Because of the growing impact of computers in general and the Internet in particular on all aspects of daily life, ours has been termed the “Information Age” by many. Was this an overnight development or the result of a series of stages that grew out of one another? In Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution, Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, professors of history at Bryant College and Northeastern Illinois University, respectively, argue that civilization has experienced a series of interrelated information ages from the birth of the alphabet to the present, with the development of writing, literacy, printing, mathematics, and science all leading to the creation of the computer.
What they call “our historical essay” is a blending of analyses of history, science, mathematics, anthropology, literature, philosophy, and technology. Their multidisciplinary approach works reasonably well, since the concept of information is central to so many fields. Exactly what information consists of, however, is another matter. Hobart and Schiffman cheat a bit by claiming information, “the dominant metaphor of our age,” is too elusive and mercurial a concept to define. Their goal is to place the term in a historical context.
In tracing the evolution of information, Hobart and Schiffman expand beyond developments in Europe but admit they have omitted such key topics as how writing came to exist in China. Their justification is their need to keep the scope of their investigation manageable, but this admission that they “have left important topics unexplored” may lead the general educated reader they have identified as their audience to question the final validity of this history. Is this approach perhaps too scattershot? Is it possible to prove definite links between all the information ages they outline?
Hobart and Schiffman begin with The Iliad and The Odyssey to demonstrate how the oral literary tradition has been seen as a means of transmitting information. According to classicist Eric A. Havelock, Homer’s epic poems preserve such essential information as how to launch and land a ship. Without writing, these encyclopedic poems formed the basis of education in pre-Socratic Greece. Hobart and Schiffman disagree with Havelock, however, by arguing that Homer’s works are more abstract than Havelock acknowledges, that they are acts of commemoration rather than vessels of information storage. They even deny that information existed in the oral world. While the intention of Homer and those who passed down his work may have been to commemorate the glorious past, his epics still contain information as a by- product, even if it is not as stable as that communicated in literate cultures. Hobart and Schiffman trace the evolution of pictographic, syllabic, and alphabetic writing in several cultures and times, designating the development of writing in ancient Mesopotamia as “the birth of information.” Writing creates information by “giving mental objects a sustained existence apart from the flux of the oral world—apart from evanescent speech, apart from practice, apart from ritualized communication and its maps—writing gives these objects a stability they cannot otherwise have.”
Other key contributions of writing are the concepts of record- keeping and classification. Hobart and Schiffman explore how the pressure of accounting needs in Mesopotamia caused tokens and emblems to be superseded by an alphabet, since matters such as sixty sheep were more easily expressed in words than in symbols. Writing made it easier to keep track of a wider range and growing number of goods in an economy centered around trade. Using language to classify thus translated physical objects into mental objects and created information storage. Mesopotamians carried the urge to classify further by making extensive lists of these new mental objects: “Beginning as a pedagogical device for teaching Akkadian scribes how to write and pronounce Sumerian words, the activity of list making transformed itself into a topical compendium of all received knowledge.”
Such developments as accounting, classifying, and list making were significant steps toward the computer age because they served similar functions as today’s personal computer. In addition to making communication easier, they had the liberating effects of encouraging intellectual activity and of imposing order on an increasingly complex...