Lesson in déjà vu for sophisticates

The Renaissance Computer
October 12, 2001

Many information technology professionals consider themselves as being at the "bleeding edge" of technology; sophisticated change managers taking their clients on rewarding journeys into the great unknown. This edited volume unintentionally debunks this modernist world of IT change management by theorising that "we have seen it all before".

The reader is encouraged to compare the defining moment of the Renaissance - regarded here as the invention of printing by Gutenberg - to the introduction of computing technology. The contributors do not generally differentiate between "traditional" and internet-driven systems as a modern IT department might. The conclusion for the reader may be that the distinction is irrelevant when seen as part of the bigger historical picture.

If the development of the printed book extended the ownership of literary content as compared with the hand-crafted manuscript, the arrival of the personal computer and the internet has undoubtedly offered the user an amazing increased ability to search a global repository of information. It is not only the middle classes who have benefited this time round, as happened with the advent of the mass-produced book. Now anyone with access to a personal computer and a printer can use the internet as a super-encyclopedia.

But the comparison between printing and the internet, though facile, seems to be more important at an abstract level than in any concrete way. There is always a human need for mass communication, and the technology available is simply employed to deliver the best solution. Whatever the medium, the message remains more important.

The book raises an interesting point about how people engage with the written word. If the format of the rolled manuscript took the reader through the information in a linear fashion as it was unrolled bit by bit, then the advent of the book enabled a "peck and pick" approach, in which the book could be skim-read and the user could drill down into pockets of detail as required. Thus the relationship between author and reader was altered: the reader had more control over how he or she gathered information. There is a fascinating parallel here with the development of the internet (and other forms of structured data), where the availability of keyword and Boolean searches, and other related tools, empower the user to seek information using abstract concepts, gathering concrete data from multiple sources without the need to engage with those sources in a way dictated by their own discrete data structure.

Of course, the management of data is a key element of knowledge management per se, regardless of the particular technology employed. The book's comparison of Renaissance libraries and archives with the files and folders of modern computer systems provides the IT professional with considerable food for thought. Agostino Ramelli, a military engineer in the service of King Henry III of France, invented a book wheel that allowed the reader to access 20 volumes concurrently and to "bookmark" each page, even when one of the other volumes was accessed. For obvious reasons, these and similar devices were popular with lawyers.

Again, a strong parallel with browser-type interfaces is evident, with modern technology greatly enhancing the capability of the user while reacting to the same need as existed in the 1500s. Microsoft surprised many people with its focus on adding browser functionality to its applications in the late 1990s; had its development teams been indulging in an antiquarian literature review?

Interestingly, some of the language used to describe modern technology is apparent in the literature of the Renaissance. Just as science-fiction writers predicted "atomic bombs" in their novels of the 1930s, so Renaissance authors wrote of concepts including "reasoning engines", "webs" and "matrixes". Perhaps, as Jung hypothesised, we become what we think about. It is the power of our imagination, based on an understanding of the human need for information that, to quote a popular film title of the late 20th century, signposts us "back to the future".

As with many edited collections of essays, there is some disjointed feeling from chapter to chapter, which is inevitable despite the best efforts of the editors. Nevertheless, I would recommend The Renaissance Computer to IT professionals and others with an interest in the development of information systems.

James Graham is an independent management consultant.

The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print

Editor - Jonathan Sawday and Neil Rhodes
ISBN - 0 415 22063 7 and 22064 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 224

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