A Brief History of the Information Age

hightechworldThe coming of the Information Age has been a very peculiar thing.  While people now tend to accept that there is an “Information Age” due to the phenomenon of the Internet, the never-ending flood of new technology, and applications like social networking, upon which so many now seem dependent, for the longest time the “Information Age” was actually considered a joke, merely a marketing slogan that could never be realized. 

Is there a real history to the Information Age or was it all just an accident?

The history of the Information Age can be described as a progress of fits and starts.  When AT&T chose to go through divestiture in 1984 in order to get involved with computers – something forbidden to it in a 1956 consent decree – this event became the great trigger for the coming of the Information Age.  At about the same time this was happening, the personal computer was coming into existence.  However, for the longest time, no one saw any possibility for networked computing – that’s because all the world’s networks were analog and unsuitable for connecting digital computers, and those who first tried interconnection had to use slow, small-capacity modems to translate digital information into analog signals for transmission and then have the signals changed back into digital signals for use by a computer.  The concept operating was an idea similar to “e-mail,” which enabled a handful of scientists – who were patient enough to deal with the rather crude technology – to send messages to one another.

Indeed, Bill Gates’ empire rose on the concept of “a PC on every desktop,” and NOT on themanatdesk idea of computers interconnected by telecommunications.  As late as 1996, the documentary film series on the history of the PC, “Triumph of the Nerds,” comes to an end without any idea of what might be next after the PC itself.

Because of the way things arose – the legends of businesses started in garages, etc. – there came to be a belief that the Information Age was nothing more than an accident.  But that was hardly possible, especially when the investment of trillions of dollars was going to be necessary to get to where we are today, and investment – the “dot.coms” created on paper napkins notwithstanding – almost always involves a business plan to justify spending money to make money, and the foundation of a business plan is usually a business/economic concept.

linkedcomputers Indeed, things today might still be where “Triumph of the Nerds” left off, with ever more sophisticated desktop and laptop computers, except for an idea created by a first level manager at AT&T on December 12, 1982, which crystallized the meaning of what had been the rather vague term “Information Age” with the creation of The Theory of the Information Age:

"The Information Age is a true new age based upon the interconnection of computers via telecommunications, with these information systems operating on both a real-time and as-needed basis.

"Furthermore, the primary factors driving this new age forward are convenience and user-friendliness, which, in turn, will create user dependence.

"User dependence is what will ensure the full implementation of the technological platform that will become the foundation for a new economy, and dependence upon information systems is what will eventually distinguish the Information Age from the Industrial Age in the same manner that reliance upon mass production manufacturing techniques distinguished the Industrial Age from Agrarian Society."

Reading this today seems merely common sense, and perhaps may not look very profound.  But in 1982, the people within AT&T who read this were furious, for to realize this economic/technological model would mean having to throw out over 100 years of investment in analog telecommunications network technology – and AT&T’s network was the Rolls Royce of the world’s analog networks, with nearly $3 billion investment in improvements/expansion each year – and, worse, for this untried model to work, all the other networks in the world would have to be rebuilt as well to create such a platform for the interconnection of computers. 

Besides, where was the evidence that anyone would want to do that?  What value could be generated by interconnecting computers?  Of what economic use could such an investment be put?  Most could not answer those questions to any satisfying degree to justify such an enormous investment.

So things were neither easy, nor “automatic,” and a major war broke out regarding whether to rebuild as digital networks per The Theory of the Information Age or to hold fast to current high-grade analog network technology.

At about this time, a few high tech nerds began playing with sending messages between computers using modems, and also to toy with an arcane military software designed to provide communications that could survive the electromagnetic effect caused by atomic bombs (which would wipe out all electronic systems) and keep communications going during such a crisis, a concept that came to be called the “Internet.” 

This low-grade state of affairs just sort of bumped along, but in 1991 Sir Tim Berners-Lee conceived the WorldWideWeb, and in 1993, Marc Andreessen introduced an enabling tool called Mosaic (later Netscape), a user friendly Web browser, which changed everything. The Internet became the “killer application” that vanquished the last hold-outs who wished to maintain analog networks.

What happened after the telecommunications companies cried “Uncle!”

To shorten the story, AT&T and all the other network providers yielded completely and The Theory of the Information Age was adopted and the rebuilding of the world’s networks began.  In the United States, the process accelerated when a fiber optic long distance network went into service and Sprint advertised their new network through a commercial in which they claimed digital sound quality was so superior that one could hear a pin drop. 

The result of that one commercial drove creation of digital network building into overdrive. Indeed, AT&T’s plan for all-digital network construction went from a completion date of 2013 to “immediately.”  MCI and the spun-off “Baby Bells” and independent phone companies across America and other telecommunications companies around the world joined the race.

As technology improved and digital capacity grew, declarations such as “the Internet will failmicrochip because it will never be able to deploy video” ceased as the ability to display both pictures and video grew exponentially.  The dot.com movement started and people’s imaginations went wild as the economic prospects appeared dazzling bright. 

This important digital networking capability was to be built out in three phases.  First, the long distance networks were turned into fiber optic networks with colossal “pipes” for carrying digital information.  Then the local networks were rebuilt in a similar fashion for delivery of this digital flow.  All that was left to do was to complete the all-digital fiber optic network connection between the home or business premises and the optical fiber network going by at the curb, and a new economic platform would be in place and the true Information Age could begin.

It was at this point that the high tech collapse happened in the year 2000.  Virtually all construction on the digital network infrastructure for the Information Age ceased, and, in fact, didn’t advance much further for a decade.  Why this happened remains a mystery that no one has ever been able to adequately explain.

Always have a “Plan B”

Frustrated by an “Information Superhighway” with no on/off ramps able to provide high capacity transmission/connectivity, and sustained only by a transitory technology called DSL which provided some additional digital handling capability over the rather archaic twisted copper pair of wires that still connects most homes and businesses to their local network – but which is not really true broadband – things turned in a new direction with the hope that wireless transmission would be the key to getting past this bottleneck from the premises to the curb. 

Over time, wireless did prove valuable in getting the Information Age in motion again, as is proven by our amazing modern phones, but as of this writing – though there is promise of a technological breakthrough in this area – the fact of the matter is that radio spectrum is fixed in quantity and the complex wireless applications are devouring it so rapidly with high-volume data applications that we may soon run out.

This is where we stand today.

As I wrote as long ago as 1983, I explained that the Information Age was really a two-edged sword, which was why it was so important that we apply our best thinking to plan our way into that true new age, so that the changes could be managed in a productive manner. 

Humankind has thus far chosen to let the Information Age unfold on its own, and what are some of the results of that approach? Cyberwars are already underway between nations.  Bookstores and newspapers are disappearing, with a new reliance upon masses of unverified information and hearsay rather than authoritative knowledge for much of our news. Dislocations are occurring around the world from the forces that have been unleashed by the Information Age, yet discussion regarding how to manage these new forces in a productive and positive manner does not take place. We keep expecting things to “sort themselves out” when these are new, never-before-seen forces at work that need study and discussion and a mechanism to apply them with ethics and reason.

Are we sure this is the way we want the history of the Information Age to be written? 

infoage3worldHere is precisely how I described to my fellow Americans in 1983 what we were facing with the coming of the Information Age:

“Before we proceed to look at the means I am suggesting we use to take control of our lives again, we should first come to understand the…force that is helping to tear our nation and the world apart at the moment.  Those of us alive today are at a peculiar point in history.  We have entered the transitional period into a new age, a new age coming to be known as the Information Age…

“Regardless of our ancestors’ opinions, and regardless of ours, there are some things that cannot be stopped.  A new age and the idea behind it come to be because a lot of puzzle pieces suddenly fit together and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.  A new age moves forward of its own accord when its time has come and the only thing we can do is to make the adjustment into the new age as easy as possible.

“The powerful ideas that made the Industrial Age possible are today literally breaking down as you read this.  It will no longer be possible or profitable to run factories as we have in the past.  Robots and computers will have to do a great deal of the work if we are to succeed in the future.  The loss of jobs by so many who have spent their lives dedicated to such work is powerful evidence of this.  And it is a tragedy that we as a nation are currently failing to address adequately, as anyone living in Detroit can tell you.

“The reason our economy is so hard to understand today is the fact that there are really two economies in operation.  One part of our society – still the largest part – is in decline as the Industrial Age breathes its last.  People who depend upon Industrial Age businesses for their livelihood are the ones suffering the great hardships.  Another part of our society – the new Information Age businesses – is the economy on the uphill swing with greater and greater success coming to them as time travels on.

“Because we know a new age is coming, one we cannot stop, and because we know what is bringing that new age into being, we can use that knowledge to create programs that will train people with the kinds of skills that will allow them to make a living within that new age.  That is where understanding the forces of history can be an advantage if a people is smart enough to make use of it.  Doing such, in fact, would be nothing more than good common sense, something for which this country has long been justly famous.

“The Information Age will be based upon computers and the interconnection of computers via telecommunications (a fancy word for phone lines), both here at home and around the world. This will not be a luxury.  It will be, and in many cases already is, a necessity…

“When things move this fast, old barriers – both political and social – will begin to break down.  We will be forced to deal with one another as though we did, indeed, live next door to one another.  On the surface that seems simple enough, but on a planet possessing many varieties of cultures in all stages of development ranging from Stone Age to futuristic, that is some proposition we are facing.

“How do we learn to live together, all of us, entangled in this complex web of communications and information, in a world where national economies are no longer that, but merely part of a worldwide economy?” 

  – EXCUSE ME, PLEASE, BUT I’D LIKE MY GOVERNMENT BACK by James R. Messenger, 1983

Now, take a look at today’s news. 

manheaphones Does it appear that anyone listened to this advice?

Most people believe that “history” is a record of what happened in the past.  But, the truth is, it is also a record of the future, if people are smart enough to plan their way into that future.

Now that you know the history of the coming of the Information Age, and now that you know where we are at this moment in history based upon the decisions we have chosen to make thus far, what do you think the record of Mankind’s history should be going forward?rainingpcs

Shall the mindless forces of the Information Age be allowed to write our future, or will all Humankind stand up as one and shape the future of the Information Age through conscious thought and effort to become an era long remembered as one of Humanity’s most enlightened and prosperous and greatest eras for human advancement?   

 

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