what you know; it's how you know it
History 351: "Information
James M. O'Toole
Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word; From Memory
to Written Record: England 1066Ð1307; The Measure of Reality: Quantification
and Western Society; A History of Modern Computing; Knowledge Is
Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700Ð1865;
The File: A Personal History
One day last
fall, history professor James O'Toole entered Carney Hall 330 lugging
a pile of old, discarded books he'd collected. "Here,"
he said, handing one to each of the 14 students in his "Information
Revolutions" class. "You've all dissected frogs. Now take
these home and dissect them."
"You mean take the covers off?" one student asked, incredulous.
Not just that. O'Toole told them to pull the books apart, observe
how they were glued or stitched together and how the pages were
divided into signatures. He wanted them to understand the mechanics
of book construction.
"They did a pretty good job, too," he said, laughing at
how, once the students overcame their reluctance to destroy the
books, they really got into the assignment. "One put his book
in the microwave."
There was, of course, more to the lesson than physical observation.
He asked the students to think, "How does the form of a book
affect the information it conveys? Is it easy to read? Does it fall
apart?" By way of elaboration, he brought to class a scroll
he'd made by gluing together typed printouts (from a book he's writing)
and securing both ends of the long, unruly document with wooden
dowels. He demonstrated how time-consuming and awkward it was with
this format to flip back and forth to an index. "The ease,
speed, and completeness with which you absorb information will be
slower," he told the students. Another day, he escorted the
class to a meeting with conservator Mark Esser at the Burns Library.
Esser explained how ancient and medieval texts were assembled by
hand, making them costly and thus available only to the affluent
For Dean Somes, a senior history major from Texas, that exercise
caused a shift in his perception of how information has passed through
history: "It's kind of eye-opening--where books come from,
why they're written, their purpose." Equally illuminating,
he says, was a project in which O'Toole asked students to "read"
photographs. "The assignment was to study pictures and how
they verbalize ideas, as in 'a picture is worth a thousand words.'
I'd heard the phrase, of course, but I'd never pondered it before."
O'Toole is an historian and archivist who has long been interested
in what information is and how it travels in society. This is the
first time he's taught "Information Revolutions" at Boston
College, and he expects to offer it every other year. He devised
the course as a challenge to the commonly held notion that the world
is in the midst of an unprecedented information revolution. "In
fact," he writes in his course description, "this 'unprecedented'
revolution has many precedents." His class examines the more
notable ones: the revolutions from orality to literacy and from
manuscript literacy to printing; the rise of numeracy; the advance
of technologies for recording spatial and visual information, beginning
with maps in the Middle Ages, on through photography in the 19th
century; and the development of recorded and repro-ducible sound.
A mild-mannered man with wavy, graying hair and a gift for lively
discussion--one sophomore says the discourse in History 351 is so
"refreshing" that the 75-minute class flies by faster
than some 50-minute classes--O'Toole also has a talent for showing
his students the relevance of their studies. For a paper on information
in personal life, students had to record and analyze all the information
they encountered during a 24-hour period. "It made you think
about what kinds of interactions you have in a day," says Thomas
Cavanagh '04, who scribbled two pages of notes that included everything
from the wake-up chatter on his radio alarm to his e-mail correspondence.
"I got the paper back, and Professor O'Toole asked me about
conversations among my friends. I hadn't thought of that. The big
surprise was word of mouth."
O'toole's larger point is how society has changed over time in response
to the shift from information scarcity to information abundance.
"In an oral world, where writing is new and not many people
can do it, and printing is expensive and elite, the value of any
particular piece of information is that much greater," he says.
"In a world of information abundance, redundancy and repetition
are everywhere. The value of each piece is smaller, and our reaction
is different. It's a wheat and chaff problem. We have to screen
out the information we don't want or need so we can focus on what
we do want and need. This process has an impact on human consciousness."
He recalls Socrates' fear that writing would foster forgetfulness.
"Writing pushes oral stuff out of our minds. We think of it
as natural. We have erased the memory of what a world without writing
is like," O'Toole says. "With literacy, we get the ability
to store information outside the brain. The brain works differently
now, because it can."
How we process information is the topic under discussion one late-November
afternoon. "Think back to September 11," O'Toole says.
"Where were you? What was the situation under which you learned
about the events?"
"An immediate swarm of information came at me," replies
a student who awakened around 11 A.M.
that day, about two hours after hijacked planes hit the World Trade
Center towers. "The minute I opened my eyes, a swarm--TV, radio,
word of mouth."
O'Toole asks the students to reflect on how their reactions might
compare with those of people living between 1700 and 1865, the years
covered in one of their textbooks, Richard D. Brown's Knowledge
Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America (1989).
In the book, Brown records the time it took for news to travel.
Word of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, for example, which
began at dawn on April 19, 1775, reached Boston by the end of the
day; New York City by the 23rd; Pennsylvania by the 24th; Williamsburg
by the 29th; and Charleston by May 9. By contrast, in 1865, when
Abraham Lincoln died at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning, the
telegraph ensured that most of the country knew of his assassination
by noon. From a political perspective alone, O'Toole says, this
compression of information flow had an impact on public life and
the United States' sense of itself as a nation.
For all the technological advances in the ensuing 136 years, O'Toole
notes, the time period for news delivery has narrowed relatively
little since Lincoln's day. What have changed are the media and
the packaging of information, and the degree of repetition. Television
visuals, in particular, have given information a new immediacy and
have intensified its emotional impact.
And what, O'Toole wonders aloud, are other ramifications of speed
and technological progress--what is the impact on privacy and personal
information, for instance? For the next class, he asks students
to come prepared with lists of public and private entities that
keep tabs on their activities.
The students devour the topic on the following Thursday. Their personal
anecdotes of intrusions and information abuses fly, and the blackboard
fills with a long list of who's watching. Internet entrepreneurs,
with their "cookies" that help identify, say, an online
music purchaser's tastes, are cited. "There's no way to unsubscribe
or get your privacy back," one victim wails.
Boston College identification cards, used to buy meals and perform
a host of other functions, can become logs of students' whereabouts
and spending habits. "I could tell when the kids lied about
curfew," says a resident advisor who supervised high schoolers
on campus one summer. He could do so by checking what time they
swiped their ID cards through the residence hall's electronic lock.
A senior recounts the difficulty of restoring his good name after
a credit bureau mistakenly switched the last two digits of his Social
Security number with that of a less creditworthy person's. Somes,
the student from Texas, tells his classmates how police once ordered
him and a friend from their car at gunpoint. The young men were
searched and detained for nearly three hours over what turned out
to be a police foul-up of the license plate number.
The students forge on, hands popping up all over the room. They
cite birth, medical, and property records, the census, political
party affiliations, driver's licenses, rental car companies, genetic
profiling, even grocery stores with their offering of coupons tailored
to individual customer's buying habits, as conduits of personal
information. A junior who clerks at a video shop says a mouseclick
of the computer tells him not only each customer's address and phone
number but also the titles of all the movies he or she has rented.
The classroom discussion is now in a race with the clock. The time
approaches 2:45 p.m., the period's end. The professor notes that
Judge Robert H. Bork faced that very video situation during his
contentious and unsuccessful candidacy for the Supreme Court in
1987, when a reporter acquired the Bork family's movie rental records.
"The movies turned out to be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
classics. But. . ." O'Toole says, his voice trailing off. He
lets this nugget of information hover a moment, his unspoken "what
if" dangling provocatively in the air.
Vicki Sanders is the editor of Boston College Law Magazine.
She wrote about BC's Small Business Development Center in BCM's
Summer 2001 issue.
Photo: O'Toole: "We have erased the memory of what a world without
writing is like."
Gary Wayne Gilbert