Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

The Bibliographic Imagination: Tracing the Nineteenth Century Origins of the Internet

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

The Bibliographic Imagination: Tracing the Nineteenth Century Origins of the Internet

Article excerpt

Perception of the idea in the reality is the true communion of the human being.


The appeal to recollection is the jump by which I place myself in the virtual.



The history of the Internet has often been written as a history of technological achievement, a story of how the inventions of new methods of telecommunications have ushered in a sea change in social arrangements. In this article, I want to step away from the technological view of social change, which positions the Internet as a concept invented in laboratories, and later presented to the populous, as a vessel to be filled.1 Instead, I ask how the Internet was constructed in the popular imagination. I look at how information was redefined in the nineteenth century, and how these redefinitions drove the social history of our contemporary information systems.

Michel Foucault wrote, "Museums and libraries have become heterotopias," his term for those "other" places, which operate asynchronously with the outer environment.2 There

... time never stops building up and topping it's own summit.. the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of a general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself out of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a perpetual and infinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century.3

My aim is to analyze the way information environments were pictured, arranged and experienced, as a means of shedding light on today's conception of an information society. The years between 1837 and 1914, beginning with the Coronation of Queen Victoria in London and ending with the beginning of World War I, provide bookends for this study. Between these years we can encapsulate the rising popularity and innovation in nineteenth century information systems, as well as witness analog attempts to respond to a growing desire for interactive information systems.

In researching nineteenth century information environments I looked at architecture as well as the textual plans for information design. From the material evidence, and conceptual arguments I was able to construct an array of scales on which we can plot and assess contemporary information environments. By graphing the design characteristics of popular information spaces in the predigital era, we are able to position, and better understand the consequences of the wide variety of today's digital spaces.

The Information Environment or Information Space

The information environment is a cognitive space whereby information is organized, displayed, and served. The term is used here because it is inclusive of a variety of forms. Rather than speaking about libraries, museums, archives, or the street as separate and independent institutions, this term allows for the free play between motifs. In my broad definition, the information environment may include the physical spaces of libraries as well as World Expositions, amusement parks, museums, archives, department stores, shopping malls, arcades, and streets.4 It also may include the interior and virtual displays of databases, books, charts and maps.

The concept of an information environment transforms information from a sought after object, from something elusive, from something to be obtained, to a space one may move through. Information here, is no longer an object, but becomes the object within the ecosystem. It is no longer the treasure itself, but the treasure within the map. The path or method of access to an information object is recognized as a determining factor in the quality of that object. By situating the information object within context of its retrieval, the object takes on social characteristics. …

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