Information, Please: If You Are Still Worried about How to Find Your Place in the ... Age of Information
Everett-Green, Robert, Queen's Quarterly
ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN is senior features writer for The Globe and Mail.
"THE transition from an industrial age to a post-industrial or information age has been discussed so much and for so long that we may not have noticed that we are passing into a post-information age," writes media maven Nicholas Negroponte, in his 1995 book Being Digital. These are disquieting words for anyone confused by the ramifications of being alive during the Age of Information. Could it be that the party is already over, before many of us have figured out who was really invited? Science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling seems to prod at the same idea, in an essay in a new collection of writings edited by Montreal theorists Arthur and Marilouise Kroker: "We live in the Information Age, but now the pace of innovation is so savage that individual human beings can leave history behind. This `age' stuff comes pretty cheap to us nowadays. We postmodern types can burn out an age in ten years."
Talk is cheap in the future-for-sale business, which seldom punishes anyone for saying that some phenomenon that most people still regard as new and dynamic is, in fact, totally dead. But there may be some significance in the apparent agreement of these particular writers on the imminent disposability of the Information Age. Negroponte, the head of MIT's Media Lab, is an advisor to financiers and heads of state; his role is to tell the establishment what it must do to remain established. Sterling is a celebrity anarchist, whose enthusiasm for advanced media is tempered by a deep unease about their implications for democracy. When leading left and right spokesmen of the digital intelligentsia agree on the passing of a major media signpost, it may be safe for the rest of us to conclude that events have indeed moved on.
Even if the Information Age isn't entirely over, it may be useful to think of it in the past tense. The conceit of the rear-view mirror might allow us to bypass some of the exaggerated hopes and hysterical fears that gripped our society when the age in question was thought to be swarming all around us. The exercise might in itself be a step towards the epoch of post-information, since the ideology of the Information Age has shown very little interest in history, except as an inferior foil to the heroic splendour of the present ("individual human beings can leave history behind"). In its own way, the Information Age has worshipped the Being who presides over the end of history in the Book of Revelations: "And he that sat upon the throne said, `Behold, I make all things new.' "
Once we have accepted the Information Age as defunct, perhaps the first thing to ask is: what was it, anyway? And how did it become so "informative"?
ALMOST everyone agrees that the Information Age was supposed to be liberating. Just as the invention of movable type allowed books to be copied and circulated much more freely, electronic media allowed information of all types to flood the culture, sometimes engaging large populations simultaneously. Just how that freedom of information flow was supposed to liberate humankind, however, was not entirely clear. "We live in an Age of Information and Communication," writes Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964), "because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate." McLuhan tended to think in terms of the moral opportunity, if not moral imperative, that the new media posed to the individual. If you see televised pictures of war and degradation in your living room, he reasoned, you are bound to "participate in depth," and have some ethical reaction. This seemed a plausible position during the Vietnam War, which the Americans lost in part because of the way it appeared on television. It seems much less plausible after the Balkan War, which the industrialized world heard about in excruciating detail, while failing to muster the will to stop it. …