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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Digital Historiography: Analogies
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 2001

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Source: Digital Historiography: Analogies
David J. Staley

vol. 4, no. 3, November 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Digital Historiography: Analogies

David J. Staley

Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, eds. The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print. (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)

Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers. (New York: Walker and Company, 1998)

During moments of crisis, the public often consults historians. Throughout the long weeks after the presidential election of 2000, historians such as Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin appeared daily on television and cable, offering background and perspective on events. Journalists and other members of the media applauded the insights these historians offered; USA Today proclaimed in one headline that "Historians calm the chaos for their fellow Americans." "They [historians] ground us," observed Peter Jennings. "They take all the lightening and they process it through the national history, resulting in greater confidence for people when they are trying to understand the durability and flexibility of the system." In the wake of the extraordinary events of September 11, historians once again find themselves thrust into a position to offer guidance, perspective and understanding.

The public looks to historians in such instances because we know how to search for historical analogies. Recall than an analogy is a similarity or resemblance among two or more things that are otherwise different from each other. "This is like the election of 1876," announced Beschloss and Goodwin when looking for analogies to the 2000 election. "This is like Pearl Harbor," the public cried after the surprise destruction of the World Trade Center Towers. The assumption here is that by asking an historian to locate the appropriate analogy from the past, we in the present can better understand events, can better grasp their meaning, and can therefore best decide how to act.

Analogies from the past must be used with great caution, however. As Richard Nuestadt and Ernest May argued in their book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, the chief danger in scanning the past for analogies is in seeing only similarities and missing the differences. Analogies are not law-like regularities, precisely because they are comparisons of different situations. If the decision maker sees only the similarities, he might be blindsided by the differences he has not seen or chosen to ignore. Searching for analogies, therefore, does not mean searching for recurring patterns, for the repeating cycles of history. "Those who believe history repeats itself," warns Stephen Hall, "are condemned to miss all the ways in which history unfolds in subtly different ways from the past."

Rather than law-like repeatable patterns, historical analogies are instead perpetual synergistic dialogs between past and present. On the one hand, historians seek examples from the past in order to place current events into some meaningful context. At the same time, we use present events to better understand and to reimagine the past. I can imagine that after the 2000 election, historians will begin the task of reexamining past elections, discovering analogies in the past that we would not have thought to look for until this event in the present forced us to do so. I imagine the events of September 11 will similarly force historians to reexamine the past, to seek heretofore undiscovered analogies in the past based on the new realities of the present.

Each of the three texts under review takes the premise that events in the present provide conceptual categories that allow us reimagine the past. Each book deals with relatively familiar historical terrain: printing, the telegraph and various eighteenth-century knowledge systems such as Linnaeus' taxonomical nomenclature. By using analogies drawn from the present—from the computer and related technologies—these historians look anew at the past.

The "Renaissance Computer" refers to the technologies of the printing press, the printed book and the various cognitive systems that developed around these. The editors note that the purpose of this collection is to "explore the technology of the early printed text to reveal how many of the functions and effects of the modern computer were imagined, anticipated, or even sought after long before the invention of modern digital computing technology." (13) The contributors to this edited collection of essays traverse a familiar historical terrain; since at least the publication of Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, historians have been interested in the history of the effects of printing. However, by using terms and categories drawn from modern computing, the contributors to this volume reveal a slightly different version of the story.

We know that, for example, the printing press altered the production and distribution of information. The pre-print age was characterized by a labor-intensive process of manuscript production. The market for these relatively expensive objects was limited, and had to be specially commissioned rather than mass produced. Readers circulated throughout Europe searching for books, as a pilgrim might search for saint's relics. The book itself was a symbolic and devotional object, hence the reference to a pilgrimage.

The arrival of the printing press altered this system. Printing was a capital-intensive activity that expanded the supply books, which the editors maintain created a larger demand for books. Readers no longer viewed books as simply devotional or luxury objects, but rather as commodities. Like the networked computer of our own era, the widespread availability of books opened up access to knowledge to more and more people. "Reading, whether for instruction, pleasure, information, delight, devotion or distraction was to become at least a possibility for countless numbers of people." (1)

These commodities linked together a network of readers into an ever-expanding "paperworld," which the editors define as "a place of the imagination and the intellect." They go on to describe the paperworld's growth to encompass Europe and then the Americas after the establishment of the first printing press in Mexico City in 1533 and after the spread of the English colonies. "Paperworld" is clearly an analogy with "cyberspace," an world of imagination and intellect spreading around the world through fiber optics rather than paper. Several authors in this collection draw parallels between the ancient search for a universal encyclopedia of knowledge, the paperworld of printed texts and the vast information storage capacities of cyberspace .

The paperworld required organization and standardization. Designers of the printed page developed new standards of visual display, such as alphabetizing, indexing and other forms data retrieval and storage. Thomas N. Corns, for example, describes indices, title pages and marginalia as like an "early modern search engine," and finds precursors to today's database structures, SGML mark up and touch-sensitive maps and diagrams in these early modern efforts to organize the textual information of the paperworld. Contributors Sarah Annes Brown, Anne Lake Prescott, Claire Preston and Leah S. Marcus all explore the forms of memory systems that emerge as the stock of printed books rises. Jonathan Sawday maintains that many of the terms we associate with cyberspace, such as "net," "matrix" and "web," all derive from early modern writers such as Milton, Descartes and Hobbes. "As in our world of computers," the editors conclude, "where one corporation is rapidly coming to dominate the entire digital world and impose its standards on all other enterprises in the market place, so the arrival of print might be compared to the creation of a new 'Disc Operating System' for the storage and transmission of ideas." (8)

This last analogy points to a weakness in this otherwise thought-provoking collection. In seeking resemblances and similarities between the present and the past, many of the contributors tend to overlook the differences in these two historical periods and the important insights those differences might yield. In arguing that the printed book enforced a kind of standardization similar to Microsoft's DOS ignores the fact that no one company enforced the standardizations of early printed texts. Alphabetical indexing, the use of illustrations and typefaces all emerged more out of the trial and error practices of the market than by the activities of one monopolistic corporation. To take another case, the editors engage in retrodiction through hindsight when they claim that printing opened up the possibility of information spreading to "countless numbers of people." Those of us who live in the 21st century, knowing about the spread of mass education and mass literacy in the 19th century, can certainly understand the role the printing press played in this diffusion of knowledge. However, in the context of the early modern period, the expectation that printing would open up reading to almost anyone was far from certain. While printing most certainly opened up access to books for a larger reading public, that public remained relatively small. The belief that "everyone is or soon will be wired" is a conceit that many today hold about the Internet, all the while ignoring the vast number of the world's citizenry that are either poorly connected or completely cut off from cyberspace. The correct analogy might have been "In the same way the paperworld was limited to a small but growing population, the number of residents of cyberspace today is growing; however, cyberspace remains inaccessible to many."

Overemphasis on similarity at the expense of difference is characteristic of science journalist Tom Standage's otherwise useful history of the telegraph. "During Queen Victoria's reign," Standage begins,

a new communications technology was developed that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances, in effect shrinking the world faster and further than before. A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by the skeptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes toward everything from news gathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself. (vii-viii)

This introduction is a useful rhetorical device. Of course, he is describing the impact of the telegraph in the nineteenth century, but the description sounds very similar to the type of language used today by businesspeople, educators and media analysts to describe the revolutionary impact of the Internet. This introduction also sets the tone for the rest of the book, for in exploring the historical analogies between telegraph and internet, Standage focuses almost exclusively on resemblance to the exclusion of difference.

There are perfectly valid reasons for this interpretive stance. As Standage notes, recognizing the precedents established during the age of the telegraph is an excellent corrective to chronocentricity, "the egotism that one's own generation is poised on the very cusp of history." Many of today's claims—both optimistic and pessimistic—about the Internet seem less than revolutionary when compared to the effects of the telegraph over a century ago. In fact, "if any generation has the right to claim that it bore the full bewildering, world-shrinking brunt of such a revolution," concludes Standage, "it is not us—it is our nineteenth-century forebears."(213)

There are indeed many similarities in the histories of these two technological systems, and Standage effectively describes these in a Dava Sobel-like narrative style. The first set of resemblances that Standage notes deals with the creation of the electronic telegraph itself. The idea of sending signals over long distances predates even the nineteenth century version; witness the system of semaphore-like towers developed by Claude Chappe in the eighteenth century. Thus, one could conclude that the electronic telegraph was itself less than revolutionary, only a modification of an earlier technological system.

The rest of the book deals with direct analogies between telegraph and Internet. Like the earlier versions of the Internet, telegraph systems were initially of interest to the state and the military, but later businesses and the general public found uses for the communication system. As telegraphs became more and more important to commerce, businesses became increasingly concerned with the sensitivity of the information flowing over the lines, and thus sought to devise ciphers and codes to, in effect, "encrypt" messages. Nineteenth-century "hackers" attempted to crack these codes. The telegraphers themselves developed what Standage identifies as a type of "on-line community," with their own mores and private language. Like the Internet, the spread of the telegraph was met with wonder and excitement in the press, which trumpeted its benefits to their readers.

But, again, thinking by historical analogy requires an appreciation of difference as well as resemblance. If Standage's book has a weakness, it is in his general disregard for the meaningful differences between telegraphs and the Internet. His analogy that both technological systems featured "on-line communities," for example, bears closer scrutiny. In many ways, these two situations were far from analogous. Users of telegraphs, as Standage points out, were specially trained experts. If a person wished to send a message, they would need to carry a message to a telegraph operator—either by physically delivering a written message or, if in a business, by sending the paper message through a pneumatic tube. That operator would then translate the written words into the binary language of Morse code to another operator who would then retranslate the message back into English for the receiver at the other end. Thus, the users of the technology were actually only a small group of people with specialized skills; those wishing to send messages over the telegraph were not really directly involved in this on-line community. The on-line community of the Internet does not rely on experts to send messages; although highly specialized technologists are required to maintain the system, anyone with a modem and a PC can send messages. Attention to these differences provides an interpretive framework which allows us to better understand and evaluate the Internet than if we were to concentrate on resemblance alone.

Standage misses other such interpretive opportunities, but to be fair, this was not really his intention. For example, he writes an excellent chapter on the logistical demands and physical obstacles to laying the wires needed to make the telegraph a communications system with truly global reach. Laying cable under the seas was an especially difficult problem, and there were several failed attempts. The problems also involved the physical maintenance of the wires; technologies had to be developed that would insulate wires intended to remain permanently under water. Such attention to the logistical and physical requirements of "wiring the world" are generally not a part of contemporary analyses of the internet, except perhaps in technical journals. For many, cyberspace is placeless and ethereal, and thus many contemporary observers overlook the fact that the Internet requires a physical structure that must be built and maintained. Standage had the opportunity to explore these analogies in this book, but in choosing narrative over analysis, he asks his readers to draw these analogies for themselves. If the telegraph and the Internet are as analogous as Standage claims—and I believe him to be correct on this point—then it is the duty of thoughtful readers of this book to use these analogies to better frame questions about the present.

Daniel Headrick's book also challenges chronocentricity. He concludes that the Information Age began long before the invention of the digital computer, some three centuries before the present. Further, Headrick contends that there have been several "information ages" in the past, enabled by writing, the alphabet, double-entry bookkeeping, the printing press, the telegraph, transistors and, more recently the computer. The information age that we are currently experiencing is simply the next step in this much longer historical continuity.

Our information age is distinguished not so much by the quantity of information at our disposal nor by the presence of a particular machine, but rather by the proliferation of what he terms "information systems." For Headrick, information is "patterns of energy and matter that humans understand." The amount of information available is boundless, and thus any attempt to study the history of information is simply unmanageable. Rather than attempting to study information, then, Headrick proposes a more modest and manageable task: the study of information systems. This term refers to the methods that humans have employed to organize and systematize information, systems designed to "supplement the mental functions of thought, memory and speech." (4)

What is striking to Headrick is the proliferation of information systems in the period between 1700 and 1850, information systems that he believes set the stage for the advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "Historians for whom information systems are a fruitful analytic concept," he observes, "are likely to ask when the information age began and how it has developed." (7) Headrick nicely sets up the historiographic dimensions of this question. Historians of information systems are generally unpersuaded by claims that the information age dates to the 1990's or even to the 1940's. Rather, historians tend to look for these beginnings with either the rise of railroads, the establishment of telegraphy or mass-circulation newspapers, or with the invention of the printing press. To Headrick's way of thinking, there is no real beginning of the information age (humans have always lived in such an age) but instead periods of acceleration in both the amount of information and the types of information systems needed to organize it. Headrick identifies the period 1700-1850 as a critical period of acceleration not because of the appearance of a particular machine but rather the information systems that were developed. "The cultural revolution in information systems (the 'software,' if you like) preceded its material ('hardware') revolution." (8)

His book is itself a type of information system, in that he categorizes and systematizes these various information systems. Chapter 2 is titled "Organizing Information," and recounts the development of scientific taxonomical nomenclatures in biology, chemistry and in the systems of standardized weighs and measures, especially the metric system. The significance of Linnaeus in the history of science is a familiar story. But when reexamined in light of the computer age, Headrick argues that Linnaeus "turned biology from a field of erudition into a system for managing information efficiently." (16)

Chapter 3, "Transforming Information," might more properly have been titled "Quantifying Information." The chapter is really about the origins of modern statistics. Headrick notes that the word "statistics," which today carries connotations of numbers and mathematical equations, originally meant "the study of the state," that is, systematic information about the state. He contends that a driving force in the development of information systems were demands by the state for the quantification of data, the means to find patterns in those data which could then be used to manage and govern the state.

Chapter 4, "Displaying Information," concerns maps and graphs. While maps had existed for centuries prior to the Age of Reason, thematic maps—a combination of graph and map—was a relatively new creation. Designers mapped geological formations, statistics, land and sea. As with the previous chapter, Headrick asserts that the appearance of these information systems was demand driven—by states, businessmen and men of affairs—and not simply the result of the invention of a new machine to which interesting uses had to be found.

"Storing Information" refers to dictionaries and encyclopedia. While these information systems predated the period in question, Headrick argues that they took on new functions and characteristics. Dictionaries became scholarly works about language, rather than simple lists of words. Encyclopedia became fact-filled reference works rather than "trees of knowledge." Again, market forces played an important role in this development. The reading public demanded more works which stored information and data, information that was increasingly secular rather than theological. This public favored works organized alphabetically rather than the older thematic style, which facilitated ease of information retrieval.

Finally, "Communicating Information" recounts the effects of postal systems and telegraphy in speeding the flow of information. Again, the military and the state played an important role in the demand for these information systems. What is interesting about this chapter is Headrick's treatment of the history of the telegraph. Standage devoted an early chapter to Claude Chappe and the development of the semaphore system of telegraphy; Standage viewed this development as an important early precursor to the more sophisticated electric telegraph. In contrast, Headrick sees Chappe's invention as the real breakthrough. Messages carried on horseback or by stage took days to reach their audience; Chappe's system meant that messages could now be sent in a matter of minutes. "To twenty-first-century people," writes Headrick, "this is excruciatingly slow, but if we compare the Chappe system with its predecessors, the progress is striking...The electric telegraph that eventually supplanted Chappe's system represented a less dramatic improvement." (197) This interpretation is consistent with the themes in the rest of the book: that the real breakthroughs of the current information age are to be found in the innovations in the "software" of the 18th century, not in the "hardware" of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Headrick concludes his book by raising a question we may well ask of each of the volumes under consideration. Do these innovations really constitute a Renaissance Computer, a Victorian Internet and an 18th Century Information Revolution? Or are we artificially forcing our presentist categories onto the past? "Is the historian's job to recount the events of the past as people experienced them at the time," asks Headrick, "or is it to use hindsight to find the origins of today's world?" (219) Headrick supports the latter position, history as hindsight, "for it is the historian's job to interpret the past in light of the present and the present in light of the past." The value of history as a way of knowing derives in part from the historian's ability to discern patterns of similarity-in-difference between past and present.

David Staley

Heidelberg College