Blog Post #9 Headrick

Headrick’s When Information Came of Age shows that as the complexity of societies increases, it becomes more important to have accessible and easily understandable organization systems for all different types of information. The book begins with interrogating the term “information age” as it is used to describe the advent of computer-facilitated information. Instead, Headrick argues that pinpointing the “start” of the information age is dependent on the discipline, and he discards several of the possible beginnings of the information age with the following quote: “The information age has no beginning, for it is as old as humankind” (p. 8). Instead he finds that there are periods of “acceleration” of information creation and access that coincide with the creation of new technologies, including the creation of the printing press, the computer, and modern mapmaking.

He organizes his chapters around the prevailing systems of categorization into five “technologies of knowledge”, although he does acknowledge that many of these categories can serve more than one function:

  • Systems to gather information: Journalistic methods, researchers, historians, spies, censuses, laboratories, etc.
  • Systems to name and classify and access information: Library classification systems, scientific taxonomies, etc.
  • Systems to transform information: The transformation from narrative into lists, data into graphs, etc.
  • Systems to store and retrieve information: Dictionaries, encyclopedias, telephone books, directories, libraries, gardens, databases
  • Systems to communicate information: postal service, messengers, telephones, email, websites

He closes the text by again arguing that is important to not think of one specific time frame as an “information age”:

The purpose of this book is to argue is to argue that the information revolution in which we live is the result of a cultural change that begin roughly 3 centuries ago, a change as important as the political industrial revolutions for which the 18th and early 19th centuries are so well-known (p. 219).

However, despite the fact that Headrick’s text is a solid, historical overview of Western information organization, it fails to provide critical interrogation of the ideologies that created (or are upheld) by these systems, or to delve into the political atmosphere that shaped them. The text also pays a great deal of attention to providing a detailed overview of the creation organizational systems but is able to discuss each one in what one reviewer called an “unusually readable” text (Martin, 2001).

I first read this text in a narrative information visualization class, and I think it provided a very important grounding in the history of visualization and organizations, but after our class conversation, I do think that the T&T reading list would be better served with a title that more closely examines the critical dimension of information storage and organization, and/or one that also provides an overview of non-Western forms of organization and visualization.

For more information, check out my notes for the class presentation

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