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Ringing changes on vital information

26 Feb 2015
Taken from the February 2015 issue of Physics World

The Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World
Ed. Tilly Blyth
2014 Scala/Science Museum &pound35.00hb 224pp


Those of us who have lived through the past two or three decades cannot help but be amazed by the revolutionary transformation of communications, both in scientific research and in everyday life. But how does one convey this defining phenomenon of our time in a museum exhibition? After all, the fascination of computers and mobile phones lies mostly in what their software can do, rather than in the external appearance of the hardware – despite the endless efforts of designers and advertisers to persuade us otherwise.

This was the problem the Science Museum in London faced when planning its permanent new gallery on “The Information Age” and in compiling the general-interest book (published under the same title) that acts as a companion to the exhibition. As Tilly Blyth, the museum’s keeper of technologies and engineering, confesses in the book’s introduction, “There is something fundamentally contradictory and incongruous about ‘capturing’ or ‘displaying’ the information age in a museum. What is the meaning of displaying an information machine, if the information it carried or processed cannot be seen?” By way of analogy, observing the players in an orchestra is a lot less satisfying for an audience than hearing them play music.

Both the exhibition and the book solve the problem brilliantly, though, each in a way that suits its medium. The exhibition displays 19th-century, 20th-century and near-contemporaneous objects (including a model of an Apple computer I discarded only in 2010!), mixed with information that moves, speaks and sometimes interacts with the viewer via screens, soundtracks and computer keyboards. The book, for its part, offers easily readable and authoritative text written by Blyth, her fellow curators and several outside contributors, including the journalist Tom Standage writing on telegraphy (a technology he dubbed “The Victorian Internet” in his 1998 book on the subject); David Attenborough on the introduction of colour television; and entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim on the spread of mobile-phone networks in Africa. Their words are illustrated throughout with numerous, well-chosen colour photographs of such ravishing three-dimensionality that some readers will feel like running their fingers over the wires of the first transistor (admittedly a replica) or warming their hands with the heat of thermionic valves. (But let’s not become sentimental and nostalgic about childhood electronics…)

Both the exhibition and the book cover the last two centuries of information technology by dividing the period into six thematic sections (hence the reference to “six networks” in the book’s subtitle). The first section, “The Cable”, covers electric telegraphy, invented in the 1830s; the second, “The Broadcast”, is about radio and television; the third, “The Exchange”, concerns telephony; the fourth, “The Constellation”, deals with satellite communications; the fifth, “The Web”, investigates computer networks; and the sixth, “The Cell”, is devoted to mobile and cellular networks. In each instance, the science behind the technology is explained (albeit more fully in the exhibition than in the book) along with its impact on society.

One persistent theme that emerges is that new technologies can require a long time to find their way in the world. For example, the tele-phone took until the 1970s – some 80 years after its commercial introduction into Britain – to realize its potential “to ease domestic isolation and sustain British women’s relationships with family and friends”, as historian Lucy Delap observes in her essay “Women and the ‘tele-phone habit’?”. Indeed, when the tele-phone was invented in the 1870s, it was initially regarded not as an altogether new technology but rather as an improvement of the electric tele-graph; Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 patent on the telephone was entitled “Improvements in Telegraphy”. In a letter to potential British investors, Bell argued that “All other telegraphic machines produce signals which require to be translated by experts, and such instruments are therefore extremely limited in their application. But the telephone actually speaks.”

Almost as surprising is that the scientists and engineers who founded the computing industry between the 1940s and 1960s did not foresee that personal computers would be useful to white-collar workers in offices; that vision arrived only in the mid-1970s with the founding of Apple and Microsoft. Lasers are not part of the book, but I was nevertheless reminded of how they were regarded as potentially useless for several years after their invention in the 1960s. Colleagues famously used to tease Charles Townes, one of the inventors, by calling the laser “a solution looking for a problem”. As Townes admitted some four decades later, “The truth is, none of us who worked on the first lasers imagined how many uses there might eventually be.”

Often, of course, the barrier to a technology’s establishment is an economic one. In “Connecting Africa”, Ibrahim – who was born in Sudan, but trained as an engineer in Britain with what was then British Telecom – writes of the impossibility of raising international finance for telephony in Africa in the 1990s, because of the continent’s reputation for genocide, dictators and famine. But in the end, he notes, this failure had an upside: “The failure to build robust fixed-line networks enabled African countries to leapfrog that technology and land firmly in the mobile age.”

The book’s only serious weakness might be said to be terminological, rather than technological. Exactly what do we mean by “information”? James Gleick, author of The Information, takes up the challenge of defining this slippery concept in his introductory essay “Information: the blood and the fuel, the vital principle”. He deals well with how Claude Shannon mathematized the hitherto vague concept of information in the late 1940s, but then takes refuge in a hyperbolic comment by quantum theorist John Wheeler (of “It from Bit” fame): “What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.” He also aptly informs the reader that “hardly any information technology becomes obsolete”, citing the earliest information technology of all, written language, which remains crucial to communication. But then he seriously misleads by claiming that “The first code of all – the one that gave birth to all the rest – is the one we take for granted: the alphabet.” Not only were the most ancient writing systems – the decidedly non-alphabetic Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs – invented a millennium and a half before the first appearance of the alphabet in Palestine, some current writing systems, such as those of China and Japan, did not originate from the alphabet.

That said, it is heartening to find the Science Museum and its publisher Scala still investing substantial money, time and expertise in an information technology that is so many centuries old. The Information Age is a book that will undoubtedly “inform, educate and entertain” – in the famous phrase of the first director-general of the BBC, John Reith – for many years to come.

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