Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Information Revolutions and Natural-Born Cyborgs

In my last swing through the academic world, I developed a course called “Information Revolutions.” It was about the history of information technology from the invention of writing to the World Wide Web; and its basic premise was that while we think of ourselves as living in an “information age,” there’s never been a time when information hasn’t played a transformative role in human history. Indeed, the history of information– of technologies, libraries, social organizations that create and use information– IS the history of civilization.

It was a fun class to teach (for anyone who’s curious, the syllabus is here), but I had one frustration with it: There are fewer good examples than I would have liked of studies that argued that information technologies had an effect on the way people think or reason. I think we all intuit that something happens to our brains and reasoning processes when we move from writing with a pen to typing on a computer, and it’s something deeper than just not revising or thinking as carefully about what we write; there’s something else going on. The best-developed set of historical arguments on this phenomenon involve the invention of writing in ancient Greece, epitomized by Eric Havelock’s work, particularly “The Muse Learns to Write” (and which in turn builds on the work of Alfred Lord, Milman Parry and others who argue that the Homeric epics capture the shift from oral to literate culture), and Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy” (which builds on Jack Goody and Ian Watt’s famous essay on “The Consequences of Literacy,” and other works). I was always keen to find more examples of these shifts, and they’re fewer than you might expect. (Yes, there’s always McLuhan, but I was shooting for something deeper.)

One of the reasons Natural-Born Cyborgs has resonated with me is that it suggests a way of getting at these questions. If it is correct, then information technologies do have an effect on thought, perception, and reasoning– and that suggests that some evidence of those shifts might survive in the historical record.

My instinct is that to trace that relationship you couldn’t rely too much on the close reading that Parry and Lord could with the Homeric epics– as usual, they’re exceptional. The challenge is to mark and measure the flow of ideas between mind and medium, and to do that you’ve got to get away from the published work, and as close to the moment of creation– or reading or writing or sketching– as possible. What you REALLY want is all the stuff that normally ends up in the garbage can– drafts, scrap paper, annotated books and manuscripts, sketchbooks, etc.– but which occasionally gets thrown together in those archival boxes marked “Miscellaneous.”

You might think that there’s not a whole lot of that stuff that survives; but I’ll bet there’s more than we realize, and more evidence of this kind than we think– if we know where to look for it, and know what we’re looking for.

3 Comments

  1. Hyungsub Choi

    June 18, 2003 at 5:29 am

    I just sent you an email, but can’t help commenting on this posting.

    The idea that “information technologies … have an effect on thought, perception, and reasoning” is a very interesting one especially in the context of 21st century South Korea. Consider the rapid change of the media of communication: from printed newspaper, broadcasted radio and television; to text messaging in cell phones; internet BBS’s and communities. How would these changes affected the “thought, perception, and reasoning” of Koreans? Would it be possible to trace the relationship between the transformation of communications infrastructure and that of the process of political democratization?

    Methodologically, it would be possible to gain access to 3 years worth of internet BBS postings in an active website (which attracts at least 10,000 hits daily, and known to be politically influential). Can we conduct a “discourse analysis” of this data?

    Some thoughts.
    Hyungsub

  2. Certainly there’s a line of thought among observers in the U.S. that the growth of independent media in Korea, and especially of online news services, has played a role in the process of political democratization.

    But those kinds of relationships aren’t that hard to establish. This doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting: quite the contrary, they are. For example, Annabelle Sreberny’s “Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution” looks at the significant role that cassette tapes and mimeographed newsletters played in the Iranian Revolution, as vehicles for disseminating the Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches, for organizing dissident groups, etc. More recently, Iranian bloggers have emerged as a significant group that apparently includes voices from all over the political spectrum. There’s also the example of the samizdat press in Eastern Europe and Russia– about which I don’t think a really good book has yet been written. (If there is, and it’s in English, I’d love to hear about it!)

    But I think it’s harder to put together a solid case for a technology changing the way people think. Put another way, it’s not so hard to make a case for IT playing a role in changing the way people think about a particular subject– what kind of government they should have, for example– but tougher to show how it affects how they THINK… about all kinds of things.

    Now, one could do a discourse analysis of the data from the Web site you mention, and track the changing ways people talk about certain subjects– and from headers and threads, also trace the rise and fall of different subjects. It would undoubtedly throw light on the first effect; and maybe it would also give some indication of the second. (I think there’s a researcher at Microsoft who’s developed tools for analyzing discussions. Howard Rheingold talks about him in Smart Mobs, if memory serves.)

    Just writing to think things through.

  3. “Yes, there’s always McLuhan, but I was shooting for something deeper.”

    Your remark provides a new definition of chutzpah 🙂

    At any rate if you have produced anything deeper than Marshall I would love to see it. Please email it to me. By the way I had the privilege of working with Marshall and while not always agreeing with all he had to say I can’t think of anyone who went deeper – some have plumbed the same depths but not deeper in my biased opinion.
    The following quote of Clark: “There is, after all, a quite general difficulty in drawing a line between a user and a tool.”
    is a point made by McLuhan back in 1964 in Understanding Media. Scaffolds are hard to trace back. Clark credits others for this idea in a footnote but I wonder if he was aware of McLuhan’s work. If you have any thoughts on this please contact me.

    Bob Logan logan@physics.utoronto.ca

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