BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2001
current issue
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
Media smarts

It's not what you know; it's how you know it

CLASS: History 351: "Information Revolutions"

Associate Professor
James M. O'Toole

Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word; From Memory to Written Record: England 10661307; The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society; A History of Modern Computing; Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 17001865; 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 few.

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

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

Top of page.

Linden Lane
. . .
  »  Over there
  »  They're back
  »  Calorie counter
  »  Take home
  »  Media smarts
  » Datafile
  » The letter to Jackie
  » Silt
  » School for scandal
  »  Hoop dreams
  »  News briefs
. . .
  »  James O'Toole wrote for BCM about the disappearance of confession

Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2002 The Trustees of Boston College