'I've seen the future, and it goes beep, beep, beep'

October 18, 1996

If universities have changed enormously in the past quarter century, so too have the ideas that are taught in them. Jack Meadows examines the IT revolution.

The information revolution of the past quarter of a century is really two interlinked revolutions. One is the explosion in the amount and complexity of information in circulation. The other is the growth in its automated handling. Back in the 1960s, there was a debate on how scientists would cope in the future with the escalating amounts of research information predicted. The answer has been automation. The information explosion and this solution have reigned widely. My bank statements in the 1960s were still handwritten. Though my bank now has many more customers, it provides me with more information than before, much of it correct, as a result of automation.

From this viewpoint, automation has helped us cope with an increasingly information-rich environment. Unfortunately, it has also done a great deal to fuel the explosion itself. The in-joke a short time ago was that the next dinosaur film would be called Megabyte. In fact, automated production of information is proliferating so rapidly that "megabyte" is almost becoming an obsolete term. Surveying the information of the past 25 years suggests a new Malthusian doctrine. Information always tends to expand more rapidly than the means available for handling it.

For a long time after the second world war, computers were primarily seen as number-crunchers. Yet, in information terms, they offered two advantages. They could store a large quantity of information and sort through it rapidly. As information proliferated, these properties began to be applied. By the early 1970s, computers were already used extensively for handling short text items, such as abstracts. But this electronic impact was behind the scenes. Retrieving electronically-stored information, for example, was something that was best left to specialists with their arcane knowledge. Attempts at wider use often failed. At the end of the 1970s, an experimental electronic journal was set up in North America. When the experiment concluded, the team leader commented: "I have seen the future, and it doesn't work".

The breakthroughs that led to our present brave new world of information handling came in the 1980s. The first was the appearance of microcomputers cheap enough for people to have one on their own desk-top. Up until then, arts faculty members usually slept through senate discussions of computing. This changed. People in the humanities were keener on typing than their colleagues in the sciences, and one of the early applications of micros was to word-processing. Within a short time, all faculties were interested in computers as information devices. A corresponding shift in attitude became apparent. Computers were increasingly seen as communication tools, rather than just research tools. This more up-beat approach was reflected in a comment I heard about that time: "I have seen the future, and it goes beep, beep, beep".

The second development - the growth of networking - clinched this new attitude. The attachment of micros to networks created information technology - the ubiquitous "IT" of the media headlines. It is difficult to say whether information pressure drove the technology, or technology drove the information practices. What soon became clear was that the marriage of information and technology was not going to be trouble-free. The word "user-friendly" has been bandied around in recent years, mainly because systems generally have not been. People expect automated information to be as open to flexible handling as information printed on paper. They are annoyed if it is not. Electronic journals will be available in all British universities during the coming year. If a few screams of anguish are heard from readers, it will probably imply they are still reading the printed journals.

Electronic information is a bit like oral information and a bit like written information in communication terms. Its properties are identical with neither. The transition period - from paper to digital - in the information revolution that we are now entering will therefore blur traditional categories of communication. For paper-based communication, there is a great difference between a personal letter and a media presentation. A single electronic message could become either. The problem will be that, while people can adapt the way they communicate, they have limitations to the extent to which they can communicate. Electronic handling may improve efficiency, but it does not necessarily decrease the individual's information load. Electronic mail, for example, has actually increased the information load for many people. Over the coming 25 years, the amount of information in circulation will increase further. Perhaps the comment then will be: "I have seen the future, but I can't seem to find it again".

Jack Meadows is professor of information and library studies, Loughborough University.

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