Here at City, the first module of the MSc Library Science involves us looking at Digital Information Technologies and Architectures and the implications they have for us working in the time of so-called “Big Data”. This term refers to a period in history, really only beginning relatively recently, where data sets have become so complicated that new intellectual tools are required in order to deal with them effectively. Philosophers such as Luciano Floridi are concerned with how these developments will impact us both as individuals and as societies. His 2014 book “The Fourth Revolution: How The Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality” discusses his concepts of history and hyperhistory, which are new to me at this point. A bit of a disclaimer is required here: I am only 40 pages or so in so I am only able to offer my initial thoughts on these ideas. Floridi himself may well go on to explain better than I can later on in the book.
The book describes how a proliferation of new user-generated content on the internet and the increasing prevalence of smart devices has led to an exponential increase in the amount of total data worldwide. Floridi believes that this data, and the devices that are generating it, have led us into a new period in human history, one which he calls “hyperhistory”. This refers to a paradigm of human experience which is totally dependent on ICTs (information and communication technologies). This is distinct from “history” which he describes as a paradigm where societies made use of ICTs but were not yet fully reliant on them.
There is consensus amongst people working in our field, concerned as we are with documentation, that history began when knowledge began to be transmitted in the form of written documents. Throughout recorded history, it has been humans that have actively created documents in order to communicate with others. But from when could we date Floridi’s “hyperhistory”, assuming we accept his theory? My own feeling is that this new paradigm probably began at most around twenty years ago in developed nations as we began to see increasing use of the Internet in everyday life. Things began to accelerate around the turn of the millennium when broadband started to replace slower dial-up connections and many people’s dream of the “always on” web came to fruition.
What many people term the “Millennial” generation came of age around this time. This generation’s beginnings in terms of dates of birth have divided analysts, some having the first being born in the late 1970’s and others still counting those born around 2000 as part of the same cohort. I tend to think that those who came of age in the mid-to-late ‘90s will generally have had markedly different life experiences to those becoming adults in the next five years or so, as those born around 2000 will do. It was this later group of people who cannot remember a time before ICTs were ubiquitous. Many observers agree, however, that this generation’s life experiences have been largely defined by their relationships with new technologies, whenever they were born in that fairly large timespan.
It was in the mid-00s that we see the mass adoption of social media, blog hosting platforms and video sharing sites. In fact, the term “Web 2.0” was coined in 2004 by Tim O’Reilly to describe the way in which the World Wide Web was coming to be used in a much more collaborative way by users. Instead of largely consuming static content, people were beginning to create their own with the aid of increasingly user-friendly software which was accessible to the non-specialist (such as WordPress, for example). This of course has led to a huge upsurge in data and the eventual existence of huge and complex data sets. From this point onwards, I think we can say, by Floridi’s definition, that we are living in a state of “hyperhistory”. Will this paradigm see documents largely generated by machines without conscious human involvement? It is very difficult to give definitive answers but I feel we need to give careful consideration to the potential ramifications this could have for all of us.