47 Information in Historical Context

Humans have existed in their modern form for around 200,000 years, but only for the last 5,500 years have humans been writing anything down. So, for 97% of our history, our knowledge has been limited by our memory. People can remember a lot—particularly when memory is routinely developed and exercised and when lives depend on it—but even so, the capacity of human memory is sharply limited. Even less information can be reliably passed along from generation to generation when memory is the only storage resource since there are only so many stories that can be invented and passed along. This means that for most of our history there have been sharp limits on preserving old information and making use of it in new contexts. Not that there was no preservation of information, of course; traditions, epic stories, folk wisdom, religious lore, cultural practices, and ethical mores all are ways in which knowledge from the past can be carried into the future without writing anything down. But when these are all there is, the survival of any item of knowledge is very precarious. Evidently, human memory, together with these cultural practices, have provided enough for us to “get by,” but they have provided scarcely more than that.


So, for the great majority of our species’ existence, nature itself has served as a limit on the flow of information. Brains can only remember so much; only a portion of that memory is encoded in songs and stories and passed along to new generations; only a portion of those songs and stories continue to be retold over subsequent generations. There may have been individuals who attempted to suppress stories or distort them, but their attempts at controlling information are negligible when compared to the inherent limitations of nature.


The development of writing (c. 3500 BCE) punched a hole through these natural limits, as information could then be stored in something more durable than a human brian. Still, very few humans learned to write and read, which meant that there still remained a tight control over what information was preserved and exactly how it was preserved—in other words, which stories were written down and how they were written. Praises for kings, the details of economic transactions, and religious myths seem to have been common subjects for the earliest encoders of information (or scribes). Nevertheless, writing itself allowed for more information to be passed and stored from generation to generation, which assisted in the growth of more complex societies. This increase in stored information coincided with more extensive trade networks and more cultural commerce among civilizations, generating even more information, of which more and more came to be written down through the works of humanists and philosophers. A notable result was that the amount of information accessible by humans came to be greater than the amount of information actively known by humans. Literate societies “knew” more than their populations did because information was stored in libraries of unread books.


Nearly 50 centuries later, the invention of the printing press (c. 1450) tremendously amplified the production and dissemination of information, and the flow of information became a flood. More and more people had access to more information as literacy rates increased. While political states and religious authorities still exerted some control over what was published, these controls were overcome by an ever increasing popular demand for information which was seemingly without limit. More people read, owned, stored, and even wrote books on ever greater varieties of topics—some fiction, some nonfiction, some ludicrous or scandalous, and a great many falling into all of these categories at once. It quickly became impossible for anyone to control information or to control disinformation or falsehoods posing as information.


The development of information technologies throughout the 20th century, culminating in the creation of the internet, represents a jump in the history of human information processing capacities that is greater in scope to the development of writing and the invention of the printing press. No other innovation has given more people easier and faster access to more information. There is very little that is known that cannot be shared instantly with anyone with a connection to the internet. The greatest repositories of information in the history of the world are literally at our fingertips.


But the creation of the internet has led to more problems, or, at any rate, monstrous enhancements of older problems. The chief problems have to do with searching, filtering, and controlling. For centuries there have been the problems of tracking down a particular text in one library or another; of sorting through irrelevant information to find what is relevant; and of limiting the spread of information that is considered false, misleading, or dangerous. In the past, these problems were confronted through information management systems (such as the “call number” system used in libraries) or through the specialized training of scholars in schools and universities or through political or religious attempts at censorship. But these traditional, human-based efforts at managing information are no match for the modern engines of information production. (Measurement on these matters is tricky, but by one estimate, the world produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. Whatever exactly that means, it is a lot!) There is simply no way that humans can manage all the information that is available. Hence the need for algorithms.


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Knowledge For Humans Copyright © 2022 by Charlie Huenemann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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