Posted by: soniahs | August 3, 2010

Exam Reading: “When Information Came of Age”

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, since I’ve been wrapping up an internship at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’ll post about what I’ve done there later… For now, I’ve got a new book summary. “When Information Came of Age”, by Daniel Headrick, was actually interesting to read at this point. Circling back to the internship (which I really will discuss later), I’ve been dealing with issues of representing information about bird families in different formats. This book discusses the histories of information systems that were a big part of this process. But more on that later…

Summary: Headrick proposes that the current “Information Age” is only one of many historical information revolutions; in this book, he focuses on the information revolution of the Enlightenment. He outlines five categories of information systems: classifying/organizing, transforming, display, storage/retrieval, and communicating. His thesis is that developments in these information systems in this time period, coupled with subsequent technological inventions, laid the groundwork for the Information Age. During this period, demographic, cultural, political, and economic changes helped create an information build-up that could only be made sense of by inventing new information systems. So, for example, scientific nomenclature and classification systems were developed that suggested explanations for phenomena (e.g., the chemical classification system suggested possible new compounds). Statistics were used to transform demographic, political, and economic information that was beginning to be collected. Visual information displays (maps, graphs, and thematic maps) were used to display large datasets efficiently and in an easily-recalled manner. Cross-referenced dictionaries and encyclopedias were successful at disseminating current, easy-to-access information to the general public (in contrast to dense, thematically-linked former formats). Postal and telegraphic systems (visual and electric) were devised to transmit messages; these went from private messenger services to restricted government systems to more open government systems.

Comments: This book gives a good overview of the development of information systems, though some of the chapters are more comprehensive than others. His emphasis on information systems, rather than previous technologies that facilitated them (e.g., the printing press) or subsequent technological innovations, was an interesting choice (though apparently he’s addressed later periods in other books.) This would probably be a useful book to use in a History of T&T course. While heavy on the names and dates, it covers a really interesting period of history (see my Blituri project, and I will add that the Baroque Cycle is a mostly-excellent series set right before this period :).

Links to: Tufte (information representation); Benjamin (technologies of representation); Ong (social and technical aspects of changing representational practices)



  1. […] (communication media effects); Benjamin (changing technologies’ effects on perception of works); Headrick (communication media); Turkle (identity & writing technology); Murray (narrative and […]

  2. […] to: Ong (representational practices); Headrick (technologies of representation) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Claude Monet via […]

  3. […] to: McGann (TEI, digital archives); Headrick (classification systems in […]


%d bloggers like this: