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section heading icon     overview

This profile supplies background to several guides by looking at past communications and information revolutions. 

section marker     in this profile

The following pages cover -

  • the telegraph - the shape and impact of the telegraph
  • telephony - and its heir the telephone
  • the press - books, journals and newspapers
  • prints - woodcuts, etchings, lithographs and mechanical reproduction of images before the photograph
  • photos - instanteity and accuracy?
  • film - the moving image
  • sound recording
  • radio - the first broadcast revolution
  • television - and its tamer heir?
  • power - electricity networks as a metaphor for the web
  • rail - a world made by railways?
  • highways - and by the bicycle and automobile?
  • seas - communications revolutions on the waves
  • aviation - activity in the air as a model for cyberspace
  • outer space - the 'last frontier' and other paradigms
  • impacts and indicators - studies of the economic and cultural impacts, along with a selection of measures
  • bodies - communication bodies
  • metaphors - metaphors for the web
  • periodisation - categorising epochs in the history of the 'mediasphere'

section marker     revolutions?

Those revolutions are a reality check in considering claims made about the web or the information economy.

They suggest ways in which governments and other institutions adapt to new opportunities, new challenges.

They also reflect ways in which people have characterised new technology and its impacts. Much rhetoric about the net for example echoes utopian or dystopian forecasts from earlier generations about radio (or earlier communications developments) as a catalyst for revivifying community, enriching culture, destroying morals, enriching small business, "returning power to the people" or a "new frontier" ...

section marker     the revolutionary experience 

Although it is easy to succumb, like Negroponte (Being Digital) and Gilder (Life After Television), to a sort of digital delirium it is important to remember that law, government, economy and culture have experienced other revolutions.

It is also useful to recognise that the ramifications of political and technological changes may be subtle.

Revolutions begin with a blaze of fireworks (or dot coms) but quickly become bureaucratised - colonised by existing institutions, embraced by regulation - and assimilated into day to day lives. We have suggested in our profile on the web that such a 'normalisation' is occurring online at the moment.

The most powerful effect of the French Revolution may have been the diffusion of the Code Napoleon, ie the new legal framework, rather than blue-bloods having a nasty encounter with Madame Guillotine. Similarly, large-scale adoption of the typewriter and the bicycle prior to 1900 arguably had a greater economic and social impact (eg inclusion of women within an international white collar proletariat) than anything we'll seen from the Web during the next decade.

section marker     information

As a result, we suggest that in considering the nature of the 'internet revolution' you avoid the dot com gurus and instead consult The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press 2000), an outstanding work by John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid. It is based on a real understanding of technologies and their impact on society and economy.

For other thoughts on the adoption of new communication technologies and freedoms dip into Vincent Mosco's The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press 2004), Arenas of Innovation: Fringe Groups & the Discovery of New Liberties Of Action - a 2000 paper by Harmeet Sawhney & Seungwhan Lee - or Media Use in the Information Age: Emerging Patterns of Adoption & Consumer Use (Hillsdale: Erlbaum 1989) edited by Jerry Salvaggio & Jennings Bryant and the somewhat reductionist Information Revolutions in the History of the West (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar 2008) edited by Leonard Dudley.

Elsewhere in this site we have noted the incisive Information Rules (Boston: Harvard Business School Press 1999) by Hal Varian & Carl Shapiro for its exploration of the 'new' and 'old' economies. It is essential reading.

A Nation Transformed By Information
(New York: Oxford Uni Press 2000) is an outstanding collection of essays, edited by Alfred Chandler and James Cortada, on the use and impact of information technologies. 

Another perspective is provided by the invaluable Understanding the Digital Economy: Data, Tools & Research (Cambridge: MIT Press 2000), edited by Erik Brynjolfsson & Brian Kahin, particularly the essays by Hal Varian and Paul David, Paths of Innovation: Technological Change in 20th Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1998) by David Mowery & Nathan Rosenberg and Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860–1930 (Durham: Duke Uni Press 2007) by Dwayne Winseck & Robert Pike.

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version of December 2008
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics