Information Technology and Human Development

Most of us are familiar with two of the most important periods of technological development in human history: the Agricultural Revolution, that is, the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, and the Industrial Revolution, i.e., the development of industrial machinery. To these I add the "Mechanical Revolution", or the invention of tool use, as a previous stage in a key historical sequence. At their root, these developments reflect fundamentally new stages in human harnessing of energy. Before the Mechanical Revolution our ancestors, and virtually all other living creatures, were confined to the energy or force generated and applied by their own bodies. Tools allowed that energy or force to be focussed (e.g., with a knife blade or spear point) beyond the natural limits of our fists or nails or teeth, or projected at a range beyond the limited reach of the body (such as with an arrow or again a spear point). The implications on human history were profound; with this new capability, Homo spread out of Africa to most of the world, greatly increased the species' ranges and populations, displaced all of the other bipedal apes, and developed the tools necessary to engage in the Agricultural Revolution.

The Agricultural Revolution represents another fundamental step forward in energy use. Hitherto confined to leveraging energy produced by their own bodies, humans learned to harness the bodies of plants and other animals to create, collect, and produce energy for human purposes --- plants to collect energy from the sun for feeding humans and animals, or for brewing into beer; animals for carrying loads, transportation, and for digging and plowing and building. Again, the result was a fundamental shift in the nature of human life and society, resulting in towns and cities, the cultural advances they sustain, and ultimately civilization. Finally, the Industrial Revolution came about as people learned to harness energy from nonliving objects (water, coal and other hydrocarbons, and later nuclear, solar, and wind power) through machinery for useful purposes. Once again, the impact has been profound; our lifestyle is surely as different from a Roman farmer or a Mongol horseman as theirs was from a preagricultural hunter-gatherer.

In my view, there is an analogous, and equally important, series of "revolutions" in human communication. The first, which I will call the Speech Revolution, was the development of speech and language. Before this, the knowledge and experience of all creatures were limited to what they could observe themselves; speech allowed our ancestors to share knowledge with others who crossed their path. Nothing is more profoundly important or unique to humans than speech, not least because the development, maintenance and spread of new tool and agricultural technologies would surely have been difficult or impossible without spoken communication. The next major step in communication was the development of Writing. Previously communication was limited to individuals at the same location in time and space and subject to the delays, omissions, and degradations of oral communication; with writing, people became able to communicate with other people distant in both time and space. Again, the impact was profound; civilization, or at least history, is often fairly said to begin with the invention of writing. Many scholars believe that the Agricultural Revolution and the complex society it enabled was a necessary prerequisite to the development of writing; similarly, it is almost inconceivable that the Industrial Revolution could have occurred without the dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge enabled by writing.

We are in the midst of another revolution in communication, which we might as well call the Information Revolution. The recent advancements most apparent to the layman are the rapid advancements in telecommunications, wireless communications, and the Internet, yet enabling this is something more profound. Hitherto, communication was restricted to between humans; computer technology has enabled the communication of our ideas and commands to machines. From the software that drives our PCs and other electronic equipment (and indeed, most of our machinery today) to robots to the autopilots that can now fly our airplanes, information technology allows our ideas and commands to be realized in and by our artifacts. While we are in the initial stages of this revolution and cannot fully comprehend the implications, surely they will be at least as profound as those produced by the previous revolutions in both energy use and communication.

The development of information technology is thus, in my view, the next great project of mankind, and it is happening now. Surely people thousands of years from now will look back and think "Wow, it must have been amazing to have been alive then and to have invented or worked on X!" And, just as surely, it doesn't seem quite as amazing to us today because we lack the full understanding of what it is and what it will lead to. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine a more exciting or more profoundly important field than information technology, in the broad sense, or an area of endeavor today that is more likely to affect the course of history for both the forseeable and the unforseeable future.

Created by Douglas L. Jones, January 8, 2003; Last updated December 31, 2003. Copyright 2003 by Douglas L. Jones.

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