Blog Post

Information Age Without Humanities = Industrial Revolution Without Steam Engine

Why is the Information Age Without the Humanities Like the Industrial Revolution Without the Steam Engine?   That would seem to be a creaky analogy.  It's not.  It's a provocation, of course--and also simply, literally true.  Here's why.


First, without the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution would not have happened.  Steam powered everything.  What powers the Information Age?  It's not computation--that's a foundational component but we could each have a fabulous desktop or laptop or mobile device now that connected to some gigantic All Powerful centralized mainframe and we would not have the Information Age.  


It's not even the Internet.  The Internet is a global network of networks that use a standardized protocol (Internet Protocol Suite, or IP).  It connects billions of users worldwide, including governments, academics, businesses, private and public citizens, each of whom has  disparity of resources but, in principle, equal access.  The Internet is an infrastructure that carries and supports documents.  It has no central governance.  Each network sets its own protocols.  There are a number of governance agencies that maintain and oversee but its quite loose in overall governance, although there can be very tight controls for each network (whether because of government censorship or junior high school policy or, to be a little facetious, mom and dad).   It is easy to imagine the Internet without an Information Age.  It could be like those disaster systems that you don't really know exist until they are tested on your tv or radio every once in a while.  They are there and pervasive but don't change the habits of your daily life.


What is responsible for an Information Age, where all levels of habits and procedures of communication and interaction have changed dramatically in less than two decades, is the World Wide Web.  People use the terms "Internet" and "World Wide Web" interchangeably but they are not the same thing.  The WWW is an application that, loosely, sits on top of the Internet and uses that Infrastructure.  The WWW is a system of all the interlinked hypertext documents that can be viewed with a web browser and consist of text, images, videos, multimedia, all that can be linked with hyperlinks and URL's.  Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues first wrote the paper for the World Wide Web in 1989.  Its founding principle was that anyone in the world could share knowledge with anyone else.  Its purpose was to promote global collaboration and contribution of knowledge with as much ease as possible so that you did not have to be a professional broadcaster to communicate knowledge and you did not have to be a computer scientist or a programmer who knew hypertext to contribute.  Ease of entry was developed as part of the design.  Berners-Lee has famously written:  "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."


The World Wide Web is the steam engine of the Information Age.  And without the humanities, virtually everything about the World Wide Web is a muddle.  All of the key issues of how knowledge is exchanged, how it is created, what its role is in the world, how it functions and changes, how one kind of idea influences another, how knowledge travels, leads to a complex History of Ideas the likes of which we have not seen before.   We need the equivalent of all of the resources of histoire du livre--history of the book--to understand all of the relations of producers, consumers, distributors, systems of literacy and education, access, divide, and on and on.   The World Wide Web both redefines and reinforces ideas such as "nation" and poses new problems for concepts of social groups, racial and gender boundaries, censorship, privilege, and the larger issues of mediation.  These are not "add on" issues.  They are the powering features of the Web.  They are definitional in the protocol of creating the WWW and part of the governing issues of the W3C, the informal consortium that sets policy but does not really govern, the Web--a structure also singular in the history of political thought and political theory.


But the issue is still deeper.  Tim Berners-Lee is a mathematician who is the son of mathematicians who helped to build the first-ever commercially-designed and used computer at the University of Manchester.   Dinner table conversation, Berners-Lee notes in his memoir Weaving the Web, often centered on the key humanities question:  what it means to be human.  Unlike many in the age of the mainframe computer who were saying the computer was like the brain--who were coming up with ridiculously inadequate theories of the brain and of social and human behavior based on an idea of a "hardwired" CPU-based model of the computer and the brain--the Berners-Lee knew that the mainframe computer was a giant calculator that worked precisely not like the brain, with all of its interactivity, its constant susceptibility to change (learning), and everything that was constantly shaped by the environment and then constantly selecting environments associationally, driven by interest, pleasure, desire, fear, superstition, belief, understanding, and other deeply human conditions that had nothing to do with even the most powerful of computers.  These humanistic questions haunted the small boy; he wanted from earliest age to make a computer that could be like the human brain.   The World Wide Web approximated that because it is based on a human, social, interactive, creative, associational concept of thought and humanity.  It is rooted in a view of human nature and is designed to facilitate that human nature.  There was a sense of humans as learners and as seekers of knowledge, and a sense that the WWW had to be as unregulated as possible because, if you allow humans to contribute, they will.


He could not have predicted the range of social networks, that Facebook would now, in population, be the fifth largest nation on earth.  Or that individuals would volunteer what they know, and edit what they know, to create the world's largest ever encyclopedia, without remuneration.   But his humanistic appreciation of this capacity and potential--not a concept of machinic potential but of human collaborative striving for knowledge and knowledge-making--is, definitional, the World Wide Web and, I am arguing, is definitionally the Information Age.


That's a teaser.  I'm giving a full-length version of this talk at the HumLab in Umea, Sweden, in November.   I also write about this in my forthcoming book, Now You See It:  The Science of Attention in the Classroom, at Work, and Everywhere Else.   But I'm writing about this now, in this blog, as a "tidbit" of what I'm developing because clearly universities under stress are finding ways to cut back courses and programs and are looking at the humanities as not relevant to the student of today.  They have it entirely wrong.  The humanities are the most important tool we have for understanding, with any kind of historical perspective and critical depth, all of the new arrangements of our world, precisely because those new arrangements of our world are rooted in an associational, interactive, qualitative humanistic concept of mind and society, not in a machinic, quantitative, linear, hardwired, fixed, or even measurable computational model.   If our world is changing, humanists have the tools, knowledge, and concepts to address these changes.  Cutting humanities programs now is shortsighted indeed.  We have an educational system currently based on preparing kids for the twentieth century.   We need a different model to prepare them for the twenty-first, and, it is a model in which all the STEM elements must also be deeply, humanistically reevaluated in light of the Information Age and the humanist assumptions (not all of them positive in theory or application, by any means) that power the World Wide Web.


Of course, I have also spent the last decade arguing that the humanities are missing the boat by not claiming our centrality to the Information Age.   This is our age, I keep saying, if only we take responsibility for our role in its shape and its future.  That's the challenge, should we choose to accept it.  





And if you want to read further along these Big Think lines, the always interesting Aleks Krotoski has a stunning and important new column in the Observer: 

Democratic, but dangerous too: how the web changed our world


This is one of those blogs that takes off and has wings of its own and I'm interested in how it is being interpreted.  It is loose and deliberatively provocative, but I am being literal  in the analogy.  That is, without the steam engine, one would not have had the Industrial Revolution that changed (not all, but many of) the relationships of labor, including between producers and consumers.  I am saying that without a different humanistic conception of the machine (i.e. computation) we would not have the World Wide Web that changed (not all, but many of) the relationships of labor, including between producers and consumers.  I am also saying (but I can't say too much about this because it is embargo'd until my book comes out) that we developed a mechanistic, linear, causal, assembly-line measurement-based way of understanding the operations of labor for the Industrial Age and those methods have characterized much of the 19th and 20th centuries.   We need a far more integrated, interdisciplinary process-oriented, iterative, interactive, qualitative and quantitatively driven, multi-factor, associational, and emphatically humanistic way of evaluating and measuring the Information Age.