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The information age and history
looking backward to see us

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue September, September 1 - September 30, 2000 | BY Richard J. Cox 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

We love to network! The present obsession with information is rooted in human nature.

The Present Age of Infomania

� One could fill a medium-sized library with the books about the Information Age published in the past 40 years. If one had the inclination, I suspect that a chronological analysis of the publication of these books would reveal a steep ascent in quantity. In other words, it seems that the more we talk about the end of print and the takeover by networked digital materials, the more printed works we produce (not just about information but about all topics). John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, in their recent book on the social aspects of information, go one step farther and suggest that the printed book has been a success in the modern Information Age because they are "wonderfully standardized." 1 What is most remarkable about the printed book is its durability, representing a form that has proved both its worth and adaptability over centuries. When one leading Information Age specialist writes about "being digital" he chooses to present his views in a printed book. 2 Some of us can hear the voices of those who have been most comfortable with "being print," including those who easily move back and forth between print and digital. 3

If we added in the academic journals and trade magazines, we would have to seek funds to expand the physical spaces of our library. Then, of course, since our library would be well equipped with portals to the World Wide Web, we would have to consider the dizzying array of materials about the Information Age offered on it. But the honest truth is that no self-respecting library, personal or institutional, on the topic of the Information Age could be entirely confined to the virtual. Too many scholars from all disciplines, pundits from every walk of life, and government officials and lobbyists are writing about the Information Age in every conceivable venue for this to happen -- and for the kinds of reasons that individuals like Nicholas Negroponte suggest. We expect to find studies, reports, and opinion pieces about this era's obsession with information and information technology on Web sites, in printed academic journals, in newspapers, in government documents, and attached to electronic mail messages. And, with these, we even avoiding the kind of gray literature that circulates as the result of conferences, small working groups, and chatter about the office coffee pot. Rumor and gossip also are factors influencing dimensions of the Information Age.

The perspectives about the Information Age offered in these pages and on Web sites are equally dizzying. The computer, and all of its products from off-the-shelf software to networks, has been declared as both savior and destroyer of modern society. 4 For many, the computer and the resultant Information Age heralds a time when every person, with a modicum of cost, effort, and education, can harness more information in practical ways than ever before. Some of these individuals will become skillful enough to transform the information into knowledge (or, at least, skillful enough to be able to declare that this is what they are doing). For just as many, the computer and its era represent a gusher of evils, from the loss of privacy to the final successes of the modern military-industrial complex (affectionately called Big Brother since the beginning of this age). Likewise, some individuals will become skillful enough to protect themselves, while some will be able to become ever more powerful and much wealthier. We have some staying on the Information Highway with their eyes on the Road Ahead, 5 while others are retreating to the halcyon days of real-time and real-world community and conversation. 6

The struggle has become to evaluate the actual effects of the use of and increasing reliance on information technologies. This has given rise to some new scholarly approaches, such as social informatics, defined as the "interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of ICTs [information and communication technologies] that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts." While social informatics as a discipline is promising, especially in its emphasis on the "social context" of information technologies, this field does not seem to extend this concern to a broad historical context. 7 This is a problem, in that some, like James Dewar's article on the printing press and the Internet commented on below, are looking for historical and broader or more meaningful contexts by which the present era can be effectively understood. And we can see some noteworthy examples of this, as well. Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman's recent book on "information ages" demonstrates that there have been different kinds of information ages and that we need to avoid trying to hold onto a monolithic definition of information, especially one formulated from the present period. They write, "Rather than attempting to find a single, overarching definition of information, applicable across time and culture, we must seek its unique meaning in each age, where technology and culture combine to isolate different kinds of information." 8 While we can see some historians of other fields turning their attention to earlier eras as representing earlier Information Ages -- partly to argue, it seems, that every historical era has been an information age 9 -- it has been even more noticeable when non-historian participants in the present Information Age turn to historical studies for meaning, causation, and solace.

Appropriating History as Explanation

RAND mathematician James Dewar's recent essay, "The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead," is a notable example of the appropriation of history by a non-historian. 10 Dewar turns to historical explanation because "it is difficult to see where the information age is leading because the technologies fueling it are still being developed and at a furious rate [and] . . . because of the breadth of the impact of information technologies to date." Dewar finds Elizabeth Eisenstein's explanation of the impact of the printing press to be uncannily parallel to today, leading to a final argument for an unregulated Internet because the future will be dominated by unintended consequences and take a long time to develop. Dewar believes that "there has been only one comparable event in the records history of communications" to the recent revolution in the information technologies -- the printing press. What makes the printing press comparable is the "one-to-many communications capability" since, in his opinion, "it is networked computers that define the information age."

Dewar reviews the claims, actual growth, capabilities, present uses, and projected uses of computer networks and then turns to compare these changes with what happened with the advent of the printing press. For the comparison he draws on Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in which she "argues that the printing press changed the conditions under which information was collected, stored, retrieved, criticized, discovered, and promoted" -- all helping to cause the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution. Dewar then compares recent developments with the advent of the printing press to argue for their wider dissemination, retrieval, ownership, and acquisition of information (although Dewar uses knowledge here instead of information). He also briefly discusses unintended consequences, both good and bad, of the printing press era and the present Information Age. In terms of what Dewar sees as connecting these two information eras is that each represents a "breakthrough" and "important changes" in the use of information. Because of these parallels, Dewar believes that "networked computers could produce profound cultural changes in our time," "unintended consequences . . . [are] likely to upset conventional extrapolations of current trends," and the "changes could take decades to see clearly." Dewar then concludes with some discussion about policy implications of all this, primarily arguing that the Internet should be unregulated and that we should be open to experimentation to gain additional understanding about the consequences of the Internet's use.

Dewar's use of history is interesting. On the one hand, it is intended to provide insights that might be useful for current problems. For example, Dewar writes, "A more thoroughgoing exploration of the parallels between the printing press era and the information age may reveal further insights into policy making. This is particularly true in the area least explored by Eisenstein -- the negative consequences of the printing press, including the spread of pornography, secret societies and the like. How they were handled in that day may yield suggestions for how to deal with similar problems today." On a different note, Dewar writes that drawing on such historical studies is helpful because "If the future is to be dominated by unintended consequences, it would be a good idea to get to those consequences as quickly as possible and to work to recognize them when they appear." It is with this latter statement that we see that perhaps Dewar has over-extended the ways in which historical studies may be of use to those facing the onslaught of modern information technologies. Historical understanding will be most useful in sensitizing us to the fact that, one, our time may not be as unique as we believe, and, two, that taking a longer view helps us to remove ourselves from myopic views about the present.

Grand Versus Micro-History for Understanding Information

The place to begin to understand the problems with using Eisenstein's assessment of the origins of printing is to recognize that she is involved in the grand sweep of history, mostly by the implications of her study if not her focus on one technological innovation. By her grand sweep I do not mean the idea of Grand Theory, described by Wright Mills as meaning making contributions to a "systematic theory of the nature of man and society," 11 although that is what Dewar's use of Eisenstein suggests she has attempted. That is, if we perceive that there are parallel circumstances between current and older events than we are tempted to only look at the past as a means of helping to understand the present. History is not that clean or clear. Rather, it is often very messy, and, just as often, based on fragmentary evidence posing more questions than answers and requiring imaginative uses of evidence -- textual, oral, and artifactual. 12 Comparing the spotty evidence of past events and epochs with the often overwhelming evidence of the present can be a daunting, if often flawed, task.

Although Eisenstein's volume is tempting for comparison with the current information or knowledge age, it may not at all be the best source of comparison. I would argue that it is altogether possible to make too much of such comparisons because standing on the inside of a current transition period makes it difficult to comprehend all the aspects of such a time and their meaning. Indeed, it seems difficult to say whether one can really recognize whether they are in such a time. Possibly, every generation believes that it is going through an immense and significant time, while it really will be not for another generation or two or more before it can be understand that this is an important era. Eisenstein had the benefit of several hundred years to look behind and see the impact of printing, while we may still be in no more than the second or third generation (personal computer to local area networks to the Internet) of the modern networked Information Age. It seems hardly useful to develop predictions or signs about the present time while so much of the present is buried under promises, hype, or hysteria about the implications of electronic information technology.

There is another, very useful way, to understand the current information era, and it brings to mind the earlier quoted statement of Hobart and Schiffman about looking for the "unique meaning [of information] in each age." I would go one step further, however, and argue that we should be examining the impact of information technologies and venues in circumstances as small as individuals, families, and particular places in tightly defined time periods -- all partly because the key to understanding information is always the degree to which it is used by or proves useful to individuals. Casting this in terms of historical approaches, and as a contrast to the nature of the Eisenstein study, we can see this as a form of "microhistory." As Giovanni Levi observes, "Microhistory as a practice is essentially based on the reduction of the scale of observation, on a microscopic analysis and an intensive study of the documentary material." Microhistory is done in the "belief that microscopic observation will reveal factors previously unobserved." 13 Microhistory has proved to be an important approach in studying social history, that is, the history of ordinary people, and this is certainly germane to understanding the implications of the modern information era since so many claims are made about the liberating power and possibilities of computers, the Internet, and so forth for everyone in our society.

What I believe needs to be done is for individuals interested in the origins, development, and implications of the World Wide Web, as one example, to become more aware of how others -- in different cultures and different eras -- have used information. This is important because it demonstrates that the promises, problems, and perils represented by the Web may not be much different -- except in technological apparatus and scope -- than earlier information dissemination means. The remainder of this essay looks at a small cluster of recent books on early American history, from the mid seventeenth to the mid nineteenth century that present a different historical context for understanding the Web than that presented by the sweeping analysis of Eisenstein on the advent of the printing press. The implications seem, I think, to be different when we re-conceptualize the current information era by seeing that every one of these earlier periods also had people and events transfixed on information matters or absorbed by other claims about the power and potential of information. My brief list of books described below is not the result of a dedicated search but simply a partial reflection of what I have been reading to assist me in my own understanding of the present age and in my teaching about archives, records, and information.

Modern observers of the Information Age often describe the advent of the personal computer and the Internet as the emergence of a new, alternative culture, or, the creation of yet another socio-economic division (this one marked by access to information technologies). For example, Timothy Druckrey writes in 1994, "in less than a decade, culture has undergone a fundamental shift as the computer embraces an increasing range of tasks." 14 Similarly, expressions like "cyberculture" and "hyperculture" or, most poignantly, "wired," have come to represent a lens by which to categorize our current time. 15 The concerns about the splintering of our society into an array of cultures, and in this case with dire consequences because of the lessening by some groups of information needed to be societal participants, have led to broad assessments of the potential consequences 16 as well as descriptions of what a new "digital literacy" involves. 17 Everyone worries, it seems, about being "connected." 18 While one problem is the reliability of assessing whether a culture one is immersed in is changing or represents a significant break, another is gauging the implications of the change. Such a perspective can be noticeably anti-historical, simply because many earlier eras bring with them shifts in culture, cultural misunderstandings, and other similar challenges involving the dissemination and understanding of information.

What a Web They Wove in Early America

The European settlement of North America brought with it many cultural barriers involving communication and, except for the issue of digital technologies, problems not unlike what we face today. Historian Karen Kupperman carefully charts the first encounters between the American Indians and the White English settlers by trying to determine how both groups "tried to make sense of what was happening [by looking at the documents emerging from the contacts] and how they attempted to manipulate the elements that contributed to these processes." 19 Kupperman's interesting analysis reveals two very different cultures, one relying on the written word (both print and manuscript) and the other existing mostly via oral transmission. While she finds many instances in which the different peoples strove to understand each other or simply reflected deep curiosity about each other (such as with clothing), Kupperman carefully chronicles the struggling means of understanding. While the Europeans created records, the Indians produced wampum belts, symbolic beadwork, painted bark and skins, and tally sticks along with oral tradition -- and the difficulties of comprehending each other becomes more obvious. One can sense in this historical analysis many of the contemporary problems posed by technologists trying to communicate with non-technologists, and vice versa. 20

Most interesting, regarding my earlier comments about how one perceives their own time and place, is Kupperman's assertion that there was a substantial difference between the English accounts written at home and those in the colonies: "Books written by armchair travelers, whose epithets are so clear and striking, form a goldmine for modern authors who portray the English as overconfident imperialists, pushing the Americans out of the way without a second thought. But no writer who actually went to America and had direct experience of Indians and their culture wrote in such a simple way. The writing of eyewitnesses shows the strain of their struggle to explain to an uncomprehending English audience just what kind of challenge and opportunity Americans presented." 21 Despite the differences of understanding each other and the self-documentation processes, along with the seemingly more powerful forms of recording their encounters possessed by the English, Kupperman concludes that the Indians did not disappear by assimilation, lack of resources, or inferior means of memory. She contends that they "withdrew into enclaves and became invisible to those who did not want to see them. They learned to manipulate the English system and developed mutually beneficial relationships with substantial men who could speak for their common interests in colonial government." They maintained a corporate memory through the development of both traditional means unique to them but also through representation in the records of the European settlers. 22

The problems with cultural misunderstandings, revolving to a large extent around information and communication, in Early America is more evident in two other recent books. Jill Lepore's study of King Philip's War, an Indian uprising in New England in 1675-76, is a "study of war and of how people write about it." 23 Drawing on private letters, government archives, publications, portraits, and material culture, Lepore provides an interesting contrast between two nations with very different means of communicating and remembering, prompting her to ask -- "If war is, at least in part, a contest for meaning, can it ever be a fair fight when only side has access to those perfect instruments of empire, pens, paper, and printing presses?" 24 This historian goes to great pains both to re-examine how the English settlers dealt with the war in their own culture and to re-construct what the supposedly inarticulate Indians thought about this conflict. On a more restricted (in time and place) topic, historian Donna Merwick writes a poignant portrait of the life of Dutch notary Adrian Janse van Ilpendium, whose life and career ends in suicide in 1686 in Albany, New York. The study reconstructs his vocation and the problems he faced when the English took over and Dutch notarial practice was no long supported or authorized. For a while, Janse eeks out a living, even for a time trying to adapt to both the English language and English records systems. As Merwick writes, "Janse's life was inescapably entangled with the English conquest of New Netherland. My purpose in telling his story has been to suggest how subtle and personal that entanglement was . . . The conquered had to read their environment, their social and moral space, in a radically different way." 25

These two books move in different directions because of the scope of their topics, but both have interesting ideas to communicate about the impact of major societal or cultural changes. Lepore, in her study, relates how the war, bloody and catastrophic but unexplained as to its immediate origins, was the result of two very different peoples becoming more like each and the friction this caused. The colonists moved farther inland, away from churches and traditional settlement patterns, adopting more and more Indian customs. The Indians, a substantial number at least, were adopting English customs and even learning to read. Yet, we find that many of the European settlers had difficult times expressing the horror of the conflict, while no Indians wrote any accounts. And it is here that we find clues as to the problems generated by major modern technological advances such as the Internet. The two different groups were seeming to become more like the other, but they retained their own forms of communication and the one -- the English with printing -- seemed to win the long-term memory of the war. In the end, it is a lingering lack of understanding that explains the conflict. A hundred and fifty years after the war, the idea of the Noble Savage had taken hold of the American imagination, but the protests of descendants of the tribes which fought in the war on Cape Cod suggest that despite writing and other means there was still a distinct Indian memory (different from the English take on events) about the war. Those who see the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, as a sign of a substantial cultural shift and who worry about the digerati -- the digital elite -- or those cut off from the riches of the present Information Age might take notice that those who control the power of communication systems might be immediate and short-term victors but not necessarily the ultimate victors.

Merwick's study of the Dutch notary is also about cultural shifts, but, because it is focused on the impact of such changes on one life and career, the tragedy and trials are both more powerful and relevant to those reading about it three centuries later. This historian notes that the notary Janse flourishes for a period when the Dutch are in ascendancy and because "men and women want the protection that written documents provide" in the earliest years of establishing the colony. 26 As the colony's economic fortunes ebbed and flowed, so did Janse's status since the value of recordkeeping moves with the fluctuations. But the situation becomes more difficult, then desperate, for him as the colony shifts from the Dutch to English. All this is happening while he is getting older and because he is having increasingly hard choices to make about how to survive in the still reasonably primitive environment of seventeenth century upstate New York. The lesson in Merwick's recounting of Janses's life is that "while others [would learn to adapt to the new culture]. . ., he could not." 27 Given the volatility of networked digital communications and the many concerns expressed about who has access or not, the potential socio-economic barriers, and what are the skills required to know how to use the Internet and electronic information technology in general, the saga of Janse's life seems even more powerful than looking at the kinds of broad parallels made possible by use of Eisenstein's study. For one, we have many worrying about widening gaps between various social groups who need to use information, and, as well, we see many studies about the degrees of challenges posed to them in coping with the new and ever-changing technical expertise requirements. While I am certainly not suggesting we will see mass suicides because of the digital networked age, 28 the story of Janse is a sort of homily about the most extreme responses of people who feel disenfranchised and unable to adjust.

At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned the need for individuals interested in studying and understanding the implications of the present Information Age to adopt not just the more tempting conclusions of sweeping studies like Eisenstein's on the printing press's first years but to consider what relevance micro-history approaches have for understanding the impact of modern information technologies. One of the reviewers of the Merwick book, Cynthia Van Zandt, provides an excellent description of the values of such approaches:

Death of a Notary offers a particularly good example of the possibilities of microhistory, although Merwick never refers to her study in those terms. Merwick's careful reconstruction of Adriaen Janse van Ilpendam's life illustrates the rewards of microhistory's emphasis on rigorous interpretation of small details and small subjects. Merwick notes that van Ilpendam was incidental in the larger course of imperial history. She acknowledges that "England's grand designs did not include his death. He was so incidental" (xv). But Merwick then demonstrates that studying the effects of England's imperial ambitions on van Ilpendam's apparently insignificant life provides an extraordinary window onto the larger world of colonialism and imperial rivalries in seventeenth-century North America. 29

Imagine if we had a variety of such close, individual studies documenting each major shift in information and communications technologies -- such as the telegraph, typewriter, telephone, radio, and so forth; then we would have the basis to compare to the present potential transformations (at least, apparent transformations) of the Internet and World Wide Web. This might give us the basis for better understanding how previous eras have used information and dealt with substantial changes in information technologies, allowing us to take a more balanced view about how the continuing developments with digital computers and high speed networks might affect society, its institutions, and its inhabitants.

We can see, in many different places and times, how various forms of communication built new kinds of communities and worked against others, just as has been claimed for the Internet/World Wide Web today. Peter Thompson has demonstrated how the eighteenth century Philadelphia tavern provided a forum in which all social classes converged, shared opinions, and considered matters outside the more regulated spaces of this era. "When Philadelphians chose to drink in a public house, in preference to the home, workplace, or the city's streets, they did so in order to make particular statements and to enact and assess values that seemed distinctive to them." 30 Thompson also indicates that the "first two or three generations of Philadelphians fashioned from tavern talk and action a realm of discourse that existed outside the effective cultural control of both government and private or domestic authority." 31 David Shields looks at coffeehouses, private societies, literary salons, clubs, and other venues for societal communication in the same period. Shields reveals how, even with much more primitive technologies, the eighteenth century was a networked era. "Because of their favor in the eyes of merchants and tradesmen, coffeehouses early on became dispatch points for letters. The transatlantic network of coffeehouses became in effect the collection and dispersion centers for a postal system operated by ship captains." 32 Shields also notes how when one system develops, another may appear to offset or correct the changes. For example, as men spent more time in the coffeehouse away from home, the women developed tea circles with their own forms of discourse and communications agenda. Whether in taverns or other areas such as tea circles and coffeehouses, people in eighteenth century America found ways to network and, this is quite important, to challenge existing or sanctioned (by the political and social elite) networks, in just the same manner as advocates of the Web see it as challenge to traditional publishers, government, and other barriers and gatekeepers. 33

Everywhere we look, we can find American historical studies suggesting (usually implicitly) that our present communications systems and contemporary promises or worries about them may be nothing new at all. In the nineteenth century, the personal handwritten letter managed to build quite remarkable networks and while the form and content of these epistles often reflect the lack of telecommunications, it is obvious that the receipt of a letter or the act of creating one was an intense form of personalized networking that seems to have a role even today with the Internet. 34 The preparation and use of cookbooks was another form of networking in the nineteenth century, as one historian argues, "what we may designate as fairly private activity or discourse (sewing, the writing of letters, contributing to a cookbook) may actually have been seen by women of the past as forms of public participation." 35 We can see that in the antebellum period a city like New York was enmeshed in "urban texts" that built community, from books and newspapers to the "writing and print . . . on buildings, sidewalks, sandwich-board advertisements, the pages of personal diaries, classroom walls, Staffordshire pottery, needlepoint samples, election tickets, and two-dollar bills. . . ." 36 As such analysis suggests, "despite their anarchic, patchwork character, . . . the flood of written and printed ephemera created a now-familiar language of publicity linking political action, civic pageantry, and commercial promotion, and reinforced the use of the streets for impersonal address." 37

Networking as Human Nature

It is difficult for me to see that the characteristic of the present Information Age is its emphasis on the network or networking. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the details on the etymology of this word when we see that its oldest definitions (sixteenth century) relate to the "threads, wires, or similar materials, are arranged in the fashion of a net," then moves to a nineteenth century idea of a "system of rivers, canals, railways" -- much more compatible with the modern connotation of the Internet, and ultimately to the late nineteenth and twentieth century notions of a "system of cables for the distribution of electricity to consumers" and "broadcasting system, consisting of a series of transmitters capable of being linked together to carry the same program." It is not, in fact, that we see the term used for meaning something more akin to the Internet, an "interconnected group of people; an organization." 38

Even these dictionary definitions do not help. The implications of the word network or networking is very different today, implying a kind of new, virtual community made possible because of the technical capabilities of the Internet. Even a historian working on periods before the advent of telecommunications can see that "it is perilously easy for people who routinely speak telephonically or who regularly transmit and receive e-mail to assume that all other potential speakers and letter writers are likewise 'wired' -- that telephone and Internet totalize the world. For there remain, of course, large parts of the world unserved by the Internet, and even in affluent Western countries severely marginalized people . . . generally lack access to electronic terminals and are thus excluded from the electronic community. Correspondence nevertheless exists for such people." 39 In other words, people will find ways to create networked communities no matter what technologies are there to support them. Are these communities different? Certainly. But they are still communities exchanging information (in some cases, surprisingly large quantities of information).

Different information technologies -- be they based on oral tradition, the printing press, or linked digital computers -- are still extensions of the human being and the nature of homo sapiens. Much of how Eisenstein's study has been co-opted by modern Information Age experts misses the point that networking, communication, and virtual community building all perhaps represent extensions of human nature. Political scientist Ronald J. Deibert asserts, "Communication is vital to social cohesion. The ability to communicate complex symbols and ideas [is this not the essence of modern day networking?] is generally considered to be one of the distinguishing characteristics of the human species." 40 While Deibert certainly sees the greater societal implications of modern information technologies because of their speed and power, he also detects continuity, and, more importantly, he resists a "monocausal reductionism," even to the point where he understands that "while communication technologies are important insofar as they are implicated in most all spheres of life, they should not be seen as 'master variables.'" 41 In other words, we need to avoid rather glib, even if seemingly persuasive, interpretations of the present effects of the modern Information Age by superimposing historical parallels over the present. We will gain both a better understanding of the past and present.

Richard J. Cox is a professor in the Department of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Science. He is the former editor of American Archivist.


1. They write that "despite all the rhetoric about the Internet 'killing' the book and tailoring information, the first great flagship of Internet enterprise was a book retailer. There is no real surprise here. Books are the oldest mass-produced commodity. They are wonderfully standardized, with each copy of a particular edition being almost identical to its fellows. And markets, particularly long-distance markets, work best with standardized measures and standardized products." John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), p. 46.

2. I am referring, of course, to Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). Negroponte addresses this topic himself, indicating that "there are just not enough digital media in the hands of executives, politicians, parents, and all those who most need to understand this radically new culture" (p. 7) as well as suggesting that a book is the best means by which to gather his stories about the digital culture.

3. And I can write about this from own personal perspective and experience. While I have a personal library of about three thousand volumes, enjoy more than anything browsing in bookstores, and enjoy reading from the traditional printed page, I also marvel at the resources of the World Wide Web and I am more and more convinced about the numerous advantages of publishing in online journals. At the least, this tension and confusion makes for some interesting issues to bring to the classroom, such as I discussed in my "Debating the Future of the Book," American Libraries 28 (February 1997): 52-55.

4. I published about this in "Drawing Sea Serpents: The Publishing Wars on Personal Computing and the Information Age," First Monday (May 1998), available at "". This article is not built around any theoretical perspective, but, instead, here I simply try to demonstrate that every angle on the Information Age is represented in the accelerating quantity of publications about this topic.

5. This is, of course, a statement playing on both the most common metaphor for the Information Age and the highly optimistic, semi-autobiographical tome by Bill Gates, with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson, The Road Ahead (New York: Viking, 1995).

6. The recent outpouring of books on place, community, landscape, and travel is one indication, in its own way similar to the continued production of paper documents and printed books in an era when the paperless office and the end of the book have long been predicted. These are closely related to books like Bill Henderson, ed., Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club: Pulling the Plug on the Electronic Revolution (Wainscott, New York: Pushcart Press, 1996) and Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1995), both romanticizing the past and place.

7. For a discussion of social informatics, see Rob Kling, Holly Crawford, Howard Rosenbaum, Steve Sawyer, and Suzanne Weisband, Learning from Social Informatics: Information and Communication Technologies in Human Contexts (Center for Social Informatics, Indiana University, 2000), available at "", accessed 24 August 2000. 8. Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 4. As the title of their book suggests, they see three "distinctive information ages" -- the classical where literacy emerged, the modern when printing was established, and the contemporary, based on numeracy and the digital computer.

9. The best example is Robert Darnton, "An Early Information Society," his recent Presidential Address to the American Historical Association and published in the American Historical Review and also available on the Web at "". Darnton argues that "every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communications systems have always shaped events," trying to counterbalance the manner in which we look at computers and the modern variation of the Information Age. Darnton looks at France in the mid-eighteenth century, considering how news criculated via "oral, manuscript, and print" means. Darnton suggests that "we imagine the Old Regime as a simple, tranquil, media-free world-we-have-lost, a society with no telephones, no television, no e-mail, Internet, and all the rest. In fact, however, it was not a simple world at all. It was merely different. It had a dense communication network made up of media and genres that have been forgotten."

10. This article is available at < A HREF=> "".

11. See Quentin Skinner's introduction to his edited collection of essays, The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

12. As one historian writes, "History is an indispensable form of human self-knowledge, and one of its social functions is to correct the myopia of present-mindedness by communicating some sense of alternative ways of looking at and living in the world. But we gain access to these different perspectives only through evidence that is fragmentary, flawed, fugitive, and fragile.
�Our best evidence about human history, people's words, have almost wholly vanished into thin air because they were spoken and not written down. The fortuitous fragment that did reach paper has suffered from the cruel and largely random action of vermin, dampness, heat, wars, fires, floods, rebuilding, stupidity, venality, absentmindedness, acid paper, taste, and fashion. The record that survives is often seriously flawed and one-sided. Institutions, the literate, and the upper classes leave the heaviest documentary tracks. And most written documents were produced by myopic, careless, self-interested, or insensitive observers or by indifferent factota in great impersonal bureaucracies. Nor are the records of the past equally inaccessible. One-of-a-kind books, manuscripts, and paintings are buried in exclusive libraries and private collections; governments, heirs, and principals restrict access and use; fads and fashions of scholarship consign whole genres of documents to limbo until the winds change. And if the ravages of the past were not enough, the record is continually being lost: archaeological and historical sites are bulldozed for condominums and parking lots; frescoes are flooded, paintings slashed or stolen; documents are burned or shredded; languages die out with native speakers; stone monuments disintegrate from auto emissions and acid rain." James Axtell, The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration & Defense of Higher Education (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), pp. 80-81.

� 13. Giovanni Levi, "On Microhistory," in Peter Burke, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park: Pennsyvania State University Press, 1992), pp. 95, 97.

14. In his introduction to Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey, eds., Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology, Dia Center for the Arts Discussions in Contemporary Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1994), p. 7.

15. See, for example, Stephen Bertman, Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1998); Stephen Doheny-Farina, The Wired Neighborhood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998);

16. Herbert I. Schiller, Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America (New York: Routledge, 1996);

17. Paul Gilster, Digital Literacy (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997);

18. Seymour Papert, The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1996).

19. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 4.

20. Nathaniel S. Borenstein, Programming As If People Mattered: Friendly Programs, Software Engineering, and Other Noble Delusions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

21. Kupperman, Indians and English, p. 11.

� 22. Kupperman, Indians and English, pp. 239-240.

23. Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p. ix.

24. Lepore, The Name of War, p. xxi.

25. Donna Merwick, Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

26. Merwick, Death of a Notary, p. 112.

27. Merwick, Death of a Notary, p. 112.

� 28. Although a reading of Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) might suggest just such a possibility.

29. Cynthia J. Van Zandt, "Donna Merwick's New World," Common-Place 1 (September 2000) at ""

30. Peter Thompson, Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 17.

31. Thompson, Rum Punch & Revolution, p. 115.

32. David S. Shields, Civil Tongues & Polite Letters in British America (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 60.

33. The classic example of this is Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994, also available at "".

34. William Merrill Decker, Epistolary Practices: Letter Writing in America Before Telecommunications (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

35. Anne Bower, "Bound Together: Recipes, Lives, Stories, and Readings," in Bower, ed., Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), p. 6.

36. David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 6.

37. Henkin, City Reading, p. 15.

38. From the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary,", accessed 8 September 2000.

39. Decker, Epistolary Practices, p. 235.

40. Ronald J. Diebert, Parchment, Printing, and Hymermedia: Communication in World Order Transformation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 1.

41. Deibert, Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia, p. 210.


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