books suggest any historiographic directions, it is that "information history" will not be like intellectual history, cultural history, art history or literary history. These types of history deal with the content and meaning of information. The history of information appears to deal with the form, the architecture, the containers of meaning. Nor does information history seem to be concerned strictly with technology, the devices that store and transmit information. Information history will be a history somewhere between the software and the hardware.