When did the information age begin?

The politics of searching

Robert Darnton

To person

Robert Darnton taught at Princeton University from 1968 to 2007; from 2007 he was Carl H. Pforzheimer Professor and Library Director at Harvard University; He has written and edited numerous books, including The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie (1979; an early attempt to establish book history as a research area) and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France (1995; an investigation into the illegal Book trade); his most recent book, The Devil in the Holy Water, or The Art of Slander in France, 1650–1800 will be published in 2009.

6000 years of writing

Robert Darnton deals with the history of our dealings with text and the library as one of the central institutions. He starts from the statement that information has always been unstable and that every age was an information age.

Letter in cuneiform to the King of Lagas from the year 2400 BC. (& copy Public Domain, Jastrow)


Information is growing explosively, and information technology is changing so rapidly that we are faced with a fundamental problem: How is orientation possible in this new landscape? What will happen to scientific libraries in the face of technical marvels like Google? How do you behave sensibly? I have no answer to this question, but I propose a look at the history of the transmission of information as an approach to this question. In a nutshell, one could say that there have been four fundamental changes in information technology since people learned to speak.


Sometime around 4000 BC People learned to write. The Egyptian hieroglyphs go back to approx. 3200 BC. BC, the alphabetical writing to approx. 1000 BC. According to scientists like Jack Goody, the invention of writing was the most important technological breakthrough in human history. It transformed people's relationship with the past and paved the way for the book to emerge as a historical power.

The history of the book experienced another technical upheaval when the code replaced the scroll shortly after the beginning of the Christian era. In the third century AD, the codex - the book with pages that are turned as opposed to the scroll that is rolled out - played a key role in spreading Christianity. It fundamentally changed the experience of reading: the page became a unit of perception, and readers were able to leaf through a clearly articulated text, which ultimately also contained differentiated (i.e. separated by spaces) words, paragraphs, chapters, tables of contents, indices and other reading facilities .

The Codex, for its part, underwent a fundamental change with the invention of printing with movable type in the middle of the 15th century. Admittedly, the Chinese had already developed movable type around 1045, and the Koreans were already using metal letters instead of pieces of wood in 1230. But unlike these Asian inventions, those of Gutenberg's spread like wildfire, making the book accessible to an ever larger group of readers. Printing technology did not change for nearly four centuries, but the reading public grew larger as the number of literate readers increased, but also as education and access to the printed word improved. Pamphlets and newspapers, which were printed with steam-powered printing presses and for which paper was made from wood pulp instead of rag, drove the democratization process forward, so that a reading mass audience emerged in the second half of the 19th century.

The fourth big change, electronic communication, took place yesterday - or the day before yesterday, depending on which standard you apply. The Internet goes back to 1974, at least as a term. It evolved from the ARPANET, which was created in 1969, as well as from previous experiments in computer networking. The web emerged in 1981 as a communication medium for physicists. From then on, the brand names associated with electronic communication as an everyday experience are familiar to everyone: web browsers such as Netscape, Internet Explorer and Safari, and search engines such as Yahoo and Google, the latter of which was founded in 1998.

If you look at history in this way, the pace of change seems breathtaking indeed: 4,300 years from Scripture to the Code, 1,150 years from the Code to movable type, 524 years from movable type to the Internet, from the Internet to the Search engines 19 years, seven from the search engines to Google's algorithmic ranking according to relevance - and who knows what's waiting for us around the next corner.

Every technological change has transformed the information landscape, and the accelerating pace makes these changes seem as unstoppable as they are confusing. In the long run - the French historians speak of la longue durée - the general picture is quite clear, perhaps even dizzyingly clear. In arranging the facts in this way, I have come to an extremely dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, like to resort to such tricks. If you arrange the data differently, a different picture emerges, in which continuity dominates, not change. The continuity I mean has to do with the nature of the information itself, or in other words, with the inherent instability of text. Instead of speaking from a long-term view of technical changes, which is hidden behind the widespread perception that we have just begun a new era, namely the information age, I propose a different view: each age was an information age in its own way, and information was always unstable.

Starting with the internet, I want to move back in time. More than a million blogs have been created in the past few years. They have resulted in a wealth of anecdotes about the spread of disinformation, some of which sound like urban myths. However, I believe that the following story is true, although I cannot guarantee its accuracy since I found it myself on the internet. The satirical magazine The Onion spread the false story that an architect in Washington D.C. had erected a new type of building, a building with a dome that retracts like the roof of a convertible. On sunny days, you press a button, the dome is drawn in, and the building looks like a football stadium. On rainy days it looks like the Capitol. The story was passed from one website to the next and eventually ended up in China, where it was reprinted in the Beijing Evening News. Then it was taken over by the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, CNN, Wired.com, and countless blogs - as a story about the Chinese view of the US: they believe Americans live in convertible buildings just as they drive convertibles as cars.

Other stories about blogs lead to the same conclusion: blogs generate news, and news can take the form of a textual reality that triumphs over the reality before our noses. Today, many reporters spend more time following blogs than traditional sources such as talking to government officials. The news of the information age has freed itself from its traditional anchoring, so that new possibilities of disinformation arise on a global level. We live in a time in which we have access to more information than ever before, and in which the information is becoming increasingly unreliable at the same time. Or is it not?

Other stories about blogs lead to the same conclusion: blogs generate news, and news can take the form of a textual reality that triumphs over the reality before our noses. Today, many reporters spend more time following blogs than traditional sources such as talking to government officials. The news of the information age has freed itself from its traditional anchorage, so that new possibilities of disinformation arise on a global level. We live in a time in which we have access to more information than ever before, and in which the information is becoming increasingly unreliable at the same time. Or is it not?