You are on page 1of 6

Amy Gade

IDS 803: Origins and Implications of the Knowledge Society


Reading Response #1: THE INFORMATION: A History, A Theory, A Flood

Reading Response 1 Writing Prompt


Working from discrete sections of Gleick's text as a whole, detail how our relationship to
information has changed over time and how that transformation has affected the way humans
know their world.
The book THE INFORMATION: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick (2011),
details the transition of peoples access to information throughout history. In the required
readings for IDS 803: Origins and Implications of the Knowledge Society at Fort Hays State
University, various communication tools were discussed including African talking drums, written
word, the telegraph, and the telephone. It is through these various communication tools that
information is often received and disseminated. Through the readings of Gleicks (2011) book,
the author believes peoples relationship to information has changed over time largely through
the development and spread of new technologies which aid in the communication process.
Because information is most often shared through communication, the author believes it is our
increased access to information, thanks to advances in technology, that has affected the way
humans know their world.
Gleick (2011) begins by providing a description of information early in his text. Because
information is the center of his work, it is important that his readers understand what is to be
classified as information. He discusses how use of the word information began to describe
something more technical, like a quantity or measure of information. One of his most telling
lines, as it relates to information, is "For the purposes of science, information had to mean
something special" (Gleick, 2011, p. 7). By this definition, not just any piece of communication
can be considered information; in fact, for something to be truly considered information, it has to

teach us something new or different than what we had previously known. Ultimately, it is
information that can and will change the course of our life. It is such a vital part of who we are,
for it is in our everyday experiences. To further reiterate this point, Gleick (2011) quoted
evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins who said, What lies at the heart of every living thing is
not a fire, not warm breath, not a spark of life. It is information, words, instructionsIf you
want to understand life, dont think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about
information technology (p. 8). Once one is able to truly see the place information has in life,
they are more likely to appreciate the evolution of access to information.
African drummers were some of the first to initiate long distance communication. Long
distance communication allowed for the dissemination of information faster and to people larger
distances away from the initial communication source. The beats on an African drummers drum
represented the tones of the syllables in more conventional phrases used within their language.
According to Gleick (2011), "It was a language of a single pair of phonemes, a language
composed entirely of pitch contours" (p. 24). Because the pitch contours were so recognizable,
those familiar with tribal communication could clearly hear messages through the drum sounds.
What was particularly profound about the African drummers' communication was the distance of
which it could travel, a messaging system "that outpaced the best couriers, the fastest horses on
good roads with way stations and relays" (Gleick, 2011, p. 16). The messages could be heard by
tribes nearby who were able to interpret the message before continuing to spread it to other
neighboring tribes using their own drummers. These tribes, which were at one time described as
animalistic or primitive, had essentially created the first form of long distance communication. A
creation that all future forms of communication would emulate and enhance even further.

Gleick (2011) next details the transition of oral culture to that of written word. This
transition was one that presented many fears, especially the fear of forgetfulness. Plato first
acknowledge this issue, stating, "For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of
those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory" (Gleick, 2011, p.
30). Gleick (2011) explained that because people would rely so heavily on written word, their
ability to rely on memory would lessen. The oral culture of the past relied on memory because
they were not able to look things up or look back on things they would learned in the
past. Gleick (2011) also described the progression of written word "from pictographic, writing
the picture; to ideographic, writing the idea; and then logographic, writing the word" (p. 32).
Likely, the idea of written words came from the quick and ever expanding vocabulary. Instead of
relying on memory to recall all the information one receives, writing things down allowed not
only for the individual to remember those things, but also for others to learn from the
experiences of others. The transition to written word allowed for information to be preserved in
the form of documentation. In being able to access information through written word, an
individual is ultimately able to absorb as much information as they can put their hands on and are
able to interpret and store.
While talking drums created communication from a distance and written word was the
beginning of increased information access, the telegraph combined the two in its then
revolutionary technology. The telegraph dramatically improved the speed of communication in
two ways; first, in terms of the distance this form of communication could connect, second, in
terms of the number of words and symbols it could relay in a short period of time. Gleick (2011)
stated, "The telegraph system was setting a new standard for speed of communication, since the
only real competition was a rider on horseback" (p. 132). Likewise, in an effort to slim down

communication in order to trim message costs, codes and symbols were developed and accepted
to be used in place of full words. It is because of the telegraph that use of shorthand or
abbreviations in communication was recognized. The telegraph, for the first time, allowed for the
share of information not only within a continent, but also across continents, which in turn
improved the general understanding of the larger world. For example, it was the use of the
telegraph that first helped people gain an understanding of time coordination in varying time
zones. Another way the telegraph changed access to information was by allowing some pieces of
information to be relayed daily, such as the weather report. Lastly, use of the telegraph is the first
record of information storage.
While the telegraph took access to information to a new level, it was still only of access
to those who could afford telegraph services. The telephone, on the other hand, put information
access in individual businesses and homes. Gleick (2011) said, "By the turn of the century, the
telephone industry surpassed the telegraph in every measure- number of messages, miles of wire,
capital invested- and telephone usage was doubling every few years" (p. 188). While the
telegraph required many steps, such as writing the message, encoding the message, tapping the
message to a trained receiver, the telephone could be used by ultimately anyone who could
communicate. The telephone made communication with those far from reach a part of daily life.
Families separated by distance could connect daily, just as an employee away from the office
could stay in contact with their employer. The telephone was the first tool that allowed for
information share to include emotions of the sender and receiver not just the facts.
The author of this paper believes it is clear that technological advances have influenced
how our relationship to information has changed over time. African drummers developed the first

form of long distance communication, which allowed information to be shared from one tribe to
neighboring tribes. The written word posed challenges such as forgetfulness, but its benefits for
how information was accessed significantly won out. The ability to document information
allowed for information to be gained by generations to come. The telegraph combined the need
for long distance communication with that of the written word to create information spread at
higher volume and speed. Because the telegraph allowed for communication within and across
continents, people developed knowledge of different time zones and even accessed a daily
weather report for the first time. While the telegraph changed many things about the way we
know our world, its use was still only available to those who could afford and access central
telegraphing services. The telephone ultimately brought information into homes and business
through distance communication that was useable by anyone capable of communicating. Its
convenience, practicality, and ease of use caused it to be one of the most popular tools for
information share.
As technological advances from the African talking drum to written word and from the
telegraph to the telephone have been introduced, our relationship to information has changed
drastically. Where we once rarely heard from people not within our own community, we are now
communicating across the globe daily. Information has become a big part of our lives; it is in
everything that we do. These technological advances have also affected what we know about our
world. In receiving local, national, and global information daily through phone calls, internet
conversations, newspapers, radio programs, blogs, news broadcasts, and websites, we are a
society that likely knows more about our world than ever before. However, because we have
more information at our disposal than previous generations, we may not retain as much about our
world as we should. The good news is information is at our fingertips whenever we want to

absorb it. Information that will improve future technologies and information that will change
what we know about our world.

Works Cited
Gleick, J. (2011). THE INFORMATION: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York, NY: Vintage
Books.