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Serious musings

The Information Age

Many contend that we are (or recently were) in the Information Age, by which they mean that ours is marked by the manipulation and use of Information in its various forms. This is to draw a distinction from the former Stone, Bronze, Steam, Electric, and any other of lesser Ages, centered as they were on less noble commodities. While used frequently, these labels quickly lose utility in that while the Stone age was marked by a preponderance of stones, both the Bronze and Steam ages made many more stones while mining ore or building roads and canals.

I'm sure it's been said elsewhere, but if we take the object of the ages to be the exercise of hard power (political, military) and name them after the essential element that facilitates coordination between various societal forces, then ours is more properly (and hopefully) the Economic Age, as it is economic forces that enable and mediate negotiations across our political, military, community, familial institutions. I'll venture that it was preceded by the Industrial, Monarchical, and Tribal Ages.

Of course the industrialists had and used money, but money was not able to wage or win World War II, that was done by their industry, by producing machines. Likewise monarchies were constantly limited about their treasuries, but it was the claim of succession that legitimated their taxation and to which their armies owed obedience. Labeling ours the Economic age calls attention to the use of local and national economies to concentrate and preferentially distribute power. Of course we have elected governments and they are the ones who primarily wield economic tools, but it is economic relations that determine the relative placement of political commercials, that orient industry to particular ends, that remunerates professional soldiers, and that mars family life.

For if ours were the Information age, information would be the core medium of negotiation and coordination, not money. In this usage information is not just the name of the category containing text, audio, graphical, video, and other fixed forms of knowledge, but instead links those disparate forms to some interchangeable atom. Consider in the ideal: for any concept there are particular representations of that concept suitable to various forms of information, such that by considering all of the forms it may be represented by, you can come to a fuller understanding of the concept than by any subset.

The increasing ephemerality of the internet — by which what we create is not permanently fixed but liable to error or failure (linkrot)— and the widespread feeling of information overload suggest two problems that will need to be solved before the Information age can dawn.

I'd like to view high frequency traders and internet search as leading attempts at specific solutions.

HFTs are finely tuned to particular information sources and are thereby able to transform information into money, using the next Age (Information) to profit in the present (Economic), if you will. As the technology to survey and parse information improves, the profit basis will shift from economic advantage to information advantage, so that an assessment of market risk doesn't just allow you to bet correctly but to directly combat the sources of that risk.

Search is similar, in that synthesizing disparate data points into some form that answers a query creates new knowledge, useful at present only to the user. This knowledge was already 'in the database' of search results, it just needed someone to request the particular view, to ask the computer to apply the search algorithms in a particular way. (The problem is that the search engine doesn't know why the user asked the particular question and is therefore unable to value the information potential it holds.)

I think there's a lot of work to do before the information age will actually be upon us. Of course, much of the problem of foreseeing the future is that its logic, the 'self-evident new way of doing things' only becomes apparent after it has dawned. But we can hope that it will improve upon some of today's problems, and so it is helpful to think about today's challenges to try to imagine how they may be solved in some other way.

One of the outstanding challenges of the economic age is that it is hard to value everything that we care about, to correctly express our desires and needs through economic instruments. If these valuations are erroneous, then we may underpay teachers relative to the value they create, impairing our children...or not have children at all because of credentialism or a high cost of living. Within the economic age, we are trying to fix this by valuing more things and at greater frequency, under the theory that a market is able to converge to the correct value, as long as it is allowed sufficient iterations. Hence faster fashion cycles, the explosion of digital goods and their immediate rewards, the growth of the service sector and pursuit of experiences, high frequency trading. All of these entail more market transactions, made in finer increments.

Hopefully you found this interesting, send me your thoughts on twitter. And if you made it this far I think you'll appreciate Ben Landau-Taylor's structure for classifying technological moments.