The Information Age-What
- In the United States, the
Information Age "officially" began in 1956 when the
number of so-called white collar jobs first exceeded the
number of blue collar jobs. This chapter introduces the
key ideas that help unify the book and serve as a
foundation for many of the forecasts. In brief summary:
- Science and technology during the Industrial Age
focused mainly on the understanding of matter at the
atomic level. Progress led to the development of an
infrastructure and a society that dealt with the
manufacturing and distribution of physical goods such
as cars, electric motors, refrigerators, and books
consisting of ink on paper.
- Science and technology during the Information Age
includes a major focus on information represented as
bits (binary digits). The developing infrastructure
includes information highways and superhighways,
computers to store and process information, and the
field of Computer and Information Science (which
includes the field of Artificial Intelligence).
- Human history is sometimes broken
into four major time periods or "ages:"
- Hunter-gatherer Age. All of human history, up to
about 10,000 years ago.
- Agricultural Age. Helped to ensure larger and more
stable food supplies.
- Industrial Age. Began about 200 years ago; based
on engines and their fuels.
- Information Age. Began about 40 years ago; based
on computers and connectivity.
Until about 10,000 years ago, all
people on earth could be classified as hunter-gatherers.
Education during the hunter-gatherer age was
informal-learn by imitating adults, and learn by doing.
Schools and the formal education system that we now take
for granted did not exist.
About 10,000 years ago, people began
to raise crops and to domesticate farm animals. The
ability to store and accumulate food produced major
societal changes. After about 5,000 years, cities began
to emerge, and reading, writing, and arithmetic were
invented. Learning the "three R's" required quite a long
period of formal instruction and practice. Thus, formal
educational systems were developed. In many ways, the
classrooms of 5,000 years ago looked quite a bit like the
classrooms of today (Logan, 1995).
Of course, for many thousands of
years reading materials were scarce and only a few people
received the instruction and practice needed to become
proficient at reading and writing. Even then, however,
reading and writing contributed greatly to an
accumulation of human knowledge. This accumulation was
slow, because transportation was slow and the electronic
communication systems that we now take for granted did
The Agricultural Age was still
continuing when Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing
press that made use of moveable type about 550 years ago.
This invention made possible the mass production of
books. It led to more widespread formal education and the
societal changes that accompany having a better educated
The Industrial Age began in Great
Britain in the late 1700s, not much more than 200 years
ago. The invention of the steam engine made possible the
augmentation of human power for manufacturing and
The quote indicated that little more
than 50 years into the Industrial Revolution in Great
Britain, the installed base of steam power was equivalent
(in terms of pure physical power) to about six times the
physical power of the entire population of Great Britain.
A somewhat different way of representing this information
is that the total steam power amounted to a little more
than one horse power per person. (One horsepower is about
the same as five or six "personpower." Think about that
the next time you push down the gas pedal on the 100
horsepower gasoline engine in a car!)
By 1845, Great Britain was the
industrial powerhouse of the world. Of course, not every
person in Great Britain was working in a factory that
made use of steam power. We can speculate that perhaps
the average worker in such a steam-powered factory was
making use of steam power equivalent to the physical
power of a hundred strong people. It was this factor of
100 change that led Great Britain to its world dominance
in industrial manufacturing.
The Spread of the
It is important to make two points.
First, the developments in science and technology that
led to the Industrial Revolution gradually spread to the
whole world. Second, the steam engine that fostered the
beginnings of the Industrial Age was actually only the
tip of the iceberg. For example, electricity, vacuum
tubes, the internal combustion engine, and the jet engine
were still to come. These facilitated such devices as the
telegraph, telephone, electric motors, electric lights,
automobile, airplane, radio, and television.
World Wars I and II helped to
transform the United States into an industrial nation. By
the end of World War II in 1945, the United States was
the world's leading industrial nation. The huge pent up
demand for industrial goods fueled still more growth of
industrial manufacturing. In the years after the war
ended, well over half of all workers in the country had
jobs that were classified as
Interestingly, most of these jobs
required relatively little formal education. The assembly
line jobs were designed to require about a fourth grade
education. The "thinking" and decision making was done by
a hierarchy of management-level people who had a much
higher level of education. A top-down form of management
This pinpoints one of the weaknesses
in our current educational system. It was designed for an
Industrial Age society, and it uses a top-down form of
management and curriculum development. The front line
workers being managed-the teachers and teaching
assistants-are now highly educated. Many have as much
formal education as their managers.
Continued progress in science and
technology during the Industrial Age laid the groundwork
for the development of an electronics industry, the
invention of the electronic digital computer, and the
eventual transformation of the United States into the
world's first Information Age society.
- Humans have developed a marvelous
range of tools-aids to their physical bodies and to their
minds. It is people plus their tools that make possible
reading, writing, arithmetic, communications satellites,
and artificially intelligent computer systems. It is
people plus their tools that fuel the steady march of
science and technology.
The transition from the
Hunter-gatherer Age to the Agricultural Age made use of
considerable insight into nature, along with some simple
tools. This was a long and slow process. Even after the
development of reading and writing, the worldwide pace of
change remained very slow.
The Industrial Age came about
through steadily increasing insight into science and
technology, along with the development of more
sophisticated tools to aid the human body.
The Information Age is based on a
rapid pace of progress in science and technology,
supported by steady improvements in computer-related
technology. We can think of such technology as aids to
the human mind, or mind tools. It is these mind tools
that are now changing our world.
of the Computer
- The early history of computers is
one of researchers and inventors working to develop
faster and more automatic aids to doing arithmetic
computations. Mechanical calculators have existed for
hundreds of years. When driven by an electric motor, such
a calculator required several seconds to complete a
multidigit multiplication or division. Of course, that is
far faster than can be done using paper and pencil.
However, it is slow relative to the computational demands
of modern science and engineering.
Work on the Electronic Numerical
Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), began in 1943, and the
machine first became operational in early 1946. It is
considered to be the world's first fully operational
general purpose electronic digital computer. It could do
about 350 multiplications or 40 divisions in one second.
Moreover, it could store both the numbers being worked on
and the results, so that it could do a sequence of
computations without anyone having to re-key in numbers.
Roughly speaking, this computer was a thousand times as
fast as a person using an electric calculator-a factor of
1,000-surely the thing that major changes are made
Nowadays, a medium-priced
microcomputer is more than 100,000 times as fast as the
ENIAC. This means that it can do arithmetic about as fast
as 100 million people working with electric calculators.
How can one explain millions of people owning such
machines, even carrying portable machines in their
briefcases? Who needs to personally own a machine that
can do the work of 100 million people working with
The answer lies in how such
computers are used. We have moved beyond the first-order
effect levels of computer use. Most computers are not
used to do calculator-like arithmetic computations.
Rather, they are used in more demanding tasks such as the
storage and retrieval of databases of information, in
creating and manipulating graphics, in developing
spreadsheet models of business problems, as switching
circuitry in telecommunications systems, and in
processing digital information from scientific
We are continually developing tasks
that challenge the capabilities of the most powerful
computer systems. For example, the combination of
continued progress in the underlying science of speech
recognition and in building faster microcomputers is just
now making possible reasonably priced voice input
systems. You can well imagine how voice input will affect
the teaching of reading and writing.
Progress is occurring on the
computer translation of spoken natural languages. This is
an extremely difficult problem. Some futurists feel that
the problem will be solved within 15-20 years. How will
it affect education and the societies of the world if
such automatic translation systems become readily
A virtual reality can be considered
as a type of simulation. Continuing progress in the
hardware and software used for virtual realities is
producing simulations of ever increasing quality. Learn
about Mars by taking a walk on the surface of Mars, with
scientific instruments in hand. Learn about the Antarctic
or the deepest parts of our oceans by taking simulated
trips into these environments. High quality virtual
reality systems demand computing power beyond the fastest
of today's microcomputers.
Age of Bits
- Nicholas Negroponte (1995) talks
about the industrial age as being a time in which we
developed great skill in manufacturing and transporting
physical goods made from atoms. For example, a book is
ink printed on paper. We have a huge infrastructure that
grows and harvests trees, produces paper, prints the ink
onto the paper, and distributes the books. A companion
infrastructure assembles the ingredients used to make
ink, produces ink, and distributes it to places where it
is used, such as to printing plants. The paper and ink
are made of atoms-they are physical entities. A
significant part of the cost of a book is the cost of
shipping and warehousing its atoms. Moreover, economies
of mass production at the printing press dictate that a
relatively large number of copies be printed at one
time-often this turns out to be far more than can be
readily sold. Since the cost of warehousing is relatively
high, books go out-of-print and new copies are no longer
Contrast this with an electronic
book, perhaps stored on a magnetic or laser disk.
Although the storage medium consists of atoms, the book
itself can easily be copied and copies can be cheaply
transmitted to other locations at nearly the speed of
light. There is no warehousing problem, transportation
costs are minimal, and there is no need to print a large
number of copies in advance, in the hopes that they will
eventually be sold. The book never goes out-of-print.
The representation of information as
bits is a revolutionary idea. It is more than just
storing, making copies, and transmitting the bits. We can
also use the bits to direct the operations of machines
such as automated factory equipment, data gathering
devices, and robots. Bits can be stored in a form to
facilitate interaction with people who want to make use
of the bits, such as in an interactive encyclopedia or in
The representation of information as
bits, and the aids that computers provide in the storage,
manipulation, and transportation of bits, bring new
dimensions to human intellectual endeavor. As we come to
better understand the potentials of these new dimensions,
we can come to understand needed changes in our
Many people consider Nicholas
Negroponte to be an astute visionary. Part of his vision
of the future is captured in the following quote. It
forecasts continued rapid progress in information
technology, communications technology, and Artificial
- Early in the next millennium
your right and left cuff links or ear rings may
communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites
and have more computing power than your present PC.
Your telephone won't ring indiscriminately; it will
receive, sort, and perhaps respond to your incoming
calls like a well trained English butler.
Negroponte. (1995) p.
In brief summary, the combination of
computer and communications technology with continued
research in all academic areas suggests:
- More and more of the collected information of the
world will be represented as bits. This is less
expensive, provides easier and cheaper access, and
uses less resources than storing atoms and moving them
- More and more people will have easier and easier
access to the information that is stored as bits. The
nations of the world are making rapid progress in
building information superhighways. Knowledge is a
form of wealth, a form of power, and it is of ever
- If a problem can be appropriately represented on a
computer and solved by a combination of computing
power and people power, increasingly that is the way
it will be done. Computers and telecommunications will
play a steadily increasing role in solving problems
and accomplishing tasks.
Alvin Toffler (1980, 1990) is author
of a number of visionary books. His ideas regarding the
changes going on in our world are rooted in careful
research and thorough analysis. Toffler's 1990 book
focuses on how information technology is leading to a
shift in who has the power. Knowledge is power. A smart,
well-educated, hard working person can acquire a great
deal of knowledge (power). Moreover, formal education
credentials are not the only measure of the person's
education. "Street smarts"-practical, down to earth,
knowing how to get things done-is increasingly
- Human ingenuity, computers, and
communications-together they are a powerful combination
for solving problems and accomplishing tasks. People have
long used tools to supplement their physical and mental
powers. In recent years, perhaps due to the growing
importance of mind tools, the idea of Person Plus
has been developed (Perkins, 1992). The basic concept
in Person Plus is that it is people plus tools that solve
problems and accomplish tasks. Thus, education should
include a major focus on preparing students to work in
this Person Plus environment. Both instruction and
assessment should be done in environments in which mind
tools such as computers and telecommunications systems
are readily available.
Figure 5.1 illustrates key concepts
of Person Plus as they relate to the Information Age.
These concepts are explained in subsequent
Figure 5.1. Person Plus in the Information
Figure 5.1 shows Person Plus at the
center of a triangle of three rapidly changing
- The totality of human knowledge and information is
steadily growing. Researchers throughout the world are
aided by the steady growth of knowledge and
information, improving telecommunication and
transportation systems, and improving tools such as
computers to aid them in their research.
- Fiber optics, communications satellites, and
cellular telephones are the basis for very rapid
growth in the world's telecommunications system. It is
becoming steadily easier for people to collaborate on
projects and to share information.
- The capabilities of computers are growing
steadily, and the worldwide installed base of
computers is growing rapidly. This growth in computer
capabilities comes from progress in both hardware and
software. Significant effort in research and
development by the world's researchers is going into
developing computer tools that they (and others) can
use-both to aid in research and to aid in making use
of the research results.
The net result is that the
capabilities of Person Plus are growing quite rapidly in
many different problem-solving areas. People who are
skilled at functioning well in a Person Plus environment
have a distinct advantage over those who lack the
knowledge, skills, and access to the facilities. Such
analysis leads to the prediction that Person Plus will
become a central theme in education.
- The transition from an Industrial
Age to an Information Age can be viewed as a transition
from an emphasis on the manufacturing and distribution of
physical goods (made from atoms) to the manufacturing and
distribution of bits. Of course, the goods and services
of agriculture and industry are still needed. However,
bits are of rapidly growing importance.
The transition from an Industrial
Age to an Information Age can also be viewed as a
transition from an emphasis on Industrial Age mind tools
(the three R's, paper and pencil, printed books) to
Information Age mind tools (information technology).
Person Plus is a shorthand phrase
for a person building on the collected knowledge, skills,
and wisdom of other people. One of the unforeseen
second-order effects of information technology is that it
would prove to give such a powerful boost to Person Plus.
This boost, all by itself, is more than enough
justification for a major restructuring of our school
In recent years we have been seeing
a steady increase in the amount of computer and
telecommunications technology being used in our
educational system. This is opening a window for
innovations, competition, and major change in our
educational system. Many of the current components of our
formal educational system will be hard pressed to meet
the challenge, implement appropriate innovations, and
survive the changes that are inevitable.
The next chapter includes some
forecasts about the information technology industries. It
lays groundwork for forecasts about technology in