Digital Exceptionalism

Digital Exceptionalism

When people stand up to speak about the “information age” we’re living in, they seem to so often jump to the conclusion that the digital world is so radically different from what came before. Digital exceptionalism, of course, does no favours to us as librarians, us as users of information technology, or us as a culture.

I’m writing from the WILU conference at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Last night the keynote speech included a video about the importance of information literacy. Within it, the narrator points out to us a “fact” we’re supposed to already know and accept as a given; a person in 1500 could get by with about the same information as someone in 1400. But now, oh this is longer true now, things change so fast! Someone in 1900 would not have survived in 2000!

The big difference with the print revolution, and the digital revolution, is not that there is more information. The possibility of concieving of more information in the universe is not linked to the technology at all. A sense of how much information there is is something that changed radically in the Renaissance, but that shift had more to do with teleological change than technological change. In a world where you believe that God created a set number of qualities, elements, creatures, and ideas, and that the great multitude existed in the garden of Eden and grows only fewer in the prelapsarian world, you cannot have information overload. It’s simply not culturally possible. The people a generation before you had access to more information than you did, and your children would have access to less than you have. The cultural shift that allowed for the creation of “new” knowledge, and for knowledge to be built, was a bigger shift than the digital one we complain about.

I’m frustrated that anyone would create an information literacy video that was so blatantly ignorant of European history and yet still invoking it. The medieval world was not any less of an information society, nor was it one with less information available. The difference is that today we keep our information in referencable resources (like books, like digital media) rather than in our heads. I’m immediately reminded of the story of Martin Guerre. In short: Martin Guerre grew up in a small French village in early modern France. He married a local girl, and then went off to war. He was gone for over a decade. Then one day he came back. He said all the right things, recognized everyone, reminisced, returned to his wife. But it turns out he was not Martin Guerre. He was Martin Guerre’s friend. He had merely gleaned an entire life’s worth of information from the real Martin Guerre, and managed it well enough to take over his life. If that’s not an information revolution right there in one person, I’m not sure who is. We talk about identity theft now on less dramatic scales. The pre-literate world did not have less information. It merely expected us to keep that informaiton in our heads, to convey it to each other in a clear and accurate way, and process and take in that information quickly and efficiently. The fact that we keep information in books or on the internet is just a relocalization of information. There’s more access to information, because we can get at the information created by or discovered by more people, but we’re also able to be more selective about what information we consult and absorb. The near-constant abuse of history in librarianship circles makes my historian self cringe.

I can’t help but think historically when people speak about ideas about privacy, information overload, surveillance. In the keynote this morning one of the speakers suggested that we’re entering a brave new world, because if she runs a red light, the system takes a picture of her. She’s now always being watched, even if no one is watching her. Of course, before mass urbanization completely took over, if you broke a law in public, you would certainly have been seen and recognized; this idea of privacy, of being completely anonymous in the world, is like a very modern notion. To talk about the tremendous newness of this surveilled society seems like another form of exceptionalism to me.

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