From the Information Age to the Community Age
In the last year of the 20th Century, I was invited to give the keynote talk at the National Education Computer Conference. I used that opportunity to look back at the history of technology. My purpose here is not to reconstruct the talk. But, instead, I wanted to share an insight that I made as I did the research. I think it helps us think about the changes that are taking place with technology.
The expression "the information age" is commonly used to describe the later part of the 20th century when computers were connected and made it possible for us to store, share and represent multimedia information. However looking back in time, I argue that the information age is a term that might better be applied to the 19th century. It was during this century that inventors worked at finding new ways to capture and store information from their world. Begining with the invention of the lithograph in 1798 which made it possible to copy and reproduce original art work, the 19th century gave us many new inventions to store, preserve and represent information--the photograph, mimeograph, typewriter, the phonograph, the telegraph, and tools for the cinematography and radiography. Communication tools include the micorphone, telegraph and telephone. This century was the era of recording and representing information- art, light, text, speech, music, motion, and even images of the internal bone structure of human bodies. The number inventions using the suffix "graph" or "graphy" suggests a communal focus on writing down or recording multimedia information.
With the shift to the 20th century, the naming of inventions shifted. It was not so much about "graphing" information but what sparked the imagination of the 20th century inventors was how to move information across distance and through time. This was the communication age. The use of the prefix "tele"-- meaning distance -- before so many of the new forms of technology suggests that the 20th century was focused on moving information across distances. This century gave us information technology that included the television, the telephoto lens, telerobotics, telecourses, teleconferencing, teletype as well computers, video tools, and the world wide web of information. While any separation of information and communication technology is difficult at best, during this century placing inventions on the two sides of the timeline became way more challenging. The radio, arpanet, the internet, telecommunications, telecommunity development and cell phones were all developments that shifted the way we were connected to others. Many of the names for new activities that people engaged in also indexed our extensions across distance including telecommuting, telecomputing, telementoring and telemarketing. Spiritual direction was provided by tele-evangelists. Even children's programming featured Tele-tubbies. These inventions, practices, and processes focused on our ability to transcend distance as we shared information.
It is interesting to note that the names of communication tools of the 19th century suggest the shift to a focus on distance technology. Similarly in the 20th century the the communication tools suggest the focus of the 21st century. Telecommunications and the community terms applied to online networks, professional learning communities, communities of practice, virtual communities herald the focus on neworked communities of the begining of this century.