Monday, 23 July, 2001

The Information Age

People often talk about the Information Age starting in the late 1940's or early 1950's with the invention of the digital computer, or in the 1960's when the use of computers became more wide spread.  I place the start about 100 years earlier.  The widespread adoption of the Morse Code and Morse Telegraph in the mid 1800's made it possible to send messages almost instantaneously across large distances.  In my mind, the ability to transfer, rather than store or process, information that defines the Information Age.

The Industrial Age was in full swing in the mid 1800's, and industrial societies were wrestling with the resulting social changes:  urbanization, increased leisure time, increased wealth, and reduced demand for unskilled labor.  These changes weren't as widespread then as they are now, but they were beginning, and the trend was noticed.  Whether or not people in 1850 could have predicted the extent of those changes 150 years later is somewhat less clear.

Today, with the ability to transfer information instantaneously between any two points, the Information Age is in full swing and we're seeing the start of some serious changes.  Major events anywhere in the world are known immediately by anybody with a computer connected to the Internet.  Intellectual property rights no longer enjoy economic protection.  Whereas it used to be prohibitively expensive to copy and distribute a book or electronic recording, it's now essentially free and possible for anybody with an inexpensive computer and scanner.  The global and free availability of all types of information is going to make huge changes in our society, and those changes are going to happen much faster than the changes brought about by industrialization.

Can we predict the effect of those changes 150 years from now?  Almost certainly not.  How about just 20 years from now--can we predict what those social changes will be?  I don't know if we can, but we certainly should be thinking about it.