Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Social and Technological Change in Western History

Social and Technological Change in Western History

  • Alex Wright
  • November 27, 2008
  • Wachman Center for Civic and International Literacy
  • Program on Teaching Innovation

It’s by now a commonplace idea that we live in an age of information, an era when the Internet has ushered in vast, sweeping changes in the way people organize, collect, and disseminate information. But this understanding is supported by a set of assumptions that often go unquestioned. We tend to understand the information age in terms of a set of fairly recent technologies—semiconductors, telephony, networking protocols. We could consider this story in a different way, by looking back at some earlier periods in history when new information technologies emerged. Doing so may reveal patterns that shed new light on some of the changes we’re witnessing today.

Symbolic Communication

During the First European Ice Age, 25,000-30,000 years ago, a period of rapid environmental change took place that suggests how information technology has shaped social structures over time. Throughout history, new information technologies have seemed to emerge during periods when humanity’s living conditions were undergoing sudden, drastic change. With temperatures plunging, people were forced to live together in much closer quarters and in larger settlements. The small game people had hunted for tens of thousands of years was disappearing, so people had to start hunting large game. During this time, people began producing symbolic objects at an accelerated rate. Up until then, most humans had lived in loose-knit hunter-gatherer communities of six-eight people who worked together to find food. There was very little in the way of symbolic communication. But during the Ice Age there was a proliferation of jewelry and cave paintings, which became increasingly more sophisticated. We have to avoid conjecturing too much about the reasons, because we don’t know how it all happened. But the archaeological record suggests that there was a direct correlation between the changing environment and the emergence of a kind of primordial information technology.

One possible explanation might involve the social shift that people experienced in transitioning from loose-knit communities to larger settlements of up to hundreds of people. People now had to negotiate social relationships with people they didn’t know well. Decorative objects like jewelry may well have had a practical application, providing people with a way of mediating their identities—projecting some sort of representation of their social status, of their rank in a particular social structure, of their relationship with somebody else, of who was “married.” These relationships could be manifested using these symbolic objects, which facilitated people’s coming together in larger social organizations. This externalized display of symbolic objects allowed people to forge bonds of trust and facilitated a release from social proximity. At the Caves of Altamira in Spain, archaeologists discovered a wide assortment of styles of beaded jewelry. The caves seem to have served as a kind of trading post where people from different social groups came together and were able to cement bonds or negotiate certain kinds of transactions among themselves by exchanging these symbolic objects.


Fast forwarding 20,000 years to the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, here another environment shift seems to have accompanied the emergence of a new information technology. As people started living together in larger, stable agricultural settlements, the first forms of alphabetic writing began to emerge—the early cuneiform writing and its antecedents. The first forms of writing were really forms of counting, symbolic tokens that people used to keep track of their accounts. Modern alphabets can trace their origins to early coins and counting tokens.

Over time, these simple counting tools gave rise to more sophisticated methods of writing. People created inventories as they had to keep track of their accounts. As that list-making technology stabilized, people began to keep lists of other things, such as historical events. Those lists of events eventually gave rise to more elaborate kinds of lists that took form as early histories—accounts of what the kings had done.

Gradually, the alphabets became more stable and stylized. As the volume of writing grew, the need arose for some mechanism to keep track of the collective intellectual capital. State institutions recognized the need to create an inventory of this material. We see the first archives and libraries. As these archives took shape, the institutions around them grew. There was a symbiotic relationship between the early government bureaucracies and the technology of writing. In fact, the modern government institution is at some level predicated on writing. Much of what governments do is exchange written documents. The early Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Sumerian cultures all built great imperial libraries that provided a competitive advantage for these empires against their neighbors. With very few exceptions, the most powerful empires have always possessed the largest libraries. The library at Alexandria is the canonical example, or you can look at ancient China or the British library in the19th century. Today the largest library in the world is the U.S. Library of Congress.

When alphabetic writing emerged, so did a schism between the older, oral culture and the new literate culture. There was a clear split between a small number of literate, educated people, mostly in the priest and governmental classes, who enjoyed a much higher social status than the illiterate masses. But the oral culture still persisted. Ancient oral cultures have always percolated throughout history. Today we live in a literate-biased culture, where we tend to dismiss oral culture as primitive or simplistic. But on the Internet, we’re seeing the reemergence of a new kind of oral culture. Even though it’s manifesting in the form of written letters, a lot of what’s happening on line seems to have as much to do with patterns of oral communication as it does with more traditional forms of writing. In Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong coined the term “secondary orality” to describe what’s going on with electronic media. He suggests that to really understand what’s happening in the electronic age, you have to understand oral cultures. Ever since alphabets took hold, we’ve been locked into a particular frame of reference about what knowledge means. What’s happening today is giving us an opportunity to revisit some of those assumptions.


At the end of the Roman Empire, we saw the emergence of what we would understand today as the “book.” At the time, it was called a codex, from the Latin word for a bundle of wood. Early books were bound between wooden planks. The codex became the de facto standard in document storage. Up until then, most writing had been done on papyrus scrolls. But when the old institutional pillars of the Roman Empire fell apart, many of the libraries were burned and the archives destroyed. The codex was a very portable technology that lent itself to being put in a bag and carried out of town, being transferred somewhere else, or being stacked up and carried away. As Europe transitioned from the end of Rome into the early and middle ages, the codex was the vessel that most of the wisdom of the ancient world was stored on and that made it out into the monasteries, where it was preserved and became the foundation for Western European thought over the next several hundred years.

Books are fundamentally different from papyrus scrolls. There’s only one way to read a scroll, from top to bottom. But you can open a book up to any page; it’s an inherently random-access technology. You can index and cross-reference it. It lends itself to a different kind of engagement than more linear text. Because of its technology, the codex fundamentally reshaped the structure of Western thought. It allowed for new forms of expression to take shape around it. Certainly the most famous of these would be the great illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. The codex also facilitated the early forms of mass production (e.g., with pin pricks through which one could make multiple copies) and the concept of a more secular literacy that would plant the seeds for the Gutenberg revolution.

On Gutenberg, one excellent source is Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her thesis is that the printing press is one of the fundamental contributors to the Protestant Reformation and the changes that swept Europe during this period. She has been criticized for overstating that claim, but it does seem fair to assert that without the printing press, the Reformation would never have played out the way it did, with Luther posting his 99 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, then circulating them quickly throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.

Today we have an idealized picture of the printing press, tending to think of it as a universal good that created worthy outcomes such as mass literacy and the dissemination of knowledge. But at the time, it was not entirely clear that this was going to be such a good thing. A wave of intense violence swept the continent. In The Alphabet versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain, M.D., a cognitive scientist, contends that the spread of the printing press led to a mass shift to a left-brained way of thinking that happened so quickly and so disruptively, it caused a kind of psychotic break among large swaths of the European population. He correlates the spread of the printing press through Europe with the spread of witch burning. But in the long term, the Gutenberg revolution led to an enormous outpouring of knowledge, to the rise of the modern scientific method, and to the rise of secular literacy and a shift away from the medievalist, scholastic modes of thinking that had dominated before and the disruption of older institutional hierarchies predicated on a certain way of controlling knowledge.

Industrial Revolution

For the next several hundred years, even though there were advances in the technology of printing, literacy was still restricted to the number of people who could afford books. During this pre-Industrial period, libraries were still quite small. One saw universities growing, but not the mass literacy we have today. The roots of mass literacy can be found in the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution. Before then, most printing was still done in a fairly manual mode, with a lot of hand-cranked printing presses. Industrialization brought the first steam-powered printing presses. As industrialization spread, there was an explosion of printed information (other contributing factors included urbanization and the emergence of public education). New printing technologies both fueled and responded to the demand for things to read. From about the 1830s until the beginning of the 20th century, there was an incredible proliferation of publishing—the birth of the modern popular novel, all kinds of penny magazines, newspapers—that hadn’t existed before then.

In concert with that, the modern public library started to take shape. Before the Industrial Revolution, most libraries were quite small. In the nineteenth century, it became necessary to create more sophisticated systems for managing all the new information. We saw the emergence of the modern library catalog, which originated in the British library with Sir Anthony Panizzi, who developed a particular classification system. He was also a great populist who took it as his personal cause to make this growing collection more accessible to the common worker. He laid the groundwork for people like Melville Dewey and the wave of public libraries that followed.

Post-industrial Period

Ever since the first computers emerged into the popular consciousness in the late 1940s, there has been a utopian ideal of the computer as a tool for managing our collective intellectual output, a device that could eventually give rise to a new way of making sense of what we know about the world. That utopian idea has fueled a lot of the hyperbole around the Web. But if we look at the emergence of the Internet just through the filter of the technology that produced it, we’re missing the point.

The earliest description of something like a hypertext information environment was written by Charles Cutter, a prominent librarian in Boston in the late 19th century and a contemporary of Dewey’s. In 1883 he wrote “The Buffalo Public Library of 1983,” where he tried to imagine what a library might look like in one hundred years. He speaks of a desk with a keyboard attached and a wire coming out of it. There’s a screen, and someone could type something in and have a document appear on that screen.

Another early glimpse of this kind of idea came from H.G. Wells, who in 1938 wrote “The World Brain,” in which he also imagined what a future networked computer environment might look like. He saw the emerging technology of telephony and the possibilities of computers, even though semi-conductors hadn’t been invented yet. He envisioned a network where people could create and share information. He described it as a vast, distributed encyclopedia. He took it a step further and suggested that the whole thing might become intelligent at some point. The essay was very popular and influential at the time.

Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit, had similar ideas—it’s one of those cases where several people seem to have similar ideas percolating at the same time. He had the idea of what he called an etherized human consciousness—that with the invention of television, radio, and telephones, eventually there might be what he called a membrane around the earth where people could share ideas in a virtual way. De Chardin’s work was considered controversial for other reasons—he was declared a heretic by the Catholic Church and banned from publishing his writing. But he found an enthusiastic underground following among some of his fellow Jesuits, one of whom, Marshall McCluhan, became entranced with his work and took it as a foundation for his own idea of the global village.

These were all just theories. But one person, Paul Otlet, a Belgian, actually did try to build something like this. He was a bibliographer and entrepreneur who worked in the late 19th and early 20th century. Virtually unknown today, he had a visionary insight into the possibilities of networked information while working on a project with Henri La Fontaine, a future Nobel Peace Prize winner. The two men saw the proliferation of published knowledge as posing a threat to the future of intellectual endeavor. They saw that it was becoming harder and harder to keep track of everything that was going on in their field, and that human knowledge was becoming increasingly fragmented.

They wanted to create a new kind of universal library that could eventually become a global resource. Otlet had an important insight, which was that a lot of information was effectively trapped in books. Most libraries had been concerned with getting people to books; they were particularly concerned with cataloguing books and putting them on the shelves where they could be found by subject. Otlet realized that a lot of information was embedded inside those books, as well as in magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, moving pictures, eventually phonographs. To him, the real problem was how to get that information out of those resources and make it available some other way. This was a radical idea, but he developed a framework for doing this. He wrote prolifically about this and developed a new classification system called the universal decimal classification that would support just this.

Otlet convinced the Belgian government to support this project. He was given space, hired a staff, and worked on this for about 30 years. Although he certainly didn’t collect all the world’s information, he did pretty well, collecting about 12 million individual resources. He had a conceptual classification system that enabled information to be stored in a card catalogue. In 1934, he published his most important work, the Treatise on Documentation. He looks forward to a time when

“…the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there the page to be read in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone is made to appear on the screen. A screen could be divided in half by four, or even by ten, if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loud speaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data. This improvement could continue to the point of automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television, these instruments taken as substitutes for the book will in fact become the new book. The most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and a televised book.”

Alas, the Nazis marched into Belgium in 1940 and destroyed most of the original Mundeneum, carting away all the contents to make way for an exhibit of Third Reich art. Otlet died in 1944 and was largely forgotten. His papers sat in a dusty office until 1968, when a young graduate student, W. Boyd Rayward, stumbled on his paper trail and began researching him, finding his way to Otlet’s old office and excavating his papers. As a result, Otlet is starting to get his due as a forerunner of the Internet.

Another prominent forerunner of the Web was Vannevar Bush. Bush is probably best known today as the author of the essay “As We May Think,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and later in Life in 1945. He was a science advisor to FDR and a prolific inventor in his own right. In his essay, he proposed the idea of a memex after trying to solve the problem of creating a better tool to let scholars do research. His premise was that books and libraries were ill-suited to support what scholars really needed to do. A lot of scholarship, in his view, involved comparing two documents, linking them together, and then annotating that link. The memex was two screens at the top of a desk. The idea was that you could bring up one document next to another and make a link between the two. On another screen, the user could write something about that link. Bush described this as a new form of an encyclopedia with a mesh of associative trails. He envisioned that if one scholar went through and created that trail between documents, another scholar could come along later and actually follow that trail. He believed that rather than relying on librarians or professional indexers or cataloguers to describe a piece of information, the scholars should be able to create those associations for themselves.

One can trace a direct lineage from the Web back to Bush’s essay. Eugene Garfield, a librarian and indexer, was deeply influenced by the essay. Garfield invented the Science Citation Index. His basic insight was that you could learn a lot about scholarly literature by following the trails in the footnotes. To oversimplify, if one paper was heavily cited in a number of papers, then it should have more weight than another, less cited document. That idea of ranking the links from one document to another would eventually find expression in Google. In Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s original white paper about Google’s algorithm, the first person they cite is Garfield.

Other important innovators in the recent history of information technology include Doug Englebart, popularly known as the inventor of the mouse but who really deserves credit for inventing the first working hypertext online system (NLS) in 1968, and Ted Nelson, without whom there would not be a web today. Nelson has spent his life very much on the periphery of computer science in academia. But at heart he’s a humanist. Although by his own admission he is not an expert at programming computers, he’s nonetheless considered one of the most influential computer thinkers of all time. As a Harvard sociology graduate student spending time in the computer labs, where he quickly concluded that computer scientists had it all wrong, that they were overly concerned with science and math problems and that the emerging computing industry was overly driven by defense industry priorities. He felt there was a huge unrealized opportunity for computers to support humanists—writing, research, history, etc. He would spend most of his career advocating for a more humanist approach to computing. He was not taken seriously by the computing establishment for a long time. Most of his followers were grassroots hackers and “hippie programmers.” But over time, he developed a passionate underground following among the hacker community. More recently, when the hypertext (a term he invented in 1965) movement emerged in the 1980s, he did begin to receive credit as a pioneer. In the 1980s, Web founder Tim Burner Lee read some of his work, and has since directly credited Nelson as the inspiration for the Web.

If you look at what’s happening today on the Web, a lot of these storylines seem to come together. Particularly in the phenomenon of social networking—Facebook, MySpace, etc.—it’s easy to see these as trivial, time-wasting activities. But there are some really interesting forms of expression taking shape. As in earlier examples discussed above, people are using them to negotiate social relationships with people they don’t know. They use symbolic objects, certain iconic symbolism to represent themselves. They’re displaying their friends, groups that they associate with, etc.

There’s a lot of talking, and anyone who has a formal grounding in more literate forms of writing might be appalled at a lot of the forms of expression. But looking at it through the filter of oral culture provides a different perspective. On some of these sites, you see the limitations of the Web being tested. A lot of the precursors to the Web that tried to explore networking and hypertext, you’re seeing some of those limitations being addressed at Facebook, etc. It’s the validation of some earlier ideas that have been discarded along the way. Elsewhere on the web, eBay’s ratings are basically ways of negotiating trust with someone you’ve never met. We can also see the theme of orality and literacy playing out at sites like Amazon, where you have a relationship between oral and literate modes of expression coexisting on the page. There are two kinds of Amazon reviews: one is a “literate” editorial review, and then you have the more free-for-all “oral” reviews contributed by users.

So, taken together, we can see how these older patterns of interaction can help shed light on our understanding of the present-day information age.

You may forward this email as you like provided that you send it in its entirety, attribute it to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and include our web address. If you post it on a mailing list, please contact FPRI with the name, location, purpose, and number of recipients of the mailing list.

If you receive this as a forward and would like to be placed directly on our mailing lists, send email to Include your name, address, and affiliation. For further information, contact Eli Gilman at (215) 732-3774 ext. 255.