What does it mean the Information Age?

This is a story of 40,000 years by Gábor Bojár.

He is a real Creapreneur from Hungary, founder and CEO of the multi billon dollar CAD/CAM company Graphisoft. He sees the introduction of language as far more important than the introduction of the wheel. He challenges the whole industrial and building society who haven´t recognised that fact yet.   

To identify eras of technological evolution we traditionally refer to characteristic raw materials of tools, such as ‘stone age’ or ‘bronze age’. On the other hand, as the single greatest innovation, the wheel is the most favorite choice. The invention of the wheel truly changed our way of living more than the discovery of iron, particularly if we consider the broader context, transportation and travel. Horse riding certainly provided more power for our ancestors than bronze tools, and as seafaring progressed man conquered the earth, travel making a much greater impact on history than iron. Similarly, crude oil influenced our everyday life more as fuel source for cars than providing us with new materials such as plastic. Therefore, it is more appropriate to classify history into ‘equestrian age’, ‘sailing age’ or ‘motorization age’.

But there is another line of inventions that has an even greater impact on civilization than the ways of commutation; the ways of communication: the amount of available information and the ways to access the information. The development of the human language has a much greater impact on our life than anything else. The stone axe and the arrow were not the most important to our ancestors in hunting huge and strong animals, such as mammoths. They were only second to the ability to coordinate the chase through the sophisticated communication power provided by the linguistic revolution some 40,000 years ago, at the time of the caveman of Crô-Magnon. Neither anatomically nor in the way of living had the human ape really changed for millions of years. The explosion of our evolution took place precisely at the moment we started to speak. All other innovations, such as metallurgy and even horse riding, resulted from our ability to collect and transmit information easily and effectively.

The explosion of evolution - The Tongue Age and the Paper Age

The “age of verbal information storage and communication” (in short: “Tongue Age”) started 40,000 years ago and ended some 6,000 years ago when writing was invented. Before writing the only source of information was verbal communication with other people and the range of reliable information possible to store was limited by a lifetime. This was the reason for the cult of the elderly, as the “Depository of Information”. The moment we invented a tangible way to store information, the knowledge about our world became cumulative and our evolution switched to a higher gear again. The creation of pyramids or to map the Universe would have been impossible without the access to information, collected by generations and preserved in written form.

Within the “age of the written information storage and communication” (“Paper Age”) printing was one of the most important milestones. Reading ceased to be the privilege of an educated elite. It was “democratized” because its blessings became accessible to a wide range of people. This “accessibility explosion” generated an “information explosion” as a lot more people created and stored a lot more information. This term is usually associated with modern days only, however, it happened right after Gutenberg’s great invention.

The information explosion provoked the end of the Paper Age by challenging its limits. The incredibly huge amount of information on trillions of pages became virtually inaccessible. The limit is not the capacity of our brain because we use only a small percentage of our cerebral storage capacity. However, to search for the appropriate information and to process it (in other words to organize and to present it in a perceivable form) became a task outgrowing the boundaries of the Paper Age. Whole civilizations are simply forgotten and we repeatedly reinvent the wheel. It is amazing how much of our “recent” knowledge was already known to the ancient Greek. The challenge of the Paper Age is to organize and to process information which is met only by the next age in Information History. It is slightly misleading to call it “Information Age” because both previous ages were classified by a certain way of storing, accessing and forwarding information. It would be more appropriate to call it “the age of electronic and digital information storage, processing and communication” or in short “electronic”, or “digital age”, however, the “Information Age” term is widespread and highlights the real essence of this technology.

The Information or the Electronic Age

The Information Age started earlier than most people would guess. Bell’s telephone already represented a kind of electronic information exchange and even the digital coding of alphanumeric information was realized by Morse well before John von Neumann’s genuine binary arithmetic. As with most technological revolutions, it is hard to assign it to one particular inventor or to one particular date. The binary coded electronic computer, ENIAC being the first one in 1946, was definitely one of the most important milestones of the Information Age. However, the word ‘computer’ is not a proper term and inappropriate wording often leads to inappropriate positioning of the whole technology. The main benefit of computers is that they can process (store, organize and present) information rather than just execute complex calculations. The French name “ordinateur” seems to be a more appropriate word in this context. But whatever name we use, we must know what it is for. Rather than being productivity tools, computers are the tools of information access and communication. Telephone and TV are closer relatives of computers than powertools or airplanes, as illustrated by recent technology and industry trends. The unexpectedly overwhelming success of global networks, such as the Internet, is the ultimate proof of the real destiny of digital technology. This does not mean that computers don’t make us more productive. Language and writing both increased our productivity (actually these were the inventions that increased it most of all) but they are, just like computers, primarily communication tools and the productivity increase is only a result of improved communication and information access capabilities.

We can illustrate this with the most common use of computers, accounting. Is the key benefit of a complex accounting system that bookkeeping becomes faster and cheaper?  Let’s face with it, computerized accounting is usually much more expensive and sometimes slower than the good old pen and paper. But the results cannot be compared. We can obtain much more up-to-date and precise information in a much more perceivable form than one could ever dream about in the days of manual accounting. The result is a productivity gain indeed, but in the whole company rather than in the accounting department. The early implementation of computers in accounting was hardly more than a simulation of the manual process. It provided the benefits of higher accuracy and easier update, but it took some time until powerful management information systems were developed from simple accounting applications exploring what information technology can offer in running a business.

Computing in architecture - Not faster - but better

Introducing information technology in any other profession follows a similar scenario. In architectural design, for example, the early use of computers also simulated the manual method: computers replaced pencil, rulers and the drafting board in a flexible way, offering benefits, such as more precise drawings and easier update.

But to restrict the role of computers in architectural design to drafting would be like using powerful management information systems just to add up some numbers to get P/L statements. In order to position computers properly in architectural design, we have to look at the issue considering the correct positioning of information technology as a whole: The computer as a tool of communication provides the ability to obtain and communicate more information about the design subject, the building. The drawing (floor plans, elevations, sections and perspectives etc.) is the traditional form of communication in case of buildings. When introducing new technology in this communication process, we have to explore the new potentials instead of simulating the old way.

A drawing is a possible simulation of the building. If we translate it into an electronic form, we introduce another simulation, but why not simulate the building right from the start instead of the drawings about it? The electronic model of the complete building offers a lot more information than the drawings alone and it can be used in all phases of the design-build-sell-maintain process. Floor plans and elevations are just some of the possible interpretations of a rich building information database in addition to fly-trough movies, virtual reality animation, project cost calculations and constantly updated facility management maps.

The benefits of the instant, convenient and perceivable information access are enjoyed by the designers, the builders and all of the professionals with a role in the building process, and most of all by the most important person in the loop, the client. This profession deserves a dedicated tool to explore the Information Age and should not rely on drawing engines originally developed for other professions, such as mechanical design. The software should follow the working logic of architects and should not limit the productive freedom and creativity, just like using a phone increases our freedom of communication and cars increase our freedom of travel.  The result is not faster drawing but better building.

An Apple a day keeps the mammoths away

The PC in the Information Age plays a similar role to that of printing in the Paper Age. PCs have democratized information technology. They have made it accessible to a lot more people than ever before, they are crucial tools to explore all of the potentials. Accessibility is not just about price, it is also about ease of use. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, had a dream about giving computers to everybody, computers that are as easy to learn and to use as a car or a telephone. The priority is not necessarily higher functionality, but simplicity of use. The automobile has become a commodity not because of more and more horsepower or air conditioning. The car industry became one of the largest industries when it became so simple and so much fun to drive that we do not have to rely on professional drivers any more.

Opening new ways to access, process and transmit information may prove to be just as earthshaking as the invention of spoken language or writing. It may mark the third great period in the 40,000 years of human history. Contemporaries of the beginning of a new age usually have no idea about the essence and the effects of this new age. When the caveman of Crô-Magnon started to articulate words, phrases and sentences, he had no idea that this would enable him to hunt mammoths. When Sumerians laid down their first runic scripts, they had no intention to map the Universe or build the Acropolis. We are just at the very beginning of the exploration of the Information Age. We really do not know yet what kind of blessing will result from the ability to communicate and to process millions or trillions times more information than all the libraries of the world could ever contain. We do not know yet what kind of new mammoths we will hunt and what kind of new acropolis we will build by possessing this power....