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The Information Age

Spring/Summer 1990 | Volume 6 |  Issue 1

WASHINGTON, D.C.: In May the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open its largest, most ambitious exhibit ever, a $9.5 million, fourteen-thousand-square-foot permanent installation called “The Information Age: People, Information and Technology.”

“ ‘Information Age’ will attempt to show visitors, in an exciting, entertaining way, how information pervades our lives,” says the exhibit’s curator, David K. Allison. It begins with a revolving carousel dramatizing how we have created a world where we converse across continents by telephone, fill our wallets with cash disgorged by automatic tellers, document our vacations with video cameras, and kill time with Nintendo.

It can all be said to have begun 150 years ago, with Samuel Morse’s telegraph. The first part of the exhibit, “People, Information and Technology, 1835-1939,” follows two parallel paths of the evolving information age: communication and information processing, the latter including not only technological developments, such as the adding machine and the cash register, but social developments, such as the emergence of modern management systems. The section ends with a life-size re-creation of a 1939 city street, where visitors can observe how information technology such as the telephone and the radio had by then already become integral parts of people’s lives.

In the next section, “World War II: The Information War, 1940-45,” the twin strands of communication and information processing merge. “This was the turning point of the information age,” says contributing curator Steven Lubar (who wrote the article about patents in this issue). In addition to such innovations as radar and sonar, “the real push for computing technology comes out of World War II.” During the war embryonic computer technology cracked ENIGMA, the Germans’ supposedly unbreakable code, while ENIAC, an early digital computer, calculated missile trajectories for the Army.

The most interesting part of the World War II section is a detailed recreation of a combat information center aboard a World War II naval destroyer, where vital data gathered by radio, sonar, and radar were plotted and analyzed. “This was the first time that using electronic devices was better than just going out and looking at things,” Lubar notes.

The last section traces wide-ranging developments in information technology up to the present, from the transistor and high fidelity to the computer revolution and the rise of global information networks. Among the displays are a General Motors industrial robot and a re-creation of the television studio where the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates took place, political events that confirmed the vast power of the electronic media.

“Information Age” is enlivened by a number of interactive displays. Among other things, visitors will be able to encrypt their name with the ENIGMA code, have their fingerprints scanned by an FBI computer, produce a segment of evening TV news out of raw footage, and try to handle a 911 emergency call. In keeping with the spirit of the untrammeled flow of information (and the usual Smithsonian policy), admission to the museum is free.

NEWARK, DEL.: When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, he saw it as an office tool and discouraged its use for entertainment. According to George Basalla, a historian of technology at the University of Delaware, the moral of this story is that “necessity is not the mother of invention. We didn’t have to have fire or stone tools to survive.”

Historians of technology, Basalla notes, unlike their colleagues in the history of science, have traditionally shied away from sweeping theories cutting across centuries and cultural boundaries. “I like big theories,” he adds. He advances a very big theory in his recent book The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge University Press). The book looks broadly at the process of technological change. Where do inventions come from? Why are there so many of them? Basalla’s view of technological change takes its cue from biological evolution. Over long stretches of time successive generations of both living and man-made things undergo gradual change, generally becoming more complex.

Technological evolution must differ from biological evolution in fundamental ways, of course, as Basalla admits. Artifacts and species both achieve diversity by branching out along multiple evolutionary pathways, but only man-made things can also merge, as when the internal-combustion engine, the bicycle, and the horse-drawn carriage combined to form the automobile.

The Smithsonian’s new exhibit will show how the information revolution brought us long distance, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and Nintendo.

“It’s a loose analogy,” admits Basalla. “It’s a way of thinking about technology.” He sees the evolutionary analogy, however, as an antidote to several popular misconceptions about how technology develops.

The first, and perhaps the most vexing to historians, sees technology as a series of Promethean gifts from heroic inventors. This promotes a simplistic, “discontinuous” view of technology. The evolutionary model emphasizes the continuity between successive generations of man-made things. “Every new artifact,” Basalla writes, “is based to some degree upon a related existing artifact.” Thus the Uzi can presumably be traced back along an unbroken series of weapons, beginning with the first rock lobbed by a hominid.

More tangible evidence of technological continuity can be found by looking at what Basalla calls skeuomorphs—structural or design elements that serve no purpose but were integral to earlier incarnations of the artifact. Examples include the nonfunctional masonry cubes spaced beneath the eaves of stone temples in ancient Greece, which are vestiges modeled on the protruding ends of the wooden beams that had supported the roofs of earlier Greek structures. In more recent times the first iron bridges were often modeled after wood and masonry spans instead of taking full advantage of the metal’s own properties.

Technological evolution also counters the persistent myth of technology as merely applied science. Basalla’s examination of the development of the steam engine and radio communication reveals a far more complex interaction in which technological innovations often take place in advance of the scientific discoveries that explain their governing principles.

Perhaps influenced by the chaotic nature of biological evolution, Basalla resists proposing a neat mechanism by which technology evolves. Instead he describes a twofold process of “novelty” and “selection” in which inspiration, science, and necessity share the stage with an assortment of psychological, economic, and sociocultural factors. He concludes, “It’s a messy process.”

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: Rosalind Williams, an assistant professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s writing program, approaches big questions on the history of technology from an opposite direction. Where George Basalla deals with the transformation of technologies, Williams, author of the recently published Notes on the Underground (MIT Press), looks beyond to how technologies transform the world. “In the late twentieth century,” she writes, “our technologies less and less resemble tools—discrete objects that can be considered separately from their surroundings—and more and more resemble systems that are intertwined with natural systems, sometimes on a global scale.”

In her book she digs through the strata of Western culture in answer to the question: “What are the consequences when human beings dwell in an environment that is predominantly built rather than given?” She says that the question first occurred to her several years ago in the midst of her literary studies: “I noticed that a lot of stories about an imaginary future were set underground”—works like E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” H. G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes , and Gabriel Tarde’s Underground Man .

Much of her study centers on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the era when the Industrial Revolution turned cities like London into smoke-shrouded nether worlds and when the emergence of modern urban infrastructure—sewers, utility pipes, telephone cables—made excavation a regular part of city life. It was also a time when the technological transformation of the environment influenced the literature of alienation of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, the social criticism of Dickens, and the satire of H. G. Wells.

Williams has concluded that a fundamental transformation of human experience is taking place. “The goal of transforming the environment may be ancient,” she writes, “but our ability to realize that goal is unprecedented.” The only comparable period was at the dawn of agriculture, that traumatic moment when men and women sacrificed their nomadic freedom as huntergatherers for the relative security of life bound to the soil. “We are now embarked upon another period of cultural mourning and upheaval, as we look upon a way of life that is ebbing away.”

Williams acknowledges that the rise of the manufactured environment is hardly all bad. “When you see a lovely meadow replaced by a shopping mall and a parking lot, it can be disturbing,” she says. “But inside, a mall can offer a world that is very pleasing to many people. A lot of the discomforts of the outside world are removed.” Also, the manufactured environment is even more widespread than we might think. It’s easy to forget that the lush expanses of many public parks are as much a manufactured environment as the trenches of World War I. Williams notes that recent discussions about the environment may force us to alter our definition of natural and manufactured environments. “If you look in global terms, you can see there is no endless frontier. We live in a closed system. We are already under the surface.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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