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.