Go back to article: Information age? The challenges of displaying information and communication technologies

A broad concept of Information

The first challenge for a gallery on the Information Age was that the concept itself is loose and open, used in many different disciplines, in many different ways. For those from a science and electrical engineering background the idea of information has a very specific meaning – a unit of information or binary digit forming a ‘bit’ that can be quantified and shared between a transmitter and receiver. But for the social sciences, in particular sociologists, the idea of an information age – a society brought about by new information and communication technologies – is a complex and multifaceted one that has caused much debate and discussion since it came to the fore in the 1970s.

The concept was perhaps first alluded to by John Stuart Mill (1806–73) in The Spirit of the Age (1831). Here Mill suggested that progress was not due to an increase in knowledge or the discoveries of science, but due in part to the distribution and sharing of knowledge in society:

Men may not reason, better, concerning the great questions in which human nature is interested, but they reason more. Large subjects are discussed more, and longer, and by more minds. Discussion has penetrated deeper into society; and if greater numbers than before have attained the higher degrees of intelligence, fewer grovel in that state of abject stupidity, which can only co-exist with utter apathy and sluggishness. (Mill, 1831 in Himmelfarb, p 56)

Although not driven by a sense of technological progress, Mill’s notion of knowledge distribution came at a time of rapid industrialisation. During the nineteenth century there was a vast growth in the need to process information. The development of the insurance and banking industries, alongside the creation of a complex national and international telegraph network, brought with it a new reliance on the transfer and sharing of information, and a new era for the information machine (Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, 2004). At first much of the calculation and record keeping was done by people, then known as ‘computers’. These were clerks that calculated the numbers by hand, later using mechanical desk calculators such as comptometers. But the rapid increase in the volume of information needing to be processed and stored required a new type of machine that could cope with all this information at an industrial scale. Help came at the end of the nineteenth century in the form of Hollerith’s punched card machines. Hermann Hollerith (1860–1929) devised a series of these electromechanical sorters and tabulators which could rapidly count and store the digital information held on thousands of individual punched cards. The devices were rapidly adopted for numerous purposes, from calculating the census to payroll and structural engineering. They would go on to lay the foundations for our information processing industries.

Although the idea of a society defined through the transfer of information has its roots firmly in the nineteenth century, it wasn't until the twentieth century that the concept of an information society became a central feature of much discussion in scientific and sociological literature. Perhaps most notably, the mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon defined information theory and gave it a mathematical underpinning with his seminal paper 'A Mathematical Theory of Communication' (Shannon, 1948). In this article Shannon looked at how to send messages electrically, through a process of encryption and transmission. He argued that from an electrical engineer and a mathematician’s perspective the semantic meaning of the communication being transmitted was not important. Instead the focus should be on the selection of material to be sent. Shannon showed how communication could be determined mathematically by focusing on the transmission of a signal between sender and receiver, through a channel. For Shannon all channels contain noise, or error, and the challenge for an engineer was to reduce the ratio of the noise in relation to the signal, whilst working within the capacity of the channel. He developed the idea of entropy in information, as a way of measuring the amount of uncertainty in a message. Similarly, his idea of redundancy provided a way of looking at the predictability of the information carried. For instance, if a letter was predictable it was redundant, and therefore didn't need to be carried through a channel.

At first Shannon's ideas did not find much traction (Gleick, 2011, pp 233–44), but later their relevance was identified in areas such as cryptography and compression, and more broadly in science and engineering. By the 1950s information theory even found purchase with linguists, biologists, psychologists, social scientists and visual artists (Eames and Eames, 1953), who picked up on the relevance of the concept to human cognition and personal communication. Shannon himself cautioned that information theory was becoming a ‘bandwagon’ and suggested that 'it has perhaps been ballooned to an importance beyond its actual accomplishments' (1956, p 3). Despite these concerns, his theory still forms the basis for the compression and transmission of all digital information today.

As well as being tackled mathematically, the concept of a new age of information was also brought to the attention of social scientists and economists by the sociologist Daniel Bell. The idea of a post-industrial society was expressed in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) where Bell argued that the Western World was moving towards a service economy and away from a production economy, later coining the concept 'the information society'. Critics of his argument maintained that nothing had changed and that this state is just a natural extension of capitalism, as society moves towards the production of goods and services that are desired rather than required.

More recently the idea of an information age, underpinned by the creation of new technical networks, was put forward by Castells, who argued that information is the basis for productivity and power, enabling existing power structures to maintain control, with the relationship between capitalism and technology one of mutual reinforcement:

The rise of the network society…cannot be understood without the interaction between these two relatively autonomous trends: development of new information technologies, and the old society’s attempt to retool itself by using the power of technology to serve the technology of power. (Castells, 1996, p 52)

Whilst acknowledging the maintenance of existing power structures, both Bell and Castells' sociological accounts imply a discontinuity with previous forms of society and economy. Webster (2006) suggests they fail to acknowledge the continuity that exists within different periods of capitalism, or that the technological networks of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries (broadly construed as people, organisations and technologies) contain similarities and coherence.

It was for this reason that we wanted to examine the historical form of such change in the gallery, enabling visitors to question whether they really are living in a new information age, or whether many of the structures of society and technological networks have similarities to those that came before. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150303/001