Friday, May 18, 2012

Five top books on the impact of the Information Age

Nicholas Carr writes about technology, culture, and economics. His most recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, wass a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominee and a New York Times bestseller. Carr is also the author of two other influential books, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) and Does IT Matter? (2004).

With Alec Ash of The Browser, Carr discussed five top books on the impact of the Information Age, including:
The Victorian Internet
by Tom Standage

Let’s get back to the history of the information age with your first book selection, The Victorian Internet. Will you tell us about this, and the origins of our modern technologies with the telegraph?

The reason why I start with Tom Standage’s book is because we tend to think of the information age as something entirely new. In fact, people have been wrestling with information for many centuries. If I was going to say when the information age started, I would probably say the 15th century with the invention of the mechanical clock, which turned time into a measurable flow, and the printing press, which expanded our ability to tap into other kinds of thinking. The information age has been building ever since then.

Standage covers one very important milestone in that story, which is the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century. The telegraph was the first really efficient system for long-distance, almost instantaneous communication. It’s a short book, a very lively read, and it shows how this ability to throw one’s thoughts across the world changed all aspects of society. It certainly changed the business world. Suddenly you could coordinate a business not just in a local area, but across the country or across oceans. It had a lot of social implications too, as people didn’t have to wait for letters to come over the course of days. And as Standage points out, it inspired a lot of the same hopes and concerns that we have today with the Internet.

He even thinks the telegraph led to the greater changes in our society, because it was a qualitative shift whereas the Internet is a quantitative shift.

I’m not sure I agree with him there, in fact. The telegraph was the first time that humanity had to struggle with the implications of instantaneous long-distance communications, so it set the precedent for a lot of things that we have gone through since – not only the Internet but also radio, television and so forth. But ultimately there were limits to the telegraph. It was quite expensive, so it tended to be limited to high-priority messages, and because it was expensive they were very short. Only particular kinds of information could be exchanged efficiently through the telegraph. Certainly the Internet is a much broader information technology, and is having ultimately a greater effect than the telegraph did.
Read about the other books Carr tagged at The Browser.

The Victorian Internet also appears on L. Gordon Crovitz's five best list of books on what the Internet means for business, Jason Kottke's best books list, and Evgeny Morozov's list of ten books to learn how technology shapes the world.

Also see: Writers Read: Tom Standage (July 2009).

The Page 99 Test: Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch.

--Marshal Zeringue