Lessons from the Stone Age to the Information Age
10 million years ago, there were lots of stones, but the Stone Age wouldn’t start for another 7 million years.
Today, there is lots of information. And we might be getting a little ahead of ourselves saying it’s the Information Age.
5 million years ago, one of our bipedal ancestors is sitting idle by the side of a river. Let’s call her Lucy. Lucy picks up a pebble on the ground and notices its shape. It is smooth, and lovely and a little warm from the sun. It fits comfortably in the palm of her hand. She picks up a second pebble. She switches the two pebbles from one hand to another playfully. The pebbles knock against each other making a pleasant round sound. Lucy wants more of the sound. She deliberately makes the pebbles knock against each other. Harder, slower, faster … The rythm changes. It’s pleasant. She gets excited. One pebble smashes against the other. A piece of it chips off. The shape of the pebble has changed. Lucy marvels at the change. The pebble has been improved: it is now more extraordinary, not like other smooth pebbles all around. This one now has a sharp edge. Lucy feels its sharpness on the skin of her hand. The pebble is now a dangerous pebble. Dangerous like an angry wildebeest… — for sure, more dangerous than a dead angry wildebeest, Lucy salivates. This improved pebble could surely pierce the skin of the animal, even tear its fresh meat into pieces. And certainly it could chop branches and carve wood and do many more things that other pebbles don’t do! This is fantastic! This is literally the discovery of the Megannum! Lucy calls her brother and shows him the improved pebble. Brother runs his fingers over it. It definitely is an unusually shaped pebble… A heron flies close by and lands on the opposite river bank. Brother points at it. They marvel together at the phlegmatic bird which has turned still as a statue. A given pebble is tossed into the river next to the bird, to challenge its immobility. The moment for talking about lithic tech had passed. Sharing the process by which the shape of the pebble was improved and sharing the notions of what might have been done with the improved pebble will have to wait. The Stone Age will have to wait — another 2 million years.
Proto-humanity might be ready to pick up pebbles and to notice fortuitous improvements of pebbles. But it is not even remotely ready to organise a pebble-improving industry. Over the course of the next 2 megannums, Lucy’s discovery will be rediscovered again and again, countless times. Herons are marvelous birds however, undoubtedly deserving our immediate attention. As are many other things in the world. As it turns out, it takes more than doing exciting stuff with stone to start a stone age.
It's not that easy to start an Age of Humanity
Likewise, it probably takes more than doing exciting stuff with information to start an information age.
Lesson No 1:
Don’t just hand over the improved stone to your brother, show him the process, how the stone is improved.
The heron made Lucy’s job impossible. She had time to show the improved pebble to her brother but she didn’t get to demonstrate how she had done it. Her brother saw an unusually shaped pebble, rather than an improved pebble.
Lesson No 2:
Beware of distracting herons. They come easily and can appear to be so much more deserving of our immediate attention than stone. Don’t let them distract you from showing more than just a stylish pebble.
Showing the improved stone is not showing the smashing. However many more people than just Lucy’s brother would have seen Lucy’s improved pebble, however many of Lucy’s aunts and uncles would have been told and believed that Lucy had the power to transform ordinary stone into dangerous stone, the Stone Age would not have started then and there. To start a pebble-improving industry, it’s not enough for you, your tribe, your species to know of improved pebbles. Nor is it enough to know that pebbles can be improved. The process by which a stone is improved must be made to matter. The know-how must permeate society. As long we keep forgetting to
tell show our brothers and sisters how we got to improve a stone, the Stone Age is not about to start. Wherever there is a discontinuity in the sharing of the process, there is an interruption of the civilisational learning favourable to a new civilisational age.
It’s not enough to be surrounded by information. The process of improving information must pervade the diversity of our human experiences.
Lesson No 3:
Smash stones. Because you can. Learn through practice.
Perhaps not all people of the Stone Age invested the hours of work needed to make a good tool out of stone. But most people had an idea of the basics of stone improvement, i.e. stone smashing. Because stone smashing is within reach of most people. Master stone workers are not sorcerers.
Lesson No 4:
Respect but don’t worship stone workers.
In the Age of Information, information professions will be treasured mundanely. It will not remotely feel like the Age of Degenerescence of Information. Information improvements will be much appreciated and made practical use of. Information workers — teachers, scientists, journalists — will not be confused with sorcerers. They will not be locked in ivory towers. They will walk among the people, highly respected for the work they do. Information won’t be considered any more sacred and precious than stone. Respect for information workers will come from normalised appreciation of the added value that information improvement brings to society. Respect for information workers will also come from the people’s familiarity with the sport of information improvement. Appreciation of the added expertise, experience, effort and time invested by information professionals into doing something that everyone can do to some extent, will come easy.
Back to Lesson No 2:
Lesson No 2:
Beware of distracting herons. They come easily and can appear to be so much more deserving of our immediate attention than stone. Don’t let them distract you from showing more than just a stylish pebble.
Lesson No 2 — about distracting herons that systematically interfere with the propagation of stone-smashing know-how — may translate several ways in terms of information. We can take pebbles to represent published content. The distracting herons of our time could be: publication itself, IP, authorship. As we ‘toss’ information towards publication etc, our attention strays away from the content itself. With this interpretation, Lesson No 2 warns against letting the heron of publication distract you from the fact that in publishing new information, you’ve shared an end result not the process that got you the end result. You’re not participating in the Information Age. Nor are you making it more likely to come any time soon.
If we want to provoke the advent of the Information Age rather than wait for it or pretend it’s already here, this is what we have to do: build ourselves means to propagate the know-how of information-improvement in such an efficient way that learning the know-how preempts distracting herons of our time. Considering our present digital networking industry/mania, this certainly seems like something we can do.
What happened during the Stone Age is that hitting stones to deliberately change their shapes became commonplace, and methods were developed over time for improving the quality of the results and the efficiency of the process.
We started fortuitously improving stones by breaking pieces off of them, then we discovered that hitting stones methodically could actually be used to sculpt stone into more deliberate shapes with more specific planned uses. That’s when manufactured symmetry and manufactured flatness entered human history.
Lesson No 5 :
Reap a wealth of brand new concepts, understanding and sensitivity.
Later humanity experienced the Bronze age, the Iron Age, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Printed text, the Age of Reason, the Space Age, the Digital Age, the Data Age, the New Media Age… Every time a similar thing happened: we learned, as a civilisation, to relate to something in a more deliberate and a more methodical manner than we did before — whether it be to stone, copper, bronze, iron, the geography of our planet, printed text, our own reason as opposed to our senses, space, computation, data or social media.
Lesson No 6 :
Learn and teach to relate to stone in a more deliberate and methodical manner than your ancestors.
Lesson No 7:
Don’t be a snob. Welcome anyone who can help improve stone. Welcome any improvement.
Of course it’s hard to make sense of Lesson No 7 if you don’t know how to recognise stone improvement.
A Flat Earther experimenting to disprove the roundness of the Earth may produce a bit of improvement even if our snobbish era will automatically ridicule them without factoring in the initiative, design and context of the experiment. Noticing information improvement requires a minimum amount of benevolent attention to pierce through the haze of indetermination. Information snobs find more righteousness in calling people liars than in experimenting themselves. They expect Truth and Falsehood to be sorted out into two columns.
The least we can say of each named age of humanity is that it marked a time when humans acquired a precise idea of what something was and how to use it. Humans of the bronze age acquired a pretty good idea of what bronze is, how to use it, and how it differs from copper. Humans of the space age had a pretty good idea of what space is. Humans of the computer age have a pretty good idea of what a computer is, even though computers keep changing in form, shape and utility. Humans of the data age know what data is. A lot of people’s jobs involve manipulating some sort of data; data isn’t a vague and abstract concept to them. Arguably, not all humans of the social media age are aware and understand what social media is. But enough of them do for social media to have a huge structural impact on our civilisation.
We know what we are talking about
Structural societal changes
Indeed, every named age of humanity resulted in the structure of our society being deeply and durably impacted. The age of printed text introduced the start of mass literacy, catalysed religious reformation, and seeded notions of intellectual property and even celebrity that we still have today. The Age of Enlightenment formed notions of reason, science and knowledge that still deeply shape our thinking today, centuries later. The Age of Enlightenment made such a fuss about the reason / sense dichotomy, that it drove us to have to claim control over the interplay between reason and sensory observation of the physical world when we are drawing information out of our interactions with the physical world. Out of that we got a scientific method and modern science which the empirical sciences still diligently abide by. And generally we got so called “modernity”. The digital age, like the age of printed press, brought change in the way humans communicate among each other, and it changed the whole economy of our society.
Wikipedia editors have spent 21 years trying to agree on the content of the Wikipedia article on the topic of ‘information‘. That is: 21 years trying to answer this question What is information? They never found a consensus that would work for an encyclopedia. One editor said this question is one of the most challenging questions for science to answer in the 21st century. And regularly, someone in the community would say something like “Give it up”.
Unlike the Wikipedia articles on the topics of ‘computer‘ and ‘data‘, the Wikipedia article on the topic of ‘information‘ does not settle on a definition. It gives a list of definitions: information as per Information theory, information as a sensory input, information as representation of complexity, information as a pattern, information as a message, information as an influence that leads to transformation, information as a property of physics, …
We know what data is, and it is generally accepted that data is not quite the exact same thing as information. We know what misinformation is and, strangely enough, as discussed in another post, we find it easier to agree on the definition of misinformation than on that of information. Certainly, Stone Age people had incomparably more collective understanding of what stone is than we currently have collective understanding of what information is.
This civilisation doesn't yet know what information is
Lesson No 8:
Know what stone is.
Millions of years ago, as long as there were only few distinctions people could make relatively to stone — eg as long as they could only distinguish between stone being there or not there — and as long as the distinctions they made weren’t especially characteristic of stone — eg the stone is warm or not warm, much like water can be warm or not warm — certainly, the Stone Age hadn’t started.
Stone not There
Industry based on a certain stuff requires to know that stuff beyond its superficial properties. To have a stone based industry, humanity must have come up with a minimum amount of concepts relative to stone, be it:
- concepts denoting different qualities of stone,
- different sorts of stones,
- actionable differences between stones, or
- different actions to be performed on/with stone…
If not concepts, then at least awareness. Familiarity with certain categories of stone must have become easier to spread. Necessity to communicate stone related ideas and know-how must have called for enrichment of stone related vocabulary. People of the Stone Age must have noticed stone had different colour, weight, porosity, dryness, sharpness, fragility, resistance to smashing, resistance to scraping…
Lesson No 9:
Know your stone.
We have ‘misinformation’ and ‘information’.
Clearly we’re not there yet.
As long as the term misinformation is in use, and as long as it makes sense for us to rely on some sort of prehistoric dichotomy between the good and the bad information, we certainly are not yet in the Information Age. I would go so far as to propose using the prevalence of the word “misinformation” as a telltale of the Information Age still being ahead of us.
Some say there has been two information ages. The first was the age of the printing press started over half a millennium ago by Gutemberg’s innovation. The second was started 50 years ago by the advent of the internet. There is indeed a strong commonality between these 2 ages. Both have taught us to relate to a form of communication in a more deliberate and methodical manner. A form of communication intimately delineated by the new technology. Thus we have gained a pretty good understanding of communication as allowed by the printing press such as books and articles. And we have gained a pretty good understanding of communication as allowed by the internet such as emails and the web.
In the mainstream understanding, “information age” is taken as a generic term amalgamating the concepts of computer age, data age and the age of social media. As if all those things were one thing, or as if all those things were categories or properties of information, or as if information was the intersection of all those things, as if all those things were digital and information was digital too …
We’re clearly not there yet.
We can do much better than that. We might not be there yet but we can already start looking forward to the times when the word “information” will be as consensually clear and functional to us as are the terms “communication”, “social media”, “data” and “stone.
Wikipedia harbingers those times.
If it weren’t for Wikipedia, the Information Age would seem so far, I probably wouldn’t bother advocating for investing in making it come faster.
But Wikipedia is a very serious announcement of the Information Age.
Wikipedia has successfully integrated Lesson 7 (“Don’t be a snob…etc“). That in itself is a powerful sign that the winds of change have begun to blow.
Very importantly, although less famously, Wikipedia has also managed to partially address the tricky problem of “distracting herons” (cf Lesson 2). Many people still ignore this but Wikipedia doesn’t just have encyclopedic articles, it also has talk pages associated with the articles. The talk pages are the most important part of Wikipedia. They are where the information published in each article is discussed. They provide a way of determining the quality and actuality of the information published in the main encyclopedic article. Use them to see if the article is an opinionated piece written by a single partial writer, or if it is the result of a consensual approach to a topic, or if it is the continually changing reflection of collective uncertainty and intellectual immaturity on a topic (cf the talk pages for the article on the topic of information). Wikipedia’s talk pages are of utmost importance because they pave the way to a brand new approach to information: information as a dynamic of object, not fixed in print once and for all, but continually evolving, updating, improving, reformulating. Wikipedia has opened a door revealing that it is possible to relate to information in an interactive manner and still have high(er) standards in terms of quality of information. Wikipedia shows it is possible to organise systems that avoid the traditional herons of publication and promote focused attention on content and its continual improvement. Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s talk pages are not conspicuous and Wikipedia is still limited to encyclopedic information. There are further steps to take. And more lessons to learn. But we definitely are on the way now…
The most important lesson to take away for now remains this one:
Lesson No 10:
Distinguish between the instrinsic properties of stone and the extrinsic properties of stone.
The fact that your brother likes your sharp stone is an extrinsic property of the stone. The fact that the stone is sharp is an intrinsic property. You don’t work with extrinsic properties the same way you do with intrinsic properties. The fact that the sun shines on the stone: extrinsic. The fact that the stone stores warmth for a while: intrinsic. The fact that all your tribe prefers flint to chert: extrinsic. Your tribe lives in a place where grayish chert is commonplace so they find dark opaque flint extraordinarily beautiful. The fact that flint is a very fine-grained variety of quartz just like chert: intrinsic.
Working with the extrinsic properties of stone means working on things that relate to stone but aren’t stone — like your brother, the sun, your tribe and the place your tribe has chosen to settle — and working on the relationship between those things and the stone. Changing extrinsic properties of stone usually boils down to changing properties of people (what they like, where they live…) or waiting for a sunny day.
Changing intrinsic properties of stone requires to change the stone itself, eg by smashing it with another stone. It is worth noting however that many intrinsic properties of stone cannot be changed, or at least not without a great deal of insight into the nature of the stone.
Similarly, the fact that you trust a certain source for information is an extrinsic property of information. The fact that the information follows from a modus ponens applied to two other pieces of information is an intrinsic property of the information. The fact that a certain result about memory was proven by an experiment with sleeping humans rather than sleeping rats: intrinsic property of that result. The fact that this result was proven in a prestigious scientific venue: extrinsic.
After WIkipedia’s foot in the door, I have no doubt: the next lesson and the most pressing one to learn on our way to the Information Age, is Lesson No 10 (“Distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic”). Once this particular lesson starts seeping through, impacting on the way we talk about information and about the great information-related issues our civilisation faces, the other lessons will follow suit. Lesson 8 (“Know what stone is.”) will become trivial. Lesson 9 (“Know your stone.”) will be within reach. And as our societies gradually reorganise in response to this new perspective on information, Lessons 1 to 4 and 6 and 7 will find their way to our collective brain too. Finally, Lesson 5 will bring happy unexpected bonuses.
In the meantime, here’s a little
What does an Information Age have in common with a Stone Age?
- It doesn’t just start because there is plenty of the stuff in our lives, be it stone or information.
- It doesn’t just start because some people have figured out how to improve some stones/information.
- It requires the process of improving stone/information to pervade the diversity of our human experiences.
- It marks our learning to relate to stone/information in a more deliberate and methodical manner than we did before.
- It marks a time where humanity makes stone/information matter.
- It marks a time when we know what stone/information is and are long past the stage where we confuse it with other things — like metal and data or knowledge.
- By the time we are in the Stone/Information Age, we have been manipulating stone/information so much and in so many different context that we have discerned a number of different categories and properties of stone/information and the vocabulary we have is very rich. → means that the vocabulary we have to describe properties of stone/information is very rich. Its not limited to just stone is there or not there. Information is correct or incorrect.
- It deeply and durably impacts on the structure of our society.
The Stone Age is long past us. The Information Age might be on the verge of starting.