Change of Ages

David Hull recently responded to my post-Information Age article suggesting that we are in fact, just at the end of the beginning rather than the end of the Information Age itself:

I like the article, I like the argument, but I don’t quite like the conclusion. As Churchill said, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

What has happened is that we have moved from information scarcity to information abundance. You could just as well argue that this marks the beginning of the real information age. In which case I think Joe is saying the same thing, except that instead of “real information age” we should call it something else.

Since I didn’t attempt to name the next Great Age, I can’t wholly disagree with Dave. Perhaps it will come to be known as the “real” information age. However, I think Dave’s missing the point of my post. In fact, Dave’s later comments reinforce that assessment:

For that matter, when did the “classic” information age start? Did it start when it became possible for someone to make a living dealing solely in information? That would be quite a while ago. Did it start when information management allowed geographically large entities to persist over time? Also quite a ways back.

Did it start when people on opposite sides of a continent could communicate with each other instantaneously or nearly so? That would be sometime in the 19th century. When the first modern computer was built? Mid-20th. The first PC? The first use of the term internet? Take your pick.

Ages are not mutually exclusive. We are still very much in the industrial age. New industrial products and processes are invented all the time. Large parts of the world remain largely unindustrialized — even as they build out their information infrastructure.

Great Ages are, by definition, mutually exclusive. This is a subtle semantic distinction, yet it is the essence of my article. Great Ages are periods in time when individuals uniquely define themselves in the artifacts of that age–or perhaps historians have come to define people based on the fundamental artifacts of their Age. Take the Bronze Age for example. The impact of bronze was so transformational that it redefined the political, economic, and social fabric of every civilization it touched. Bronze defined the lifestyle of the people who lived through the Bronze Age.

With this definition, no two Great Ages can co-exist. When people start defining themselves in different terms, it becomes a different age. The evidence suggests that significant conversations are growing in our society which are inherently post-information. That is, people are starting to explore and adopt post-information perspectives as part of their self-identity. Not everybody, but perhaps enough to reach a tipping point soon, if it hasn’t already.

Dave suggests we are still in the Industrial Age because we still have industrial aspects of our world. However, we are beginning to leave the Industrial Age as I define Great Ages, because we are starting to define ourselves beyond the industrial context. Sure, we continue to innovate in industry and spread the first-world model of industry to the rest of the world. But the former is more about industry’s enduring value and the latter is about the uneven pace of progress. Neither of which touch on the self-defining characteristics of the leading wave of civilization.

We almost always retain the machinery of our prior ages, even as our cultural identity moves on. The farm is a great thing; a factory farm is far more productive. The factory is a great thing; a knowledge factory is far more profitable. The Information age defines itself by its flow of information, but folks are already craving, experimenting, and searching for new means of engagement and production, searching for ways to put information back into its role as an enabler rather than the focus of our attention.

Consider the winding down of the Industrial Age. (I did not live through this transition, but I accept the bits and pieces I have learned from various media–for I am a child of the Information Age). The hippies of the 1960’s heralded the end of the Industrial Age, but they did not define what came after. Instead, hippies became yuppies and arguably failed to escape the materialist culture they had railed against in their youth. (We should forgive them; when you grow up indoctrinated to certain world views, it is incredibly hard to change.) This counter culture wasn’t new, it echoed Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) as well as the even more timely precursor, the beatniks of the ’50s. But what the cultural revolution did was ignite a nationwide celebration of counter culture, and in so doing, opened up the mainstream world-view to the short comings of the industrial era American Dream–demanding a new definition. Consider Hair and Easy Rider for two of the most powerful demands of the time. The message: life isn’t about a 9-5 job, working your way up the career ladder, buying a home in the burbs, settling down with 2.5 kids. That was a pastiche of a marketer’s brochure of post World War II America. People cried out for something different, something better.

In the course of time, that something better became the subcontractor/entrepreneur-fueled economy of the 1990’s, telecommuting virtual organizations, Internet start-ups and stock option plans. In short, the Information Age.

In the same way, there are voices engaging the world today that herald the end of the Information Age. I won’t repeat the examples from the previous post, but I will add Into The Wild (official site) to the list of cultural artifacts harkening for a new age. The movie isn’t out yet, but the trailers and buzz are encouraging. Nothing rings more true about that movie than that it is a tale of one man’s journey to define himself beyond the trappings of his parent’s Industrial Age world. A morality tale of the end of one Great Age, told so that we can resonate at the end of another.

One response to “Change of Ages”

  1. dmh

    I guess I’m not sure if I believe in Great Ages, then. For example, if we’re just ending the Great Age of information, and before that was the Great Age of Industry, when did the one end and the next one start?

    Even if a Great Age is to do with how people perceive the age they live in, or how historians describe it (two not-necessarily-identical things), there is almost certainly no single such description.

    This may be a question of biases (or predispositions, to be clear I don’t mean “bias” in a negative way).

    I’m generally quite comfortable with multiple interpretations of a given text or series of events as long as it doesn’t go to post-modern excess (post-modernism: cool; post-modern excess: no more cool than any other excess).

    I’m also pretty heavily biased against the Next Big Thing, and my Next Big Thing detector goes off at the mention of Great Ages.

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