Cave Art & The Story Of Documents

During our “Foundation” module at City, we have been looking at the story of documents and the intellectual tools we have developed to deal with them. Lyn Robinson defines documents as “the containers into which we put our representations of ideas/information/knowledge to give them some tangible permanence”. This then makes documents not just scrolls or codices containing writing or pictures or even electronic files containing data but instead tools for communicating information. So what then were the first documents? Some people would say that Palaeolithic cave paintings are the first documents, as one could argue that they convey information to others. We think the earliest of these paintings date from around 40,000 BCE, making them quite staggeringly old.

On a purely visual level, I must say I find these paintings stunning and I haven’t even been fortunate enough to see any in person. The hue of the colours in the Altamira paintings, for example, is so appealing even in reproduction. The depiction of animals has been a constant theme in human art and this too leads them to feel less remote. The fact that the people who painted these images had to venture so far into the caves also takes me aback. We do know by the fact we haven’t discovered any other artefacts that humans did not generally venture that far inside.

Cave paintings

But what to make of these mysterious paintings? Could we say that they are works of art in any kind of modern sense? When these paintings began to be discovered in the nineteenth century (coincidentally around the time Darwin’s “Origins Of Species” was beginning to change preconceptions about human prehistory), scholars initially believed that they were purely decoration and that they were evidence of hunter-gatherers having free time on their hands! This seems like a huge generalisation to me and David Lewis-Williams’ brilliant 2002 book “The Mind In The Cave” is of great help to us here. I can only summarise incredibly briefly here but he makes very compelling arguments about the significance of these paintings and I would highly recommend it. One of the points Lewis-Williams makes is that we can’t understand art outside of its context. Just because we can’t see what these pictures of animals suggested to their intended audience doesn’t mean they weren’t attempts at communication. And perhaps we can then say that they are documents. They certainly seem to me that they must have been used for something, whether that would have been religious rituals or for magical spells.

I have an admission to make. The art that really speaks to me at least gives the illusion of effortlessness, whatever the far more laboured reality. I also relate to something that feels like it could be part of the fabric of everyday life, a work that has an element of pragmatism to it. That really self-conscious kind of art that insists on its own transcendence and total separation from the mundane tends to alienate me. I prefer artists that don’t feel the need to force their craft into the foreground in order to impress. People who create things for others to use. I think these seeming qualities are what have drawn me to cave art. I like the boldness of the outlines and the vividness of the colours. The fact that these incredible images might have had a purpose, even though we can never be sure what it may have been.

Note: Photo of Altamira Bisons is by Thomas Quine, taken from Wikimedia Commons




History & Hyperhistory: Reading Luciano Floridi

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.