The Information Revolution

posted 29 October 2003

Will Davies of the fascinating iSociety research project is an enormously clever guy, with some really interesting things to say about ICT's effects on society and where we're going. In his most recent post, based on an absolutely brilliant lecture he gave, he decides that we are moving from the information age to the communication age:

The internet ends the information age, because it makes information ubiquitous. What is now scarce and difficult is achieving meaningful relationships, having kids, falling in love. Precisely because we now find this so bloody complicated, it is these activities that now define our era.
That's a very interesting position, and he expands on it, but he gets somewhat confused. He thinks that ideas like social capital (discussed in the lecture) and reputation-building, such as the incestuous nature of weblogs and Google's PageRank, are important, and I agree. He thinks this is because they increase social interaction, which is a good in its own right. I think he has it backwards. These things are not important because they improve social interaction: social interaction is important because it improves the quality of the information we receive, and information -- not just data, which is what the Internet provides by itself -- is what we want.

In the industrial age, we went from it being very difficult to manufacture stuff to making it extremely easy. A raft of key innovations -- automation, mass production -- made it easy and cheap to produce goods, an activity that used to be hard and expensive, and led to vast changes in the way we live and work, our economies and our societies. It didn't happen overnight, and some of the changes -- urbanization, for instance -- were not really related to the main effect of cheap goods, but were simply a side effect of the labour requirements demanded by the new technologies.

We are now in the information age: new technologies have suddenly made access to information -- formerly difficult, and expensive -- both easy and cheap. It's hard not to believe this is going to change our society just as much as the industrial revolution, and I even think it will probably happen on a similar timescale. It's hard to remember now, but the industrial revolution was actually pretty damn fast -- 70 years is all it took. I think it will be at least fifty years before we can say the information revolution is underway, and in that time there will be many opportunities and failures. And yes, a lot has happened in the last 10 years of the information revolution, but that doesn't mean it's over: it just means the changes are really going to be huge when they happen.

It's difficult to say exactly how the information revolution now underway will change us. The industrial revolution gave us goods, which we didn't have before. Then as it matured it began to concentrate on giving us better goods, and giving us more choice of goods. The information revolution has already given us more information: it's a safe bet that where room for innovation now lies is in providing us with better quality information, and more choice of what information we consume. The Industrial introduced the "brand name" for manufactured goods -- you'd buy a product if you'd bought a good product from the same company, and you'd buy a replacement from the same company if it was of good quality. Will we get "brand names" for information? If so, it looks like those are already beginning to emerge -- both from the media, such as CNN and the BBC, and from fresh starters like Google, Yahoo and even Amazon.

What will happen is the mass production of information. At the moment we find data laboriously, marshall it together, and produce information like reports and statistics -- we can do it well, and produce intelligent, useful stuff. This is like a fine craftsman gathering his raw materials and slowly putting together a barrel or a cart. What we're beginning to see is people who craft barrel-making machines instead, and then sell barrels by the truckload. Google's information-barrels, like the first manufactured goods, are clearly inferior to the hand-made kind. They're also a hell of a lot cheaper, and that will drive money into the hands of those who produce them, and they will eventually put that money into making better barrels.

So think about what information goods you make or buy, then zoom out: make a machine that makes them instead. It will be a lot harder, but once you've done it, you will leave everybody else standing in your dust.

Cross-posted to Gay Geeks.