History 427: History of the Information Age

HIST 427: Histor(iography) of the Information Age

Prompt: After reading two of the posted book introductions, respond to how the authors approach the History of the Information Age, and what ideas these readings give you about topics or assignments to focus on this semester. Include at least one image, gif, or video clip AND one quotation from the author that illustrates a point or theme.

How Brian Winston Approaches the History of the Information Age: A Social History

Claiming that the term “Information Revolution” is “implicitly historical” and “largely an illusion,” author Brian Winston argues that the use of “revolution” to describe the progression of technology is a misnomer, as such progression serves not to inspire revolutionary social change, but rather, is prompted by natural social change (Winston, 2).

Winston approaches the History of the Information Age as an intersection of science and technology, as these fields are both reliant on human investigation and support. Therefore, to understand the “information age,” we must understand the underlying social characteristics of a people in order to understand how such norms pave the way for the technological advancements that come to shape an era. Even in instances where scientific thought does not lead to tangible achievement, such as in the form of a new invention, such thought provides the societal framework for innovations to come, as evidenced in the hypothesis of the telephone by a Frenchman twenty years before its invention by Alexander Graham Bell (Winston, 5)

“Prototype” versus “Invention”: Social Readiness

Winston argues that the distinguishing factor between an idea becoming an invention versus a mere prototype are “supervening social necessities,” the intangible forces that allow a concept to move “out of the laboratory and into the world at large” (Winston, 6). A certain societal readiness must be met for a prototype to successfully saturate the public sphere. After all, an inventor creating a device to assist flying cars would not make considerable headway, because we do not yet have flying cars.

Atomic bomb explosion as seen in Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 8. While we, in theory, maintain the brainpower necessary to deploy nuclear weapons, are contemporary social conditions conducive to the use of such weapons in a fashion akin to that of the 1940s?

Winston’s approach to the information age inspects technology not as a force subjected upon humanity, but rather, a natural, inevitable, and timely progression of human thought.

How Claire L. Evans Approaches the History of the Information Age

Following the notion that societal norms shape the way in which technology develops, Claire L. Evan’s work Broad Band: The Untold History of the Women Who Made the Internet notes that the term “computer” once referred not to a machine, but rather, to talented women who “[chipped] away at complicated, large-scale math problems” in order to produce similar outcomes to that of a calculator or simple computer (Evans, 12).

Taking a closer look at the social structure of the information age, Evans utilizes the individualized tales of working women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as tales of even earlier female mathematicians. In addition to understanding the role of women in technology, Evans’ research supports Winston’s arguments that technological change is dependent on the wants and needs of the individuals within a society. Nowadays, the thought of a human, or group of humans, doing the work of a computer is simultaneously ridiculous and astounding. But such work was in fact, once the norm, a norm slowly changed by the right combination of ideas, ingenuity, and willingness to progress.

1946 – Women programmers of ENIAC, the world’s first digital computer. ENIAC had the capability of running a ballistics trajectory – a differential calculus equation, in seconds. Source: Philly Voice.

Assignments to Consider

If the heart of the information age is to be found in the society in which it is present, then class assignments should focus on the underlying social conditions that spur such progress.

Looking at the hypothesis comments on our draft syllabus, it seems as though many of us are interested in splitting into small research groups in order to complete projects. Each group could be given a period in the information age, such as pre-history, the rise of print culture, or the digital age, and research the social conditions that led to the rise of technology. Personally, I would be interested in studying the transformation of print advertising to digital advertising, and the mediums in which this takes place, such as through sponsored content.

For example, a group researching the spread of the internet could reference Broad Band to understand how gender norms and social relations impact progress. Because the study of the information age analyzes contemporary issues, a mix of academic and non-academic sources could be used.

Understanding the History of the Information Age is akin to understanding our class syllabus. For both to evolve and see change, the participating individuals must be ready and willing to allow for change to occur. At least, to a degree.

Sources Cited:

(Citations for all blog posts are also posted here)

“Eniac Programmers Project.” First Byte Productions.(Accessed January 20, 2019).

Evans, Claire L. Broad Bands: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. Portfolio, 2018.

Kim, Meeri. “70 Years Ago, Six Philly Women Became the World’s First Digital Computer Programmers.” Philly Voice. (Accessed January 20, 2019).

Twin Peaks. “The Return, Part 8.” Directed by David Lynch. Written by David Lynch and Mark Frost. Showtime, June 25, 2017.

Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society – A History: From the Telegraph to Internet. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 1-15.

4 thoughts on “HIST 427: Histor(iography) of the Information Age

  1. I am similarly interested in studying the social conditions that existed throughout history to allow major innovations to come about and be integrated into society. It is interesting to consider, based on the ideas introduced within this article, that the timing of an innovation can be the reason for its failure, no matter how great of an idea it is.

    1. Right! I actually hadn’t considered the fact that people’s ideas require more than just sheer knowledge in order to become a reality. I always perceived inventions as being a product of sheer technological advancement, without considering whether or not society wanted or needed such advancements.

  2. Can I just say how much I love your site!!! I was going to try and formulate a response to your post, but I mostly just found myself wanting to know how you made your site so accessible and organized. Now I know that I definitely need to go to the DKC!
    I too enjoyed how Claire Evans discussed how groups of people would do the “computing” of the past. It blew my mind to think of it that way. Especially when I get flustered if I don’t have a calculator.

    1. Thank you so much! I spent a lot of time initially setting up my theme, so I appreciate that! I used Canva to create my header graphic, which I highly recommend. And I agree, I think even the connotation surrounding the word “computing” is interesting, in the sense that a term we perceive to be very cold and robotic once referred to an action done by humans.

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