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The Information Age Is Older Than You Think

from the Google Labs Ngram Viewer

Originally the “Iron Age” was the most modern of the three ages in question (Stone, Bronze, Iron). The illustration above, produced via Google’s “Ngram Viewer,” gives a rough sense of the changing cultural awareness of these arbitrary, fictional “Ages.”

So, what about the Information Age? Several months ago I discussed the Oxford English Dictionary’s expanded entry for the word information. I called this dictionary entry a masterpiece and an adventure in cultural history in 9,400 words. I mentioned that when it came to the phrase “information age,” the OED attributed the first recorded usage to Richard Leghorn in 1960. Leghorn wrote:

Present and anticipated spectacular informational achievements will usher in public recognition of the “information age,” probably under a more symbolic title.

The OED gives this definition for information age:

the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information, esp. by using computer technology, is a principal (commercial) activity.

Nineteen-sixty seems like a plausible starting point, but it’s not. It turns out that the phrase “Information Age” predates the Leghorn citation by forty-five years. Using Google’s book search, I came across an essay by A. H. Martin published in 1915 in an American magazine called The Editor that begins with the sentence, “This is the Information Age.” In 1915! What did he mean? There wasn’t really any retrieval, management, or processing of information. The new technologies of telephone and radio were transmitting sound and messages, but people didn’t yet generalize and call that stuff “information.” Information was more in the line of facts.

The Editor was a professional journal for writers and would-be writers. It offered guidance and advice. In his essay, “The Demand for the Illustrated Information Article,” Martin was thinking particularly about writing for the many new magazines representing “engineering, agriculture, music, art, housekeeping—every branch of human endeavor.” He advised his readers as follows:

  • “The opportunities are so great that one lacking special knowledge of any subject may easily fit himself by study and practice to write entertainingly and authoritatively.”
  • “In submitting the article of information it is always best to accompany it with photographs.” (The photograph “oftimes attracts the attention of busy readers to an article that might otherwise pass neglected.”)
  • “The writer had best confine himself to something with which he is incontestably conversant…. If an editor discovers you are not master of your own subject his door is ever closed to your future visits.”

Over at OED headquarters in Oxford, I happen to know that they’re well acquainted with the Google. Will the lexicographers, in due course, revise the entry again to include this early citation? Or is it just a quirk, an oddball, a one-off?

Let’s confuse the issue further. Still wandering through Google’s storehouse of digitized text, I find a monthly journal published in London in 1861 under the name Crosthwaite’s Register of Facts and Occurrences Relating to Literature, the Sciences, & the Arts. It aimed to provide one-stop shopping for people overwhelmed by the flood of news, books, and discoveries coming from every corner of the earth: “Embracing within its scope, not only literature, but also the sciences, the fine arts, and the industrial arts, nothing of importance shall take place in either of these four great fields of human activity without being immediately ‘register’-ed in the journal.” Like a Web portal, therefore; or an authoritative blog.

An item in the October issue, titled “Sight-Seeing,” signed with the initials S. L., in the course of complaining about an overabundance of trivial facts and curiosities, remarks:

But this is the Miscellaneous-information Age, in which nearly everybody hungers for a smattering of everything …

You, too can play this game of predating OED citations. The floodgates are open. You will find, though, that searching for something like “information age” can be tricky; you have to wade through many accidents of the following kind:

7 Comments

  1. Carmen Reynal says

    James, you are such a GEEK! I am in love. I just read the review of The Information in the NYTimes, and it took me right back to my first discovery of you when I was still in college and Chaos had just come out. Wow. I was in heaven. I can’t wait to sit down and lose myself in the realm that you have most recently created. Thank you for the phenomenal contribution that you are to the planet and to the mind.

  2. Paul Erb says

    I, too, look forward to reading this book. I hope it contains a lengthy discussion of “the,” the cultural includer-function.

  3. Marc Arenstein says

    Curious in the framework of “The Information Age Is Older Than You Think” how you would respond to the challenges posed by “The Ashtray: Shifting Paradigms (Part 2) [and perhaps subsequent parts as they appear] written by Errol Morris in the Opinionator blog of the New York Times. As an aside and with reference to the review mentioned in the first comment, Freeman Dyson seems to have no problem with connecting paradigms historiographically but maybe does with fitting data into cross discipline models. Your Google ngram comparison is nifty but are you suggesting a model? Like the need for a book on the use of age, as in era, or usage of child of his age?

  4. Bridget Navoda says

    Can’t wait to get my hands on your book! I was studying Info Science at UT in 1999 and began the foray into informational “bits”. Let us not forget Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message…”

  5. Joe Schisa says

    Throughout history and one assumes prehistory information collection and transmission has been important in the survival and development of human activity; the modern age of information (IT), at high speed and wide coverage, has of course been progressing to the point that one might wonder if it’s curve is exponential, but while a medium may revolutionize the dissemination of information, are the messages and those receiving them revolutionary/evolutionary in and of themselves or is the high regard for IT (information technology) a form of, what might one call it, anthropomorphism? What is assimilated and what is overload, what is significant, superfluous or adding “more trees” from which the “forest” is still not in focus? I suppose it depends.

  6. panacea says

    “to drink the Kool-Aid: to demonstrate unquestioning obedience or loyalty”

    I had to visit eight different ‘physical’ bookshops before I could find your new book.

    One of them had a Religion section, a Top Gear section and a Justin Bieber section, but didn’t have a Non-fiction or Science section and didn’t stock your book (I’m not joking).

    My experience in another bookshop in Islington, London was a tad more encouraging:

    Me: “Hi there, can you please look up a book for me to see if you stock it? It’s by James Glieck or Gleick… It’s one of those spellings…”

    Them (without consulting the terminal): “The Information? Sold out.”

    I’m enjoying it immensely so far – sincerely, a Kool-Aid kid.

  7. desert creatures says

    check out lil b the based god’s song “age of information”

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