The Four Information Revolutions

Luciano Floridi claims we are living through the fourth major revolution of the modern era. Like the three before it—Copernicus’s cosmological revolution, Darwin’s biological revolution, and Freud’s cognitive revolution—the information revolution is shedding “new light on who we are and how we are related to the world.”

Looking more broadly at information and human history, and considering the human revolutions that have occurred alongside natural evolution, Floridi’s fourth revolution can also be thought of as the fourth information revolution. The four revolutions are connected with information abstraction, agencies, artifacts, and automation.

I: Information Abstraction

About 100,000 years ago, humans developed the capacity for imaginative language—the ability to communicate more information (as well as misinformation and disinformation) about observed phenomena, others, unobserved phenomena, and imagined things.

Natural and instructional information weren’t new; genetic information is connected with the origin of life and hominins had been instructing each other in the use of lithic technologies for over 2.5 million years. But imaginative language revolutionized how humans functioned as information agents. With their ability to create new information consciously, and with their enhanced communication skills, humans could imagine and create plans, stories, and social systems.

II: Information Agencies

By 10,000 years ago, following the agricultural revolution, the earliest cities were established. The functioning of these cities depended on political, economic, and religious institutions that operated as information agencies—organizations responsible for rules, trade, and cultural narratives that structured and sustained civic life.

Imaginative language had made it possible to unite larger groups around shared beliefs and common practices, and new forms of collective action became possible. Humans migrated, hunted, and foraged for food, materials, and—especially—information. They domesticated animals and plants, cleared forests and fields, and then began creating artificial environments within natural ones. To manage these complex and future-oriented settlements, they created information agencies that aggregated individual agency to create a collective order.

III: Information Artifacts

Some 5,000 years ago, these information agencies developed written communication and information artifacts. To communicate within a large community and over time, political, economic, and cultural information needed to be fixed and independent of a living carrier. 

The creation of information artifacts created the need for information management, and systems such as archives and libraries were established for immediate and long-term access. These early information and communication technologies developed and grew around the world—from manuscript tablets, scrolls, and codices to print, electronic, and digital media—and they fueled discovery from antiquity through the modern scientific revolution and those that followed.

IV: Information Automation

Within the last 100 years, we created intelligent machines and automated information processing. Claude Shannon and Alan Turing provided the conceptual foundations for non-human computers in the 1930s, which were created in the following decades and networked together in the 1970s. Now, with new advances in artificial intelligence, we are only beginning to understand what human agency should look like in a world full of artificial agents.

The chief challenge of the information artifact revolution was information management. The most enduring solution was the technology of the library, which functions as a humane interface to information. Unlike the internet, the library depends on human involvement in the selection and mediation of information and privileges the cultivation of human agency.

The chief challenge of the current information revolution is the role of human attention and agency in an increasingly automated information process. While solutions are still emerging, one can imagine a solution or set of solutions comparable to the library—i.e., a humane interface that aligns intelligent systems with individual and collective intentions.

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