For Your Information

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 18 August, 2016.

We live in a networked world. Besides our social networks, our societal networks and our friend networks, we’re now in the midst of networking knowledge – or as it is more conventionally known, information networks. But while we’ve only noticed it now, our information networks have grown progressively over millennia, and have only recently reached a critical mass that prompted its acceleration. 

Not much is known on how we first started networking knowledge, but it was impossible before the invention of language.  Archaeologists speculate that symbolic language was first developed by modern humans in Africa in the Middle Stone Age about 200 000 years ago, and when they spread out from Africa about 60 000 years ago, they carried language and symbolic culture with them. 

Language, while quite useful for disseminating knowledge, had one major drawback – it was not recorded. Hence why we need to rely on archaeologists to speculate about its origins, and why that time is referred to as pre-history. But even as the spread of knowledge was finite without a recording medium, it simply required that one push to expand knowledge exponentially. In 4 000 BCE, in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), a breakthrough occurred. For 4000 years, the Mesopotamian civilization had used a primitive form of accounting by storing clay tokens in pots, when a different idea began to take hold. By using a stylus, they engraved symbols on these clay pots to indicate the tokens inside. An idea formed…

Soon they dispensed with the clay pots, for clay tablets, and no longer would tokens be used – marks on the tablet would suffice. Writing was invented, and this form of recording knowledge spread throughout the region. In 2700 BCE, this cuneiform writing had spread to ancient Egypt, and they provided the next breakthrough. The Egyptians developed a set of 24 hieroglyphs to represent syllables of their language, and suddenly not only amounts could be recorded, but language as well! Thoughts and ideas previously only communicated via speech could now be preserved for future generations, and humanity took a great leap forward. We had invented the alphabet!

But clay tablets were brittle, and heavy – they could not be transported safely. Luckily the Egyptians had a solution – papyrus. Sheets of the pith of the papyrus plant could be used to write on, and were significantly lighter, allowing them to be safely transported. Rolled up into scrolls or bound into codices, knowledge could be preserved. Soon efforts were made to collect and index the entire recorded knowledge of mankind, and Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s successors, created the Musaeum of Alexandria, where all the great scholars of the world studied. Their collective knowledge was inscribed on papyrus and stored in the Great Library of Alexandria, where up to 400 000 scrolls were stored at its height. 

Unfortunately, papyrus was not particularly durable, and this was soon evident when the Great Library was destroyed in a fire during Julius Caesar’s siege of Alexandria in 48BCE. But what alternative was there? An answer lurked from the East, where during the Han dynasty in China, a new development emerged in 105 CE. The invention of paper. 

Paper slowly spread west, reaching the Middle East by 750 CE and Egypt by 900 CE. Paper has several advantages over papyrus – not only was is more durable and lasted longer, but it was also much thinner, and much more information could be stored in a much more compact form. This allowed it to travel much further, allowing ideas to spread, and significantly multiplied the amount of information that could be held in libraries. 

With the amount of information now available, a new problem emerged though – for knowledge to be preserved, you had to make a copy of it when you wanted to send it somewhere else. This required laborious manual transcribing, and dramatically increased its cost. A man named Johannes Gutenberg from Germany changed all that. His printing press allowed knowledge to be duplicated en masse, allowing 240 pages to be printed per hour, enabling the mass distribution of knowledge. 

This distribution of knowledge was still physical though, and it took time to distribute knowledge. In 1876 CE, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a method of sending information over copper, and a short while later, in 1895 CE, Guglielmo Marconi developed another new method of communicating information – radio. And while both were much faster, it rendered much of our old knowledge inaccessible as it was in a different format, and, of course, also reintroduced the age-old problem of recording the distributed information. 

Fortunately, necessity is the mother of invention, and soon there was a need to record a lot of information coming in for review – war. Specifically, World War II. With the radio now a battlefield instrument relaying knowledge back to governments, a machine was required to capture and correlate this information. A young man named Alan Mathison Turing was working to decipher Axis cryptographic codes, and with his team, developed an Automatic Computation Engine, the key to the Colossus computers that did the code-breaking. 

But these new-fangled ‘computers’ as they were called were not only capable of receiving this new electronic and radio information, it was also capable of storing it, and most importantly, capable of making copies of that information that could be sent to other computers. Still, they were huge, cumbersome devices that were difficult to use. Fortunately, our previous methods of spreading information far and wide were still working, and soon progress was made. 

Given their obvious utility, research was poured into computers, and they were made smaller, faster, and cheaper. The technology spread, and the need arose to share information amongst these computers – after all, a single nuclear bomb could take out one, and a nation would lose all that stored data! The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA/ARPA) decided to use the copper wire from the telephone system, which by now had criss-crossed their nation, and connect these computers in a ‘network’ that could not be taken down by a single failure. This ARPAnet grew quickly from 4 computers to over 100 000 as computers started to appear across their nation. Soon commercial entities wished to linked their computers in as well, and ARPAnet was rebranded as the Internet. 

Computers have continued to get smaller, and today, most of us are carrying one in our pocket – one that can make calls like Bell’s telephone, but using Marconi’s radio to communicate. And more and more of them got connected to the Internet, which means every one of them is capable of accessing the information stored on another anywhere on the planet.  We’ve become so adept at networking knowledge that we now have devices in our pockets that can access to sum total of human knowledge at the drop of a hat. Our information networks have given us access to knowledge that used to be the preserve of kings of old, and it is only accelerating. It is time we started treating our new-found power with the respect it deserves.

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