Module 1: A Very Brief History of Information
The complex information ecosystem in which we find ourselves–in which public and private sources battle for control of policy, in which marketers and publishers compete for our attention, in which popular press magazines crowd the grocery store checkout line and peer-reviewed sources are locked away in databases, and in which electronic sources are updated and disseminated instantly across vast global networks—all had a very humble beginning so long ago it is almost impossible to imagine. In the immense span of time ranging from 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, people presumably communicated with grunts, screams, noises, hand gestures and shrugs. This system worked well enough for telling where lunch had been slain, how to build a fire, or whatever it might have been that early humans needed to communicate. But then paleoanthropologists note that people started drawing pictures on their cave walls around 40,000 years ago. This seems to pinpoint roughly the first time our ancestors figured out how to make a thought, feeling, or experience permanent. That’s the beginning of our relationship with information.
Of course, no one was writing yet. But in the lines of these drawings were the outlines and figures that would eventually lead to pictographic languages. No doubt there were as many pictographic systems as there were tribes and families, so it would be inaccurate to say that these singular cave drawings were the beginning of all modern languages. But the idea behind them was. It seems clear from looking at the earliest languages that certain shapes stood for certain objects, and over time the objects came to stand for more generalized ideas. This process took a long time, and as human activities became more complex, it must have taken an ever-increasing vocabulary of pictures to get the point across. As civilizations grew, they all seemed to encounter this same problems with language and communication, namely that more complex ideas needed more and more words to explain.
The answer to this problem came in the form of phonetic languages which mimicked the sounds of the words instead of the actual objects represented by the words. This was a long transition, and for centuries in various cultures the two different kinds of languages were used side by side (The Book 6). The benefits of phonetic languages were two-fold: not only did they make it easier to communicate complex ideas, they made it easier to write those ideas down and make them semi-permanent.
The oldest writing we have on record came from ancient Mesopotamia and consists of markings in clay whose meanings are now unknown. You can see where it is being crowd-sourced at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. The great thing about writing in clay and stone was that it was very durable, and 5000 years later people can try to figure out how much a sheep cost in ancient Iran. The not so great thing was that making those tablets was extremely labor intensive and the product was not at all portable. Thus, very few people had access to what was recorded. This seems merely academic, but a discussion of ancient communication brings to mind some interesting questions for today: questions about how our means of communication change alongside what we are trying to communicate and about how knowledge is not permanent if access to that knowledge is threatened. As your understanding of the information ecosystem grows you will develop more complex and nuanced answers to these questions.
The Ancient Greeks, Oral Tradition, Writing, and Libraries
The ancient Greeks appear to have had a written alphabet between 1600 BC and 1200 BC, but then lost it for a few hundred years, only regaining it around 900 BC. There is no clear explanation of why they had writing and then lost it, but it seems safe to say that if cultures don’t protect their knowledge, they lose it, just like any other resource. By the time Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in Egypt around 330 BC, the Greeks had been writing (again) for approximately 500 years.Egypt had been making papyrus for 2500 years at that point, and though this was not the reason Greece invaded Egypt, it was a stroke of luck for the people in the future, because it made the preservation of their culture much easier.
Before that stories were mostly handed down by oral tradition by traveling poets who were able to remember entire epic poems and then tell them to others in order to spread knowledge, wisdom, and culture. In order to facilitate memory, they came up with conceits like repetition of rhythm and sounds…rhymes. Because of the inherent difficulty of memorizing a 10,000 line epic poem, some scholars, such as Pomeroy et al (1999) suggested that the poems were not memorized, so much as they were “composed” and “recomposed” as the orator went along. They argued that this was possible because the content of the story was both “traditional and formulaic, drawing on fixed phrases, lines, blocks of text, narrative patterns and themes which had been memorized beforehand and could vary as the occasion demanded” (52).
Poets and orators, then, would transmit stories–usually accounts of history and war (of an heroic, legendary, and ultimately dubious nature)–which contained and carried the values of the culture. These stories in a sense became a sort of unifying element for the ancient Greeks, a way of asserting shared values and traditions. But it is also important to note that the poets could and likely would change the tale a bit here and there as the occasion demanded. To put it in the terms of the late 20th century, imagine a traveling poet who sings the praises of Tupac in LA but the praises of Biggie in New York. Because there must have been a financial/well-being component to their lives, the poets had to know that their acceptance in and treatment by those in power was dependent on saying the right things to the right people.
There are a couple of important things to think about here. The first is that self-interest dominates how people present the story. The second is that the kinds of formulas and themes used by the ancient poets are evident in every culture, in every nation, and in every community. Part of what holds groups of people together is their shared belief in stories with certain kinds of formulas and certain kinds of themes. Those shared beliefs impact how people interpret the stories they hear and how they tell the stories they tell. This is part of what comprises culture.
Back to the Library
Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, which was located at the center of many important trade routes and had strategic value, fresh water, and fertile soil. When Alexander died in 323 BC, there was a power struggle for who would take the reins, which the Ptolemies eventually won, in part no doubt, because they were in Egypt. This was a time of great cultural and political power, and as with other cultures historically who have been at the height of their power, the Greeks had a lot of money and wanted both to preserve their culture and to spread it around to other places.
The Ptolemies sought to take Alexandria, which had operated as little more than a military base filled with soldiers, sailors and merchants, and turn it into something more. Around 300 BC, Ptolemy I built the museum at Alexandria, which was not really a museum in the way people today think of museums. It was more like a temple to the muse, where educated people would gather and talk about things, not entirely unlike a think tank. These scholars were recruited by Ptolemy I to talk about art, literature, politics, science, math, and so on. While they were there, their food and lodging were all paid for by the king. According to Casson’s Libraries in the Ancient World (2001), one critic at the time penned a little poem about this arrangement:
The scribbling bookworms who are found
In Egypt’s populous nation
In endless debate as they flock around
The muses’ feeding station (34).
Ptolemy I decided that to draw in even more intellectuals, he would fund the building of the Library of Alexandria, which would end up being completed under the reign of his son, Ptolemy II. It was a monumental cultural achievement, and they paid scholars and scribes to come live there and work at transcribing books (Casson 33). Every book that came into the town was confiscated and copied. The original copy was kept and the copy was given back to the original owner (Hessel 1). The scholars earned their keep by copying scrolls, translating them from different language, and by giving lectures and readings to the public. In that way the non-wealthy public could have access to the classics (as well as many other kinds of books), perhaps for the first time.
This was the prototype of the public library, and the library at Alexandria saw many advances in the way we organize knowledge. According to MacLeod’s The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World (2004), the library was the birthplace of many of our current standards for organizing information. Its various librarians (or librarianly types, in the case of Callmachus of Cyrene) came up with many of the conventions that govern libraries today. Zenodotus came up with organized shelving (5), and Callimachus created the first catalog (69). Likewise, according to Casson, Philitas created the first dictionary, and then Zenodotus subsequently improved it by doing something that had never been done before: he alphabetized it (43).
But there were critics of this system. As Casson pointed out, the workers in the museum and the scholars in the library were not “contemplative or speculative philosophers whose theories might lead to political unrest, but rather active scientists and literary men” (34). Now think back to that little poem and it seems a bit darker:
The scribbling bookworms who are found
In Egypt’s populous nation
In endless debate as they flock around
The muses’ feeding station.
It is a light poem, but it hints at something sinister: isn’t there an inherent conflict of interest if one person pays another to study the truth? If the financial interest behind the research wants to emphasize certain things and de-emphasize others, what does that suggest about which aspects of a subject are researched, how that information might be sourced, how it might be presented, and to whom? This is an important theme to be visited again and again: The people who own information or pay for its production may have a vested interest in the findings, and if they do, then they might control which parts of the facts are examined, how those facts are reported, and to whom. Indeed, there is an apocryphal story about a poet who penned a poem suggesting that Ptolemy II had had an incestuous relationship with his sister and secreted it into the library’s collection. When the author was found out, he was weighted with rocks and tossed in the sea.
It’s hard to say what happened to the Great Library. Many people have put forth explanations about when it was destroyed and at whose hand, ranging from Julius Caesar, to Roman Emperor Aurelian, to Bishop Theophilus and a Christian mob, to Caliph Omar and invading Muslims. There are reasons to suspect any, all, or none of them, and Lerner’s The Story of Libraries (1998) suggested that it was not one of these events that destroyed the library, but all of them, gradually, over the span of 700 years. He also cited various changes in culture as reasons for the attrition of the collection and of the scholars themselves (30). But all of that is lost in time, and over the years scholars (some more biased than others) have gone back and forth over the exact cause. Thus, the past is knowable only to the extent that there are artifacts and recorded facts, often divorced from context and interpreted incompletely or incorrectly. But for now suffice it to understand that information–how people create it, disseminate it, and interpret it–is and always has been influenced by a number of different considerations.
Early Printing and Books
Early in Adrian Johns’s The Nature of the Book (1998) the author established the intellectual and cultural importance of the written word: “A book is the material embodiment of, if not a consensus, then at least a collective consent” (2). Implicit is that the commitment of time and money it takes to make a book–from author to editors to printers to publishers to marketers—is no small investment. But the story of the book does not end with its creation, and, as Johns expounded, “How it is put to use, by whom, under what circumstances, and to what effect are all equally complex matters” (3). Noting the indissoluble nature of the written word, he argued that printing allowed for early societies and cultures to become permanent, that nations were stabilized by the writing of laws, and that “science itself became possible on the basis of phenomena and theories reliably recorded” (11). This is a good place to start a discussion of the importance of books: a recognition that a bound stack of papers is both a finished product as well as the beginning of many important conversations. However, it is somewhat misleading to speak of the book as consensus, for that implies that the consensus is shared by all. In an ideal world, the fact that the book exists would mean that the content therein had been agreed upon as meaningful and useful. But in reality, the world suffers no shortage of artless, poorly written, and even deliberately misleading texts on all manner of subjects, created under various personal, financial and political pressures. This has been the case for eons, as a brief history of people’s relationship with books will make clear.
A few hundred years after the heavy stone tablets of Mesopotamia, the Egyptians began to make their writing portable by using papyrus, which was prototypical paper. The scrolls were much more portable than stones, but the problem remained that making one was very labor intensive. Scribes toiled endlessly to make fresh, legible copies of important documents and literary works. Each copy had to be written word-for-word by hand, and a mistake meant rewriting the entire page. As daunting a task as that seems, before people could get to the point of creating a more efficient process, some key things would need to happen. For starters, they would need a standard alphabet.
Jackson (1981) credited the ancient Phoenicians with the creation of the first alphabet, and then through trading, variations of that alphabet spread to ancient Greece, then to ancient Rome, and then to northern Europe (26). The letters were largely fluid, and it is likely that the Phoenicians borrowed letters from other alphabets they had encountered along the way. The Greeks are credited with the next step, which is standardization of conventions. For instance, they decided that the letters had to appear on the page in a standard format, and that they would be read from left to right.
Hand-copied books were the only thing available for many centuries until printers began using the technique of woodblock printing, which consisted of carving the words into wood blocks, covering them with ink, and pressing them to pages. This was a marked improvement over handwriting the books over and over again because once a book had been carved, as many prints of it as were desired could be made. This faster method of printing was either the reason that Europe began to emerge from the dark ages, or it was an incredibly lucky coincidence. More people had the requisite education to read and they were hungry for books.
The next big step came in the 1400s in Germany, when Johann Gutenberg invented a printing press with movable metal type. (It is worth noting that European breakthroughs in printing were often preceded by similar Asian inventions by an order of decades if not centuries.) Richard Abel (2011) suggested in The Gutenberg Revolution that with the slow but inevitable decline of the Roman empire, there was a sense of desperation in the Western world about finding a way to store all of the accumulated knowledge (2). His underlying idea was that if something so monolithic and old as the Roman empire could fail, people must have wondered what then could be the guardian of culture? What could preserve the stuff of humanity?
Gutenberg’s invention of a movable type press seemed to answer the question. Though the press made it much easier and faster to print books, it was still extremely labor-intensive. The Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1455, and there are still a few dozen copies of it in existence. In its day, each copy probably sold for several times what an average worker made in a year. So it was still very expensive. But because more people were reading and there was greater demand for different kinds of reading—not just the Bible, but also novels, legal documents, textbooks, and so on—the movable type printing press was in the right place at the right time.
It is often suggested that the printing press led to the Renaissance because it put a great many books—of all different kinds—into the hands of the public. The proliferation of ideas led to a flourishing of the arts as well as the advancement of the sciences. Jaron Lanier (2011), took a different approach, offering in You Are Not a Gadget that, “Printing presses in themselves provide no guarantee of an enlightened outcome. People, not machines, made the Renaissance” (46). This important statement highlights the reciprocal nature of information and people. While it is true that more information was disseminated, it must have also been true that there were more people capable of reading it and affording access to it. Thus, the outcome of information is as much dependent on the reader being able to use it as it is the writer being able to put it before them.
One should keep in mind that what is printed is not necessarily to the benefit of all. The early printing press was especially useful to those already ensconced in power. According to O’Shaughnessy (1990), the printing press allowed for the more efficient spread of propaganda among the population. Posters, pamphlets, and woodcuts were all used at various times of change and unrest, or “whenever the sentiments of the masses became important to their rulers” (19). This is a model of information that might best be considered Top Down, that those who are already in power exert the majority of control over what is printed, who has access to it, and even to a certain extent, how it is interpreted by those who do have access. Thus, while it is true that the printing of a book allowed and allows for an efficient way of collecting and disseminating information, the quality of that information cannot be guaranteed by the consensus that created it, nor is it a certainty that the people who read it will be able to do anything meaningful with it.
The next big development was that books started being printed in local languages. Most of the books to that point had been printed in Latin, which required a high degree of education to understand. It is fair to say that most books at that point were being written for clergymen or lawyers, who made up the majority of the classically literate. Part of motivation for the Protestant Reformation was that Martin Luther wanted people to be able to read the Bible in their native languages.
Not all printing was meant to serve rulers and the culturally empowered. The proliferation of printing presses allowed for a breadth of opinion. Adults were given a broad choice of books to read, ranging from religion to romance and from philosophy to adventure. But a review of children’s books of the time shows that books were indeed used, if not to control people, then at least to mandate certain behaviors. Zena Sutherland’s Children & Books (1997) noted that the first children’s book ever printed for use outside of the school environment was in 1487. It was a French book with a title that translates to Table Manners. Because several copies of the book are still in existence it is presumed that it was a very popular book, though I would doubt it was very popular with the children forced to read it. Still, it served its purpose for the adult world: it taught children how to act, and it ultimately trained children how to be proper children within the context of that society (44).
A bit later in America the Puritans had their say in children’s books, as well. One particular title evokes a chuckle: A Token for Children: being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of several young Children. To which now is added. Prayers and graces, fitted for the use of Little Children (Sutherland 44). But seriously, this book was a precise reflection of the values of that culture, and that goes to a larger point: because there was great expense involved in printing a book, books that took a popular slant on the world were much more likely to be printed than those that didn’t. This is still true today, although to a lesser extent.
- These reworked Dr. Seuss covers come courtesy of Buzzfeed,
- though regrettably the exact attribution is unclear.
Some children’s books encourage traits that society deems “dangerous” or “unproductive” for children. Unsurprisingly, those books are frequently censored. A children’s librarian consulted for this chapter humorously stated that his motto is, “The only way a book in my library is going to hurt a child is if you throw it at her.”
Things moved along slowly but surely for the next 300 years or so, when people developed the technology for mechanical presses. The 1800s in America saw a number of breakthroughs in mechanical press technology, each one being faster and cheaper than the one before it. Eventually printers reached the point in the 1860s that they could print thousands of pages an hour, which opened the door to mass production in a way that had scarcely been dreamed of in the past. This access led to more people, regardless of wealth or social prestige, having access to printing. This model of information might best be referred to as Bottom Up, in which many people, not of the ruling class or social system, have access to disseminating their information. Though it does guarantee the ability to put something in print, this ability doesn't guarantee a market for the material, a store that will sell it, or money enough to compete with advertising budgets of major publishers. But in theory such a model would lead to greater freedom for the written word. Franklin and Anderson's Mass Media Law: Cases and Materials (1995) looked at this phenomenon through a legal lens, clarifying that in America, "Most of the important early First Amendment free expression cases involved anarchists, pamphleteers, and other dissident individuals or fringe groups without wealth and power" (2). More people from all sociopolitical strata were getting their messages out, but the authors frankly noted that more recently litigation involving the free flow of information has come from the other direction, where powerful parties such as government and publishers seek to clamp down on expression or information theft.
And so the conversation circles back to Adrian Johns’s statement about consensus and consent. What do consensus and consent mean in both top down and bottom up information arrangements? If the original books–which granted a small, powerful, wealthy, or at least well-connected elite the sole power to encode, transmit, and make permanent the worlds’ knowledge, represented a kind of consensus among the powers that be–what does greater printing freedom for all mean? Now there is little overhead expense, most things can be published in most languages, and anyone’s voice can essentially be made permanent. But the question remains, is it better for information to come from a controlled source, where a small group of people decide what the people should read, for everyone to have a platform to broadcast his opinion, regardless of his lack of credentials or expertise, or some mix of both?
Questions for Critical Thinking
As civilizations grew, their systems of information, such as language and communication, had to adapt to their needs. What are ways that you have seen information change in your own lifetime? Do you think that we have changed information or that information has changed us? Explain.
Adrian Johns suggests that a printed book is an embodiment of, “if not a consensus, then at least a collective consent.” Why does he say this, and why do you agree or disagree?
Jaron Lanier states that, “Printing presses in themselves provide no guarantee of an enlightened outcome. People, not machines, made the Renaissance.” In what ways is the relationship between people and information reciprocal?
What are the properties of Top Down and Bottom Up information systems? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
If information ownership means that the people who pay for information’s production may have a vested interest in the findings, the facts, and how those facts are reported, whom do you think should own information?
Your research needs will most often be determined by your assignment. How many sources will you need? Do they need to be scholarly, primary, secondary? Should you use a newspaper or government source? A research task may or may not come with stipulations about sourcing, and it is up to you to know the details of your assignment.
Places to go for information:
First review the assignment sheet. If that is unclear or you would like further guidance, email your professor and set up a time to meet, or visit during his/her office hours.
You may also want to talk to dependable students in your class to see if they have additional insight into the assignment.
Keep in mind that your teacher is the most valuable and accurate resource in this case!
It is important to recognize that you are not the end-all, be-all authority on your subject, and that you will need to inform yourself with outside sources written by experts in the field. That is not to say, however, that you know nothing of value.
Having a brainstorming session in which you write down all the things you already know about your subject will clarify the extent of your knowledge, help you pinpoint areas of confusion or gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled in, and connect ideas that you had not fully mapped out in your mind before.
Figuring out What You Already Know:
Once you have a research subject in mind, take some time to figure out what you already know about your topic. Take a sheet of paper and write everything that comes to mind. You need not write in complete sentences or fully develop your ideas. For now, simply note what you already know. After you have written your notes, ask yourself if there are details you don’t know that would give you a fuller understanding of the topic.
Some Good Questions to Ask:
Is there a particular process, person, or sequence of events that is unclear?
How do my concepts fit together?
Do laws, agreements, or social mores govern my subject?
What is the history of my subject?
What is the social context of my subject?
Are there different sides of the issue?
Am I on one particular side of the issue?
Why do I feel the way I do about my topic?
Answering these questions will tell you where you need to focus your research.