ASSOCIATES (2010, March, v. 16, no. 3)


Bear Thoughts #12: Information Explosions and Their History

exner.gifFrank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University

“If our ways of knowing are invariably about our ways of living; then social and political experimental can be recognized as integrally social, ontological, and epistemological. We are what we eat, and we think what we practice. … Memory practices matter because they are what carry the past along with us into the future.”

(Bowker, 2005)


We tend to think of our present information overload as if it was a unique event in history. In fact, Wright (2007) has documented at least five additional information overloads, some with effects far more serious than those of the World Wide Web. These information gluts or explosions (or whatever words you want to put in their place) include:

Each has presented new unknowns that have been answered by an information-based solution. This column will examine how past information explosions have built the current information environment and what we can learn for the future.


It was long before I can remember (even before dinosaurs can remember) that the end of the ice age resulted in an explosion of information. Social groups grew larger and more complex, and they interacted more often due to trade and travel as shown by the remains of Otzi the Iceman, which were discovered in an Alpine glacier in 1991 by two German tourists. According to the Wikipedia (I will trust the Wikipedia in this case because the story of Otzi is not controversial) he was born in 3,000 BCE in a village north of modern Bolzano, Italy. At the age of approximately 45, he was traveling over the Alps and became the victim of either a skirmish that didn’t directly involve him or he was ritually sacrificed. This was a time when tribes could be expected to speak different languages and traders or other visitors would need to be prepared.

Suddenly the ability to speak one language among no more than a few hundred of your own people became a need to communicate in an unknown number of languages among an unknown number cultures, an information explosion indeed.

The solution to this information problem was the development of symbolic expression (ribbons, medals, etc). Whatever culture was met and whatever language was spoken, physical tokens would resist degradation (environmental or human) and could be recognized by others. This innovation became so ubiquitous that Otzi’s medical record was tattooed on his body in a form remarkably similar to a modern acupuncture chart. This was a simple and efficient information solution to a massive information problem, a solution we still use today.


Mesopotamia, at the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was the first major city of record. Like all major population centers, especially those that are supported by trade and taxes, there was a serious need for record keeping. What did a given taxpayer owe? What did a given shipment contain? In fact the last question amounted to a full set of questions: what did the sender send, what did the receiver receive, and what was in the shipment at each transit point between sender and receiver? If the sender and receiver disagreed on the contents of a shipment, where was material lost or added? Who owed who what? These were questions that had great consequences. (They still do in fact: when was the last that you heard or said, “The check is in the mail.”)

The solution was the development of a written alphabet and a material to write on. And, since trade and other records reflected transactions that occurred over time, a centralized collection point was needed so that older records could still be found. We continue to use this solution, too.


Finally we reach that period of time, which our educational system often presents as the beginning of culture (or at least the beginning of Western Culture). One characteristic was the rapid growth of oral culture. Many storytellers were creating important stories and myths that people wanted to remember. They heard tales from their parents and friends (not always told that well), and they needed to check them. So there was a major problem of oral culture’s rapid growth, a faster growth than the culture could easily absorb without significant loss. The repositories that had been developed in Mesopotamia helped, but (as we know) massive collections of unorganized material are inefficient. Records could be stored by date and all of the records related to one transaction could be gathered into a group, but how do you make the Roman mythos accessible? (I hear you yelling at me that we still don’t know the answer to that one.)

The method of resolving this information explosion was the development of libraries. The central original realization was that information could be organized according to characteristics other than date or geographic region. Myths could be divided by deity involved or mythic theme or kind of action. A collection, in other words, having an intellectual organization laid over it, makes a library. And that is one more solution to an information explosion that we still retain today.


After the Goths brought down the Roman Empire (which is the most simplistic way I can say it), there was a return to an essentially oral culture. But many books already existed supporting various aspects of culture (e.g., the always evolving legal structure and the theories of government).

This time the problem was not an expansion of information but a remarkable shift in the information ecology. So the information tools available no longer addressed the information needs. There was a shortage of educated people to collect and organize libraries; many of the world’s book collections disappeared or were destroyed; and the imprimatur of religion (which became a pillar of Europe) was of primary significance.

The solution was the development of scriptoria, which developed as groups of copyists primarily in monasteries. Monasteries were religious organizations, so the politics of church imprimatur were eased. Monks in the monasteries interacted with monks in other monasteries, even traveling abroad sometimes, so books could be lent and copied. Finally, scribes did not have to understand a book’s content; the act of creating another copy was sacred work in itself.

At first glance, scriptoria are not found in modern culture. Then I realized that the modern replacement is the secretarial pool and its successors. A good secretary (or administrative assistant) is central to an office’s function, and, though it isn’t necessarily the case, s/he may not be an expert in the content of the documents handled. So this information solution remains an important aspect of our information ecology.


My final example of an information crisis from our history is the industrial revolution. The new industries led to a fast growing need for new kinds of information (e.g., operation manuals, repair manuals, and sales material). And the solution found was a combination of solutions to previous information explosions. New kinds of information were provided by technical writers who were a variant on scriptoria. They were based in industrial organizations instead of monasteries, and they required specialized education because the languages of engineering and business replaced those of theology and religious institutions.

Another part of the solution to this new information problem was the development of literacy. Just as the new information had to be created by a new kind of writer, it had to be consumed by a new kind of reader. Note that I have just described the creation of the second largest form of library, the special library.


These examples show that information explosions are as old as useful information itself. Remember that all information that is consumed exists in an environment and therefore makes a system. Part of that environment is technical (yes I am an engineer at heart). And new technologies lead to new information problems which, in turn, lead to a need for new solutions.

Second, information explosions and information droughts (or, at least, periods of information equilibrium) are form a cycle. So it’s a good idea to monitor the ever-changing information environment and find new solutions before the next problem becomes serious.

Third, as a culture, we tend to retain old information solutions and build future information solutions on them. Different cultures retain different portions of old solutions and, therefore, develop different solutions to current and future problems.

Finally, solving our current information overload problem (represented by the Internet) when we do will result in only a temporary respite. The next great technical challenge will bring about its own information explosion. And there will be a further great technical challenge (and a further one and a further one …).


Bowker, G. C. (2005). Memory practices in the sciences. Cambridge, MA; The MIT Press.

Wright, A. (2007). Glut: mastering information through the ages. Ithaca, NY; Cornell University Press.