For history buffs, policy wonks, and sci-fi geeks

Early in her book Information Revolution and World Politics Elizabeth Hanson, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, gives an interesting account on the origins of the information revolution.   She argues that the information revolution has been going on since the printed press.  In addition to talking about the printed press she focuses on the development and changes brought by television, telegraph, radio and the telephone.  Her description of the early days of the information revolution had my imagination travelling thousands of years into the past, and wondering what thousands of years into the future would be like.

If you read Hanson’s account of the various technologies, and then also consider the introduction of ‘writing’ itself as a logical marker to precede the printed press, you can see that successful technologies are reaching a level of high acceptance and usage at increasingly faster rates following their introduction.  The space between introduction of significant information and communication technologies is also reducing.  See ‘writing’ was started about 4-6000 BC, then the printed press in the 17th century, then came the telephone/telegraph in the 19th century, television in the mid-20th century, etc.  Then if you look at the internet today, it is still very young–just roughly 15 years old in it’s current form, yet look how far reaching it is already!

This raises an interesting question of what happens when this trend is projected into the future.  Hanson says that once realities created by technologies are in operation, new technologies emerge in turn to overcome existing limitations.  Furthermore, Paul Zane Pilzner, an economist who has served as an Advisor in two administrations, has argued that advances in technology are determined by the speed in which information is exchanged.   If information is getting shared at increasingly faster rates, and technologies are having increasingly more immediate impacts, theoretically one should reach a point of infinite technology achievement and yet how is that physically possible?

I’m somewhat of a sci-fi type,  so for me this makes for a fascinating exploration of concepts such as Moores Law  and the Technological Singularity.  Basically, Moores Law predicts regular doubling of the capacity circuit based technology over predictable timespans, whereas the idea of a Technological Singularity, refers to hypothetical future time that is hard to predict because technological advancements happen instantly, creating some sort of superintelligence–I mean delightfuly geek territory here.

Now if that’s not your thing, there is a more practical policy side to this.  If technologies are getting more frequent, and information sharing is increasing exponentially, then there is the likelihood that laws and regulations will lag behind.  This is something I thought about as Hanson mentioned that the telephone was hampered in Europe by “government policies and political obstacles to cooperation across boundaries”. So far, at least the period through Hanson’s account, there has been time for adaptation and development of norms.  But will that always be the true if instead of significant information and communication technologies being introduced every couple of hundred, or even every fifty or so years, they are being introduced every couple of years?   It will be interesting to see what happens over our lifetimes, and how governments and international organizations evolve as a result.

[Crossposted at a shared-student blog at which I am a contributor.]


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