This summer, instead of giving myself a break like a sane person, I am taking a class on Information Policy. I have to say that when I saw the name and description of the class, I cringed a bit because, quite frankly, I’ve never really been a huge fan of policy and diving into the ridiculous semantics of how laws are written. So far, I’ve been surprised at what we are covering versus what I thought we’d be covering. This has, of course, brought me to have thoughts about the class even when not doing homework.
Having just finished watching a documentary on the History Channel (because I am a huge enough nerd that I like to learn even when relaxing) I just spent about an hour mentally likening the information industry to the American Industrial Revolution.
In the case of the Industrial Revolution, goods that were previously quite expensive because each component had to be hand-made and custom-built to fit that particular piece, became suddenly much cheaper because products were now mass-produced, each piece standardized. This had both a positive and negative effect on the economy as well as the quality of the products sold. For example, while it allowed for guns to be much more accurate and the production of weapons much more cost-effective, the mass production of goods like clocks, clothing, shoes, and even brooms put a number of tradesmen out of business. Things that had previously only been handmade were now considered pieces of art when they were homemade. These days, handmade items like quilts or custom-made clocks are much more expensive than their mass-produced components but people are willing to pay for the craftsmanship of the pieces as well as the piece itself.
The Industrial Revolution paved the way for the changing of fast mass information distribution. What the Gutenberg Press did for books, the Industrial Revolution did for paper and suddenly the newspaper business was booming because it was possible to produce daily, sometimes twice daily, editions of the paper rather than a weekly or monthly gazette. The question of how accurate and unbiased these newspapers were is a different issue in itself (see any article on Yellow Journalism), but the fact that men like Joseph Pulitzer had the ability to send out mass information quickly was quite extraordinary.
The information-based economy now has further revolutionized how we receive information in that what used to be a once-daily paper has become a constant stream of never-ending headlines, up-to-the-minute financial reports, and instantaneous information retrieval. Like the Industrial Revolution, this information age is arguably putting some older technologies out of business, or at least forcing them to change their business models. Whether or not the information markets will change the way America does business completely or if this change is simply more of the ever ongoing evolution the economy trucks through has yet to be seen.