A History in Bits of Bits in History

JANUARY 24, 2009

I’ve started work on a book on the “Information Age”. Still at a very early stage and largely outlines but I do have a first draft of the introduction which is available below. I also have a tentative title of This Information Age - A History in Bits of Bits in History.


We live in an information age and we live in a digital age – and these twin aspects of our present existence are mutually intertwined. As the volume and role of information have grown so too have the challenges of managing and handling it. By making information digital – converting it into electronic ‘bits’ – we have made it vastly easier to store, manage, analyze and transfer. The triumph of information therefore depends fundamentally on the triumph of the digital – without the powers of digital technology the current cornocopia of information would be impossible, indeed unthinkable. At the same time digital technology \emph{is} fundamentally information technology. Information processing, storage and transmission are what digital technology does and why it exists. Without the driver of our informational needs the digital age would likely never have been born let alone reach maturity.

Thus, information and the digital are symbiotic: the advance of information necessitates the development of digital technology while that technology makes possible, and encourages, the advance of information. Put simply, information drives digitization and digitization drives information.

This book explores these twin proliferations, examining their interaction and the way in which our present, and future, has been, and is being, shaped by these processes. The revolution in communications that started with Morse and Marconi, and the revolution in processing that started with ENIAC and the transistor of Shockley, is still continuing. Almost exactly 50 years on from the first electronic computers of the Second World War period, the last decades of the twentieth century have witnessed another major development in the simultaneous mass adoption of two distinct but related communication technologies: the Internet/World-Wide-Web and mobile telephony. Suddenly cheap digital communication, and the activities it makes possible, are available on a mass, global, scale.

These changes are not to be seen purely at the social or technological level. Already much of the economy is derived directly, or indirectly from transactions in information. The implications are to be seen from the smallest to the largest levels. Today, at the dawn of the 21st century, many of the most well-known, and most powerful companies in the world base their business on information. Perhaps pre-eminent among them is Google, an entity whose business is built upon the acquisition and analysis of the vast information space that is the web – though interestingly their revenue primarily derives not from selling that information directly but from selling the attention it generates.

We should also not forget software that most fundamental and crucial substance of the information age – being both itself the purest kind of information and, as algorithms made ‘flesh’, the information ‘machinery’ that which manages and processes all other data. What is more, software is now not only one of the largest industries on the planet, but is also ubiquitous in practically every kind of business large or small. In a period of a little over 30 years this industry has given us both Microsoft, the most successful monopolist the world has ever seen, and the peer-produced work of the Free/Open-Source movement.

Here then we have information built upon information, data upon data. It is no wonder that some ask whether these spiralling skyscrapers of the digital age ever touch earth, and, if so, where. Are we fashioning ourselves a heaven or a hell? More prosaically, what do we gain, and what do we lose, as everything that glitters becomes bits? Will knowledge be available to all for the cost of an internet connection or ever more proprietarized and controlled? Will democracy be made good by a world of informed and active citizens, or disintegrate into a million insular and self-reinforcing Babels?

This is a technological, economic and social story. It sprawls out over our history, small at first but growing with such rapidity in the last few decades that, information, and its associated ‘revolution’, are now one of the central elements of our world. So recent, rapid and widespread are these changes, ramifying and filtering into so many diverse aspects of our existence, that it is hard for us to here now to comprehend their scope or predict their future and to do full justice to this subject is a clear impossibility.

Instead, in this work we must take a different route, proceeding by way of survey, allusion and illustration. In short we offer a history in bits of ‘bits’ in history.