When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850

When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850

When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850

When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850

Synopsis

Although the Information Age is often described as a new era, a cultural leap springing directly from the invention of modern computers, it is simply the latest step in a long cultural process. Its conceptual roots stretch back to the profound changes that occurred during the Age of Reason and Revolution. When Information Came of Age argues that the key to the present era lies in understanding the systems developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to gather, store, transform, display, and communicate information. The book provides a concise and readable survey of the many conceptual developments between 1700 and 1850 and draws connections to leading technologies of today. It documents three breakthroughs in information systems that date to the period: the classification and nomenclature of Linnaeus, the chemical system devised by Lavoisier, and the metric system. It shows how eighteenth-century political arithmeticians and demographers pioneered statistics and graphs as a means for presenting data succinctly and visually. It describes the transformation of cartography from art to science as it incorporated new methods for determining longitude at sea and new data on the measure the arc of the meridian on land. Finally, it looks at the early steps in codifying and transmitting information, including the development of dictionaries, the invention of semaphore telegraphs and naval flag signaling, and the conceptual changes in the use and purpose of postal services. When Information Came of Age shows that like the roots of democracy and industrialisation, the foundations of the Information Age were built in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Excerpt

This book is an essay on the development of efficient information systems before the great push to mechanize information in the nineteenth century. Some of the systems discussed here -- maps, dictionaries, botanical nomenclatures -- had their origin in the distant past but were rationalized and improved in the period studied here. Others, such as statistics, graphs, and the telegraph, were truly new.

The chapters are arranged according to the purposes that systems serve: organizing, transforming, displaying, storing, and communicating information. Each chapter presents a few case studies to illustrate that particular function. This does not mean that there is a one-to-one correspondence between function and system. On the contrary, every system performs several functions; thus, cartography involves gathering information, naming and organizing that information in words and numbers, and transforming words or numbers into a graphical representation, the map, which then serves to store that information and communicate it to others. A book like this is not a replica of the real world; like a map, a graph, or a statistic, it is a lens through which to see the world.

Chapter 1 sets out the two goals of this book. One is to define the idea of information and to show that the "information revolution" is not a recent phenomenon (as some would have it) but has deep historical roots. The other is to trace the origin of some important information systems, and the flowering of others, to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Age of Reason and Revolution.

Chapter 2 deals with systems for organizing and classifying information, using as its case study the language of science. The major contributions of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to science revolved less around conceptual breakthroughs (Newton came before our period, and Darwin after) than in producing a flood of new observations and developing systems for handling them. Large quantities of information could be processed and understood only if there were means of classifying and organizing them. Hence, the important advances in science in this period were accompanied by new vocabularies that allowed an efficient classification of . . .

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