What is the Information Age?
The Information Age means different things to different people. In 1956 in the United States, some researchers noticed that the number of people holding "white collar" jobs had just exceeded the number of people holding "blue collar" jobs. Aha, they said. This is a big change. We are no longer in the Industrial Age. Let's call this new situation the Information Age. This is discussed in the book:
- Naisbitt, J. (1982). Megatrends: Ten new directions transforming our lives. NY: Warner Books.
Of course, at that time relatively few jobs had much to do with computers and computer-related technology. What was occurring was a steady trend away from people holding Industrial Age manufacturing jobs. An increasing number of people held jobs as clerks in stores, office workers, teachers, nurses, and etc.
We were shifting into a service economy. The mass media might have called the new era the Service Age. However, Information Age certainly sounds more hip.
Eventually, Information and Communication Technology (ICT)—computers, computerized machinery, fiber optics, telecommunication satellites, Internet, and other ICT tools—became a significant part of our economy. Microcomputers were developed, and many business and industries were greatly changed by ICT.
Nicholas Negroponte captured the essence of these changes in his 1995 book, Being Digital. At the time he wrote this book, he was the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. His book discusses similarities and differences between products made of atoms and products made of bits. In essence, one can very cheaply and quickly make a copy of a product made of bits. This copy can be shipped across the country or around the world both quickly and at very low cost. Parts of the Being Digital book as well as many of Negroponte's articles are available free on the Web.
Nowadays, most people tend to think of the Information Age in terms of cell phones, digital music, high definition television, digital cameras, email on the Internet, the Web, computer games, and other relatively new products and services that have come into widespread use. The pace of change brought on by such technology has been very rapid.
Libraries: Old and New
Of course, the collection, processing, storage, retrieval, and use of information is not a new thing. After all, reading and writing were first developed about 5,200 years ago. Quoting from the Wikipedia:
- The Royal Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, was once the largest library in the world. It is generally thought to have been founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, during the reign of Ptolemy II of Egypt. …
- It has been reasonably established that the Library, or parts of the collection, were destroyed by fire on a number of occasions (library fires were common and replacement of handwritten manuscripts was very difficult, expensive and time-consuming). To this day the details of the destruction (or destructions) remain a lively source of controversy.
The Web, a virtual library, is now the world's largest library. The world's largest "hard copy, physical" library is the US Library of Congress. Quoting from their Website:
- The enormous size and variety of its collections make the United States Library of Congress the largest library in the world. Containing approximately 130 million items in virtually all formats, languages, and subjects, these collections are the single most comprehensive accumulation of human expression ever assembled. True to the Jeffersonian ideal, the collections are broad in scope, including research materials in more than 460 languages, more than 35 scripts, and many media.
And, of course, you know that there is a great deal of human knowledge that is not stored in the US Library of Congress. Many different nations have very large national libraries, with most of their contents being in the language of the people of that nation. You would not expect that the US Library of Congress would have millions of books in Russian, millions of books in Chinese, and so on.
The US Library of Congress and many other libraries are in the process of digitizing parts of their holdings. Eventually, access to large parts of this library and many other libraries will be available free on the Web. Thus, the hard-copy libraries are contributing to the growth of the Web and other virtual libraries.
There are many different Web search engines. In their early history, many of these search engines advertised about how many Web page they searched. This type of "bragging" has gone out of style. However, a new search engine named Cuil that became available in mid 2008 indicated it searches over 121 billion Web pages. This large number gives some indicatoin of the size of the Web.
Education to Deal with Change
At the time when the US Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, fully 90 percent of all employment in this country was in agriculture. The great majority of people lived and worked on farms.
At the end of world War II, the United States led the world in its industrial manufacturing capabilities. In the years immediately after this war, manufacturing industries grew so that well over half of all jobs were in the manufacturing category. This is no longer the case.
At the current time, only about 2% of the US workforce is directly engaged in agricultural jobs, and fewer than 16% of the workforce hold industrial manufacturing jobs. Thus, the US has a service economy. A significant fraction of the manufactured gods used in the US are manufactured elsewhere, and the US has a huge "unfavorable" balance of trade because of this.
In addition, there are some US service jobs that can be filled by workers from outside the US. A typical example is provided by telephone and Web-based customer support and sales systems. Also, the computer programming and data processing industries are now worldwide endeavors, with significant worldwide competition for jobs.
The idea of worldwide competition for jobs is not entirely new, but it certainly has grown in the past few decades and is continuing to grow. This raises the issue of what constitutes a good education for today's students.
This is a difficult question. A good answer includes ideas such as:
- Education in people skills, preparing a person to interact comfortably with and work with people from throughout the world. This includes learning a second or third language and culture.
- Education in making effective use of Information and Communication Technology tools and ideas to solve problems and carry out tasks. Often this will include being a member of a team—perhaps with other team members disbursed throughout the world.
- Education in learning to learn and in being an independent, intrinsically motivated, lifelong learner who deals effectively with change.
- Education to understand and to contribute to efforts to solve long term problems such as global warming and sustainability.
Here are some links you might want to pursue:
Author or Authors
The initial version of this article was written by David Moursund.